July 16, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1176

'Selfie' – Satirical Saudi TV Show Sends Shockwaves Through The Kingdom

July 16, 2015 | By E. Ezrahi*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1176

During Ramadan, the Arab MBC channel is airing Selfie, a satirical comedy TV show starring well-known Saudi actor-comedian Nasser Al-Qasabi and other Saudi comedians. The liberal Saudi journalist Khalaf Al-Harbi,[1] a writer for the satirical-comedy Saudi TV show Tash Ma Tash ("No Big Deal") - which also stars Al-Qasabi[2] - is the program's best-known screenwriter.

Selfie, which tackles diverse Saudi social problems, such as extremism, domestic violence, and the Islamic State (ISIS) and the young Saudis who join it, has sparked controversy on Saudi media and on social networks in the country. Al-Qasabi's opponents, among them Saudi bloggers, social media users, clerics, and journalists, have argued that the series ridicules religion and Islamic scholars; some have even implored the Saudi authorities to halt the broadcasts and prosecute the actors and writers. Al-Qasabi himself has received even fiercer feedback - for example, Saudi cleric Saeed bin Farwah called him an apostate (he has since retracted the accusation), and ISIS supporters on Twitter have issued death threats against him.[3]


Conversely, many Saudis, both journalists and regular citizens, have come out in Al-Qasabi's defense. For example, social media users responded to the show's opponents by saying that by their attempts to shield extremist clerics from being skewered on the show, they are presenting them as being, in the words of many Saudis on Twitter, "immune to error or sin." Likewise, Saudi columnists and journalists praised Al-Qasabi's insistence on dealing with issues that are sensitive in Saudi Arabia, and noted that Selfie, and art in general, are effective tools for fighting terrorism. They claimed that Saudi extremists' irate reactions to the show proved its positive impact, as well as the extremists' fear of losing their power and the clerics' aim to muzzle all criticism of them. While some disapproved of Al-Qasabi's ridicule of Saudi society, they objected to him being labeled an apostate.

In response to these threats, Al-Qasabi said that as a Saudi, he was fully entitled to express his opinion, and that as an artist, it was his mission to expose the truth at any cost. Selfie, he said, is considered the true jihad "against those who think they are waging jihad."[4] He also said that he would continue to perform despite the threats against him.

The following are excerpts from articles responding to Selfie show:

'Al-Riyadh' Deputy Editor: Art Is An Effective Tool In The War Against Terrorism

Dr. Ahmad Al-Jumaia'a, deputy editor of the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, argued in his column that art is an effective tool in raising awareness about the dangers of terrorism, and that it complements security efforts to combat it. Praising Al-Qasabi and saying that despite the threats against him, he was not shying away from tackling ISIS's exploitation of Saudi teens and young adults for its purposes, he wrote:

"... The impact of art in conveying a message is no less than that of security efforts, so long as it has a clear goal and a defined path to achieve it - regardless of whether you agree or oppose the content of the message itself. Therefore, the significance of high viewer ratings, especially among youth, for artistic shows with a substantive message that deters [them] from [wishing to engage in] terrorism, and from its ideas, modus operandi, and organizations, is that the message is being received...

"In his Ramadan show Selfie, the great artist Nasser Al-Qasabi devoted a two-part episode to the story of a father searching for his son [who had joined] the ISIS terrorist organization, and the sequence of events that reveals the danger posed by this group to the thoughts and actions of youths, especially minors, and the exploitation of them to carry out terrorist operations against their own countries. The courageous, substantive, and satirical treatment [of this topic]... constitutes art's valuable participation in our war against terrorism and in exposing its agenda and concepts, and [also constitutes] an active role taken by a respectable artist who has come out, and who continues to come out against extremism and violence in society. Each time, he comes out even more strongly [against this], and persists despite repeated threats against him. That is the important thing."[5]<![]-->

Al-Qasabi in "selfie" with "the truth about ISIS" (Source: Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia, June 23, 2015)

Saudi Columnist: Al-Qasabi Boldly Tackles Issues That Are Sensitive In Saudi Society

Sa'id Al-Suraihi, columnist for the official Saudi daily 'Okaz, praised Al-Qasabi's courage in dealing with issues that are sensitive in Saudi society - unlike other artists, he said, who fear paying a price for doing so. He wrote: "... With Selfie's first episodes, Al-Qasabi succeeded in restoring value to art, by linking it to affairs of the homeland, to the issues that worry people in their daily lives, and to the challenges that these issues pose. Al-Qasabi has presented [us] with quality art, by means of which he tackles issues that many artists are either unable to tackle or fear to tackle.

"Maybe the most obvious sign of Al-Qasabi's triumph is the direct response [to the program] on social media, which later expanded to include articles by journalists and [statements by] Friday preachers. Al-Qasabi's show appealed to many, but many others condemned it. In Al-Qasabi's opinion, when people are divided about him, it is a victory - because if the issues he raised were not sensitive, there would have been no outrage from his opponents and no ovations from his supporters...

"Al-Qasabi was great in the episodes we saw, here plucking the string of extremism, there dancing with the wolves of ISIS. In both cases, he restored our hope that there is still someone who cares to present honorable art, and who has the courage to stick his neck out and tackle topics that many others are afraid to touch."[6]

Saudi Writer: The Show Exposed Those Who Push Our Boys To Go Fight In Syria And Iraq In The Name Of Jihad

Daoud Al-Shiryan, who himself hosts a program on MBC TV dealing with terror- and extremism-related issues, was another senior journalist who came to Al-Qasabi's defense. Like Al-Qasabi, Al-Shiryan was previously the focus of a storm amongst Saudi clerics, after he accused them on his program of encouraging young Saudis to join jihad,[7] and was even threatened with assassination by a guest on the program - a Saudi prisoner and an Al-Qaeda supporter.[8] In his column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Al-Shiryan stated that Selfie had sparked such outrage because it exposed those who incite and encourage young Saudis to join "the jihad in Syria and Iraq," and showed how these young people are exploited by terrorist organizations.

He wrote: "Every year we see preachers and clerics reiterate their attacks on satire, based on the Koranic prohibition against mocking others. But this view is mistaken, because satire in art does not, as they claim, attack actual people, or society's values, but [rather] attacks the discourse that falsely claims [to endorse] these values, or else canonizes certain individuals and treats them as if they were values [in and of themselves]. Furthermore, satire in drama has become a form of criticism; it stems from dissatisfaction with a particular situation...

"Since the show Selfie started, some 'public morality inspectors' have again brought up these claims about the ban on satire in art, and have leveled unprecedented attacks at it. Show producer Al-Qasabi and writer Khalaf Al-Harbi have been called apostates and been the target of death threats. Being called an apostate is nothing new; in previous years, a similar fatwa was issued against the [Saudi] show Tash Ma Tash. But the reactions this year are different...

"The attack [on Selfie] was harsh and outrageous. The reason for this is that the show pained the promoters of the so-called 'jihad in Syria and Iraq,' and exposed the lies of these terrorist organizations and their role in abducting young Saudis and making them combustible material in these wars of heresy.

"Those who attacked the show did not do so out of a desire to defend 'jihad,' since they know that what goes on [in Syria and Iraq] is not jihad. Their anger stems from the desire to defend themselves, since the show exposed the danger of the incitement that they use to abduct young people and dispatch them to die in wars run by gangs and intelligence apparatuses in the name of jihad. Undoubtedly, Selfie's satire creatively exposed the inciting discourse that has lured our young people and dragged them into dubious wars..."[9] 

ISIS fighter: "I will kill this actor who has tarnished my image" (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, June 21, 2015)

Saudi Columnist: 'Selfie' Exposes The Danger Of ISIS Better Than Anyone Else

In a similar vein, 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Mulhim, columnist for the official Saudi daily Al-Yawm, wrote under the headline "A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words - Al-Qasabi's Selfie... Show Or Munasaha Program?"  that the reason for the outrage against the show is its success in pointing out the danger of ISIS - and doing it far more effectively than any other attempts to do so, including the Saudi Interior Ministry's Munasaha reeducation program for extremists.[10] He added that the criticism of the show had also exposed several ISIS supporters in the country: "...The show Selfie, or its lead actor Nasser Al-Qasabi, has done nothing new. Everything on the show reflects reality. So why were its detractors so angry?

"The answer is that, with a simple [TV] show, Al-Qasabi has directed attention to reality much more effectively than dozens of reports and lectures about ISIS, the danger it poses, and how its members think. What is unique and original about this show is that it has succeeded in opening up the mouths, previously closed, of several [covert] ISIS sympathizers...

"We see many young people lured [to join ISIS]. Some of them have grasped the deception used by this organization - but no one entering ISIS territory can return, and those who do are put into the Munasaha program. But in fairness, many believe that Selfie will be remembered by many and for many years, as a TV show that in just a few minutes succeeded in playing more of a role than many Munasaha programs."[11]

Saudi Columnist: The Clerics' Claim That The Series Mocks Islam Covers Up Their Desire To Muzzle All Criticism

In his column in the official Saudi daily Al-Watan, Satam Al-Muqrin attacked the religious discourse in Saudi society spread by its clerics for its fostering of the illusion that criticizing clerics means criticizing the religion itself. He argued that the ideology of such clerics is characterized by tyrannical thought that prohibits people from exercising critical and independent thinking and from holding an opinion that differs from their own, and adds that Selfie has managed to expose the clerics' ideology. He wrote:

"The response by several preachers and clerics to a single episode in the television series that criticized the behavior of observant [Muslims] in society is unsurprising. They view this as a form of mockery and derision of the religion, that removes [the critics] beyond the pale of Islam. Furthermore, in their view, anyone watching the series and laughing at these comical and satiric scenes is also a murtad [someone who has regressed from Islam] and an apostate...

"This raises the following question: Did the series really mock the Prophet and his Companions... The answer is: Definitely not. But, most unfortunately, the religious discourse spreads [the notion] amongst people that any criticism of the preachers or the clerics means mockery and derision of the religion itself, and it is possible, and I might not be exaggerating if I said, that disputing [their opinion] is also considered a form of apostasy..."

Further on in his column, Al-Muqrin cites verses from the Koran, saying that he is doing so because clerics and preachers rely on them to demonstrate that any criticism of them is prohibited and is tantamount to apostasy in Islam. He showed how, when taken in context,  the verses rule out the possibility of the interpretation given by these clerics and preachers, asking why they rely on such an interpretation and answering his own question by saying: "There are various ideologically motivated elements within societies that function as a plague or a disease - these include tyranny and the exclusion of those who oppose [their ideology] - and these elements foment hatred in society. A society motivated by ideology does not tolerate pluralism, and any question that is posed to the ideology has a [single] defined answer - it is inconceivable that a variety of answers would be provided.

"As a result, a specific group of religious commentators emerges, that bans the acceptance of any authority but its own. The opinion of this group is the decisive opinion in all areas... Of course, this group is sacred, and it controls the information and the interpretation of the religion in such a way that its positions on religious law and in practical matters delineate the ultimate understanding of religious precepts - and these positions are out of bounds for criticism and for [any alternative] interpretation. Its utterances gain the validity of proof  for the people...

"Furthermore, any science that does not conform to [this official] ideology is not [considered to be] science. And even history can be expunged and censored [to suit this ideology]. With each moment, a new sacred thing pops up for the minds to obey, and there is no room for using intelligence in framework of questions and discussion..."

"The television series Selfie was a prime example of the exposure of this ideology... The statements by several preachers and clerics, i.e. that artistic criticism against them constitutes ridicule of the religion and that it will bring down upon those who express it 70 years in hell, is nothing but an excuse that highlights their desire to prevent criticism, on the pretext of obeying divine edicts..."[12] 

'Al-Watan' Columnist: Extremists Oppose Social Change For Fear Of Losing Their Power

Similarly, Haifa Al-Hababi, a columnist for the official Saudi daily Al-Watan, also claimed that the fact that Selfie was a show with the power to influence the minds of viewers explains the harsh reactions to it. According to her, opposition by extremists to cinema and any social change in Saudi Arabia stems from their fear of losing their power. She wrote:

"We witnessed a storm that took place followed the airing of the first three episodes of the show Selfie starring Nasser Al-Qasabi... In your opinion, what happened that caused such extreme reactions to these three episodes?

"This is drama, ladies and gentlemen, which is defined as a literary genre performed by actors on the stage, in the cinema, or on television... Drama is one of the tools influencing the process of socialization, is an action related to passing on heritage and helps strengthen bonds [in society] by displaying practices, tradition, conventions, and laws that govern all societies. Additionally, drama is a tool that influences social change and the advancement of societies by playing an important role in increasing people's awareness regarding their aspirations and [desire to] improve their lives in a way that fits the times... Drama influences the minds of viewers and plays a part that school or families do not. Is this the secret [behind] the objection of extremists to cinema in Saudi Arabia, and behind their lack of desire for any social change, which would take away their control?"[13]

'Al-Sharq' Columnist: Al-Qasabi Should Be Criticized, But Not Accused Of Apostasy

Muhammad Al-Baridi, writing in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, claimed that not all mockery of Saudis in the name of art should be permitted, but rejected the accusations that Al-Qasabi was an apostate and attacked mosque preachers who leveled such accusations against him and anyone who disagrees with them. He wrote:

"This is neither the first nor the last time that a Friday [mosque] preacher calls someone an apostate, and names him. They derive perverse pleasure in accusing people they don't like, or who disagree with them, of apostasy. The problem is that some people justify [these preachers'] foolish actions, claiming that they stem from zeal for their religion that has been desecrated. That is, everyone else [besides them] is an apostate...

"One idiot on a Friday pulpit says baseless things that wreak destruction that will take years to rectify. [These idiots] multiply and, unfortunately, no one stops them. After any nonsensical utterance by one of them, the matter fades away [until] the following Friday, [when] he [speaks again] from the same pulpit [in the same destructive way], as though nothing had happened [the previous week]....

"We are by nature a good and religious society. In order to preserve our healthy nature, we must oppose these idiots who accuse others of apostasy. At the very least, we must ban them from delivering Friday sermons. Furthermore, we should ban any mockery of us [Saudis] in the name of art, [even if it is on the pretext of] constructive criticism. But [we must do so] calmly, without outbursts and without accusing others of apostasy."[14]

* E. Ezrahi is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Harbi is known for his liberal views and his criticism of radicalism within Saudi society. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1172, Saudi Columnists: Saudi Minors' Involvement In ISIS Requires A Reexamination Of Our Culture, June 25, 2015.

[2] Tash Ma Tash has been running since 1992, and is broadcast during Ramadan. It deals with Saudi Arabia's internal problems such as extremism in Saudi state schools, and has sparked uproar in Saudi Arabia. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 730, Educators and Parents Protest Against 'The Culture of Death' Taught In Saudi Schools," June 11, 2004.

[3], June 19, 2015., June 19, 2015; Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), June 20, 2015. See also Twitter hashtags titled "The Mujahideen Are Seeking the Head of Al-Qasabi."

[4], June 21, 2015.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 21, 2015.

[6] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 22, 2015.

[7] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1073, Saudi Campaign Against Young Saudis Joining The Jihad In Syria, February 21, 2014.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), May 15, 2015.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), June 22, 2015.

[10] The program was launched in 2003 to reeducate extremist prisoners. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 260, Reeducation of Extremists in Saudi Arabia, January 18, 2006.

[11] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), June 22, 2015.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 25, 2015.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 22, 2015.

[14] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), June 21, 2015.

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