Throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, the holy month of Ramadan has come to be known as the most popular television season. Each year, new and returning serials are eagerly awaited by millions of viewers. As a sign of the immense popularity of Ramadan broadcasting, revenues generated during the month typically account for 20% of broadcasters’ yearly earnings (Baltimore Sun, October 15). This year, several programs addressed a number of sensitive social and political issues such as terrorism and extremism (al-Watan, September 24). One such program was al-Marikhoun (Deviants), which focused on “terror and its bitter consequences” by tracing the history of terrorism and its negative impact on political and economic developments (Arab News, September 25).
The program to raise the most attention this year, however, has been the extremely popular Saudi satirical program Tash Ma Tash. It is a long running program that has frequently run up against the boundaries of Saudi society. Over the years, it has parodied a number of sensitive issues, and this year it lampooned a variety of topics including terrorism, extremism, intolerance, the judicial system and the country’s morality police (Arab News, October 8). Several episodes banned last year that dealt with extremism were allowed to be broadcast this year; one tackled the topic of internet jihadis and another dealt with issues of heresy, apostasy and the concept of takfir (al-Watan, October 5). One of the episodes to draw the most attention in the Saudi media this year was a lampoon of the popular Star Academy format entitled “Terrorist Academy.”
Extremely popular, Tash has also drawn vehement protests, including charges that the humor employed to send up Islamist extremism simultaneously mocked Islam itself (Khaleej Times, October 2; Gulf News, October 3). Death threats have been made against those linked with the program, and a fatwa labeled it “sinful to watch” (MSNBC.com, September 28). Some imams have criticized the program at mosques, and they have prayed for “bad things to happen” to the program’s leading actors, while others have asked God to “freeze the blood in their veins” (Saudi Gazette, October 10; al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 7). Arab News reported on September 30 that cassette tapes available in Jeddah featured a sermon in which a preacher called for the show’s producers to be thrown into hell.
This year’s programming has led to an ongoing debate in the Saudi media about the appropriateness of some of the broadcasts. A number of Saudi papers carried commentaries both critical and supportive of the controversial comedy (al-Risalah, October 6; al-Risalah, October 13; al-Jazeera, October 8; al-Watan, October 14; al-Madinah, October 18). According to market research, Tash Ma Tash was the most popular program in Saudi Arabia that was broadcast during Ramadan, and a recent poll revealed that more than 50 percent of the Saudi television audience watched “regardless of their approval or disapproval” (Arab News, October 6; Arab News, October 19).
Such programming is a small, yet important step in the public debate of often divisive social issues in the kingdom. Although it is a Saudi program featuring Saudi actors, official state television would not broadcast the program and it was instead aired on UAE-based MBC. Reportedly, King Abdullah received two of the program’s leading actors and “asked them not to upset the country’s clerics and to avoid tribal issues” (Ilaf [London], October 17). Nonetheless, the fact that such important topics are featured on the most popular television program in Saudi Arabia is certainly a significant development.