May 6, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 707

Reality TV Show Stirs Up Bahrain

May 6, 2004
Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bangladesh | Special Dispatch No. 707

The Saudi station MBC began to broadcast an Arab version of the popular "Big Brother" reality-TV program that has previously aired in 24 Western countries. In the Arab version, dozens of cameras record the actions of 12 participants from various Arab countries who share an apartment. The program was filmed in Bahrain's Amwaj Islands, largely because of the help Bahrain gave to get it on the air and because of the islands' convenient location. [1]

The airing of the first episode sparked a stormy public discussion in Bahrain. Conservative circles organized mass demonstrations demanding that the broadcasts be immediately halted because of their damage to Islamic values. In contrast, liberal circles and Bahraini businessmen supported the broadcasts because of their contribution to Bahrain's economy.

Recently, Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a leading authority in Sunni Islam, discussed reality-TV programs, saying: "The aim of these programs is to mislead the [Muslim] nation and to keep it from its own reality, so that it will live [in the reality of] these lesser things. Anyone to whom the nation is important must rise up against these deviant trends. There is no doubt that [our] youth are human riches, and represent the future of the nation. We must not abandon these riches or waste them with these imported television programs that do not reflect the character of the nation, do not represent its true image, and are a real invasion." [2]

The following are excerpts of writings both in favor of and opposing the airing of the show:

Con: The Program Is Against Islamic Values, Part of the West's Takeover Plans

Although MBC claimed that the Arabic version of "Big Brother"was adapted to an Arab audience, the program's detractors insisted that it was against Islamic values. They pointed at the mingling of the sexes, the unveiled faces of the female participants, and the inappropriate behavior of some male participants – such as one boy who kissed a girl on the cheek.

A communiqué issued by the Islamic Al-Minbar Party stated: "This program is nothing but another link in the long chain of media and tourism programs against the religion, values, and morality of this society. [This program] strikes unceasingly at Muslim sentiments in this respectable land… Dozens or hundreds of low-level jobs in tourism and the hotel industry will never justify openness to dubious investments that harm the sons of this homeland more than they help them." [3]

Similar statements were also made by Shu'la Shakib, head of the Association of the Future women's organization, to the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "We cannot agree to concessions on morals and on matters required by the religion in order to obtain investments." [4]

Following these protests, a program spokesmanannounced the appointment of a Shari'a advisory committee, headed by Sheikh Mohsen Al-Usfour, a judge in the Supreme Shari'a Court of Appeals in Bahrain's Al-Ja'fariyya district, to monitor the program. [5] A few days after he was appointed, Sheikh Usfourannounced his resignation from the committee, saying, "It is impossible to maintain Shari'a oversight on a program before perusing its content." His resignation notwithstanding, Sheikh Usfour criticized the opposition to the program, saying: "The mingling [of the sexes] in Bahrain is not limited to the 'Big Brother'program. It is everywhere, in the private schools and in the universities… Our Islamic libraries, in the cities and villages, have many religious books containing satanic Fatwas permitting prostitution, masturbation, watching pornographic movies, the artificial insemination of a woman by a man who is not her husband, a woman being alone with a strange man for purposes of political work, and other things a thousand times more grievous than the 'Big Brother'program… It saddens me to say that some of those who are disseminating these satanic Fatwas are among those opposed to the 'Big Brother'program." [6]

Some saw the program as part of a quiet war waged by the West to corrupt Arab youth. In her column in the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej, Samira Ragab wrote: "The mistake is thinking that the 'Big Brother' program is only a television program that can be handled [merely] by objecting to its airing or filming in Bahrain… [But] it is a media war directed at and planned for the youth, which is targeted in this war strategy. Thus, stimuli and temptations [are directed] at the youth, which perhaps will be unable to absorb them, reject them, or refrain from sinking into them…

"The solutions [to this] are in our hands, and begin within our homes. Educate your sons and daughters to free and logical speech, distant from the burden of traditionalist words within their minds. Let them suckle concepts of nationalism, loyalty, and belonging to this great land and homeland. Let them suckle the concepts of Arab culture that emerged and grew under Islam and illuminated proper Islamic thought, not strict and extreme [Islamic thought]. Your children in your home are the weapon by which you will fight all the impending Tatar and Crusader attacks." [7]

In a similar vein, columnist Fawziyya Rashid also wrote in Akhbar Al-Khaleej:"It is completely obvious, and no secret … that the American intention is to take over the Middle East… The plans to begin the occupation [of the Middle East] – whether directly via military occupation, as happened in Iraq, or indirectly via the occupation of the hearts and minds of the people – will come about in the framework of the American cultural, media, and political program aimed at changing [the face of] the Middle East, on the pretext of democratization and liberation. This will be done in the framework of a cold war [aimed at] infiltrating the minds [of the Arabs], and particularly the minds of the young adults who, according to recent statistics, make up 70% of the Arab homeland…

"After the occupation of Iraq, this began to take the shape of a cold war based on the American satellite channels, radio stations, and translated publications, and dragging in with it some of the Arab satellite channels to participate in disseminating the ideology and information of some of the American informational and cultural programs. As a result, the satellite channels hover above us [with programs] such as 'Ala Al-Hawa Sawa,' [8] ' Star Akademi,' [9] the 'Al-Hurra [channel],' many radio stations headed by [the American radio station] 'Sawa,' and also the 'Big Brother'program…

"When America invades our homes, our eyes, and our ears so intensively, it is aimed primarily at the Arab youth, which is a large percentage of all Arab countries. The 'declared' goal of this aiming [at the youth] … is to distribute 'new ideas' and take part in 'mutual understanding and tolerance.' If these changes do not occur by means of [American] media and cultural infiltration, then they will be implemented by force, in order, as a senior White House official recently stated, to preserve American interests.

"In order to instill ideological, emotional, and spiritual change – that is, to infiltrate to within the individual and conquer his mind, the 'Arab Cultural Marines' are prepared for action, in the form of brigades of inspectors and Arab intellectuals who today act as an intellectual, cultural, and political 'line of defense' in the various American wars in the region… [In these wars], the American format is marketed and prettified to camouflage its invasion and occupation, in order [to cause people] to agree to it and in order to preoccupy the minds of the young and of the adults with insipid matters that are distant from the essential and dangerous issues in the Arab arena – issues that are headed by the resistance to the American and the Israeli occupations in the region…" [10]

Pro: The Program Benefits Bahrain's Economy, And Canceling It Will Damage Bahrain's Image

Businessmen and liberal circles insisted that the program contributed to the Bahraini economy and called not to comply with the demand to halt its broadcast, because of the negative impact this would have on entrepreneurship in Bahrain.

Bahrain Businessmen's Association Chairman Khaled Al-Mu'ayyad said that the association sent its heartfelt thanks to the program's directors for choosing Bahrain as the focus of their investment, and blessed the Bahrain government for providing concessions for the communications company and thus creating new jobs for Bahrain's citizens. [11]

Bahraini MP Ahmad Ibrahim Behzad, who also heads the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and National Security Committee, said of the demand to halt broadcasting: "Canceling the contract between those in charge and the program's initiators will damage the kingdom in general. [The damage] will be not only economic; it will also negatively impact the kingdom's credibility with regard to contracts, agreements, and pacts. It will also negatively impact the investor – whether local or foreign – and will help the flow of funds out of the kingdom…" [12]

Columnist Abd Al-Mun'im Ibrahim wrote in the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej:"It is the people's right to demonstrate and march, but it is not welcome for them to go too far and refrain from investing, to embarrass investors, and to hinder the projects for the economy and development of the country. Where is the voice of reason? Many ask whether, if the 'Big Brother'program had chosen [to film in] Dubai instead of Bahrain, people would prevent their sons from watching the satellite channels, or be resentful because Dubai was hosting the program while we [had failed] to act to host it by ourselves and rake in the profits." [13]

In his column in Akhbar Al-Khaleej,Ali Sayyar published an article sent him by a reader, "Ali 2,"in response to his opposition to the "BigBrother"program. The letter said: "One of the advantages of the 'Big Brother' program is that it provided jobs for many Bahraini citizens and no one, in my opinion, has condemned this… Another advantage of the program is that it opened our eyes to the new format of the fascinating television programs that have not existed in our media.

"Yet another advantage is that it demanded high qualifications of its participants, such as broad general knowledge and also an attitude of politeness, etiquette, and cooperation towards others. This in particular is in light of Bahrain's anticipation of the day when its coming generations will be fit to live in [accordance] with their time, and not shut themselves away because of the pressure of negative heritage that cause embarrassment, hesitation, and fear of the other…" [14]

The Decision to Stop the Program

Following the uproar in Bahrain about the program, the administration of MBC decided to stop airing it. In an official communiqué, it said: "The decision came following a request from the communications minister of Bahrain, the country hosting the program. [The decision was made] out of a desire to preserve [Bahrain's] social unity, and out of concern lest MBC constitute a reason for disagreement [in the country]…" [15]

Reactions to this decision were conflicting. Adel Al-Mu'awadah, the second deputy to the Bahraini parliamentary chairman, expressed his joy at the halt of a program "that turned the individual into cheap merchandise bought and sold for $100,000." He said that the decision to move the filming out of Bahrain was "civilized and proper" and that MBC must be "thanked and appreciated for doing the right thing." [16]

In contrast, Khaled Al-Mu'ayyad, chairman of the Bahrain Businessmen's Association,called the decision "regrettable" and expressed his hopes that "those who caused the station to leave Bahrain and film elsewhere would appreciate the resulting damage, loss of funds, and loss of jobs" and that "every group in [Bahraini] society must understand the implications of extremism, excess, and hysteria with regard to certain issues." [17]

[1] Al-Itihad (UAE), February 21, 2004. Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 29, 2004.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, (London), April 28, 2004.

[3] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 29, 2004.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 28, 2004.

[5] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 24, 2004.

[6] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 28, 2004. In an interview with the London Arabic-language dailyAl-Sharq Al-Awsat, SheikhUsfour said, "I am not opposed from the outset to the program, but there is an obligation to go in the path of religion and morality, such for example that there is no way around the women participating [in the program] wearing the veil. Also, it must be ascertained that the program is not only an imitation of a Western program." See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 28, 2004.

[7] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 1, 2003.

[8] A Lebanese reality TV program.

[9] A Lebanese reality TV program on LBC.

[10] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 1, 2004.

[11] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 27, 2004.

[12] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 28, 2004.

[13] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 1, 2004.

[14] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), February 29, 2004.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 2, 2004.

[16] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 2, 2004.

[17] Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), March 2, 2004

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