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Arab TV Turns Against Jihad By: Heba Kandil
Washington Times | Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Exploding buildings, booby-trapped cars and bloodied victims began appearing on Arab satellite television recently in daring dramas that deal with Islamic militancy in al-Qaeda's main breeding ground.

The producers of the shows say they are another battleground in the war on homegrown religious zealotry, which many Middle East governments are confronting by crackdowns and media campaigns.

"Al Tareeq Al-Waer" ("The Rugged Path") and "Al-Hur Al-Ayn" ("The Beautiful Maidens") were aired during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of peak viewing in the Middle East.

Both shows deal with intransigent interpretations of Islam, such as the one espoused by Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the social problems that push some to extremism.

Ali al-Ahmed, head of Abu Dhabi TV, which produced "The Rugged Path," said extremists had the loudest voice today, so it was vital to give moderates a channel to air their views.

"This is everybody's problem, and as Arabs we have to talk about it. We can't consider it as just a passing phenomenon that will quietly end after some time," he said.

Millions of Arabs and Muslims were shocked and puzzled that the September 11 attacks in the United States were carried out by Arab nationals, born and bred in the Middle East.

After al-Qaeda turned its attention away from the West to attack Arab and Muslim cities, the need to understand the roots of radicalism assumed extra urgency in the region.

In "The Rugged Path," a community is torn apart when some members wage a violent campaign to remove their "infidel" rulers and install "just Islamic rule," a reference to insurgencies against pro-U.S. governments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

The story takes place against a backdrop of actual events. As in real life, the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S.-led operation in Iraq affect the characters' lives and feed their anger.

"There is real suffering in the Arab world, and we need to expose it," said Jordanian Jamal Abou Hamdan, the show's writer. "There is rage in Arab and Muslim societies, but it is being channeled in a wrong way. This repression builds up and explodes, and youth have become susceptible to brainwashing."

"The Beautiful Maidens" is based on an al-Qaeda bombing of a housing compound in Saudi Arabia, which killed mostly Arab and Muslim expatriates.

The title refers to the Koran's mention of beautiful maidens in paradise. Some Islamists believe that if they die as martyrs, they will be rewarded with such maidens.

Syrian director Najdat Anzour says his show aims to wipe out any support for militants' calls for jihad, or holy war, among viewers who might be sympathetic toward al-Qaeda's anti-U.S. agenda.

"It is speaking to all generations and especially hesitant people caught at crossroads. The program can't affect those who have already chosen their paths," Mr. Anzour said.

In one scene, a moderate cleric tells worshippers, including a would-be terrorist, that the goal of jihad is to protect society in the event of a clear threat against it.

Another character says jihad is not the killing of civilians, but the struggle to become a better Muslim.

The soaps have received acclaim from some viewers, but their content has raised anger among others. A Saudi newspaper reported that some actors in "The Beautiful Maidens" received death threats.

Last year, Mr. Hamdan's series "The Road to Kabul," which dealt with Afghanistan's ousted radical Taliban regime, was pulled off the air after militant threats. Channels at the time said the show was canceled for technical reasons.

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Heba Kandil is a reporter for the Reuters News Agency.

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