Egypt’s ‘un-Islamic’ Ramadan TV tackles rise of Islamist power
Egyptians anticipating new seasonal television dramas and quiz shows during the upcoming Islamic month of Ramadan in July could be in for a mood dampener.
The county’s recent political change, which has shown a rise in Islamic political power with the recent inauguration of President Mohammed Mursi ─ who came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood ─ may impact what the viewing public in Egypt watch on the small screen.
Ramadan programs, which commonly include a mix of 30-day long soap operas with either a comedic, social, religious, political or patriotic twist, have been criticized by Islamist clerics and analysts as containing “un-Islamic” content.
Dance and musical scenes, actors and actresses donning revealing clothing, storylines tackling subjects such as drinking, drugs and sex are some of the contested themes showcased.
Islamist members of parliament have previously described them as “candid” and “unregulated,” suggesting that they deviate from the Islamic practices of the holy month, which include fasting from sunrise to sunset and prayer.
“Something has to be done,” says Egyptian Islamic thinker Kamal Habib, a former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization.
A particular type of Ramadan programming ─ displaying the songs, dances and features usually attributed to a Broadway musical ─ has become a staple watch.
The seasonal series’ of Ramadan quiz shows, popularly known as “Fawazeer Ramadan,” often feature iconic actors and actresses in performances which appeal to both children and adults.
In the 1970s and 80s, the phenomenon showcased Nelly and Sherehan; young, pretty Egyptian actresses with the ability to sing, dance and act fun scenes from age-old tales and pose riddles at the end of the show for viewers to answer.
The Fazoora phenomenon has endured, with the most recent seasonal show in 2011 starring Maryam Fares, a Lebanese singer and actress who dances on creative on-screen sets during the 30-day season. Fares’ show had broadcast on several private Arab channels.
“Many [Islamic clerics and influential figures] have complained, long and hard, about Ramadan programming,” Habib says, adding that he expects Egypt’s new Islamist presidential administration may tackle this issue, if not for Ramadan 2012, then for the next year.
“They have shown un-Islamic content and made viewers unable to do what they have to do during Ramadan,” Habib says, referring to a practicing Muslim’s aim to focus on prayer and the day-long fast.
Last Friday, Mursi joined tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square to celebrate his victory and keep pressure on the nation’s ruling generals to restore the parliament and hand power over to a civilian government.
In the speech, Mursi vowed not to put any restrictions on the entertainment industry’s “freedoms.”
But before Mursi’s election, there were fears that Islamist political powers had different hopes.
“Before Mursi was announced president, members of the [mostly Islamist] parliament had asked for a viewing of the Ramadan series’ before they were shown on TV,” says Egyptian film critic Tarek el-Shenawy.
“This is empty talk. In one of Mursi’s statements after he won presidency, he said that there would be no media restrictions on entertainment and there would be the same public freedoms and freedom of expression.”
But Shenawy still remains skeptical as to what may happen to Ramadan programming, if not for changes possibly made by this year’s Ramadan later this month, then for the coming years.
“We actually will not know what will happen until Mursi appoints three important ministers. If the Communications, Cultural and Education ministers are Islamists, then that would be an indication of what may happen,” Shenawy says, implying that Ramadan programming could become regulated.
The holy month seldom ceases to boost TV ratings, with soap operas becoming a staple of Ramadan entertainment eagerly watched by Egyptians across the country.
As a measure of the phenomenon’s popularity, the first two weeks of Ramadan 2011 saw TV figures rise dramatically across the Middle East by 30 percent, according to Paris-based market researchers IPSOS, with as many as 50 Egyptian soap operas broadcast on state and private channels in 2010.
Along with popular actors and the most lucrative commercials vying to secure the best post-breaking-of-the-fast prime-time slot, at sunset, Islamic clerics in Egypt have previously publicly announced their plans to boycott Ramadan dramas which are an “insult to religious sensitivities,” as termed by Habib.
“There are societal rubrics that should be well understood when discussing this topic. We should work to not insult religious sensitivities during Ramadan with the showings of these soap operas.
“Egypt’s TV entertainment industry has to realize also that their society is changing,” adds Habib, with regards to the rising popularity of Islamist presidential and parliamentary power.
“The industry now has different duties towards its new society, which require a change in its ethical manners in line with the shifting behavior of the Egyptian people.”