Real Life Sectarian Drama Upends a High Stakes TV Show

How the production of a historical series on a Saudi-owned channel threatens to inflame communal tensions in Iraq

Real Life Sectarian Drama Upends a High Stakes TV Show
Pilgrims visit the Shiite Muslim shrine of the Imam Ali in the Iraqi city of Najaf on June 11, 2013. (Ali al-Saadi/AFP via Getty Images)

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After a few years of relative quiet, the sectarian rhetoric that once dominated Iraqi social media discourse more than a decade ago has resurfaced, thanks to a historical TV drama.

In February, the Saudi Arabian media group MBC — the largest entertainment broadcaster in the Middle East — announced that a new series chronicling some of the most decisive events in early Islamic history was in post-production, with the aim of broadcasting it during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The series would focus on the life and times of arguably the most controversial figure in Islamic history, the Caliph Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, whom the show is named after.

The name Muawiya may not be well-known in the West, but it is familiar to most Muslims. The first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty is both revered and hated. In Iraq, he is more hated. Loathed by the majority of Shiites for his role in undermining the rule of the Imam Ali, a TV series depicting him was always bound to stir controversy.

The depiction of religion and history in drama often creates a buzz among viewers, historians and devotees. The shows have fans and supporters who enjoy revisiting the events that helped forge nations and identities, and they have detractors who lament historical inaccuracies and personal biases. Only rarely, though, do they provoke diplomatic and potentially sectarian crises.

In recent years, efforts to promote a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been welcomed in both countries and internationally. Border crossings have reopened, allowing trade and tourism to resume after decades of separation. In recent years, Saudi Arabia also appears to have reined in sectarian policies and attitudes toward Shiites within its own borders, with anti-Shiite vitriol removed from school curricula and similar small steps toward countering sectarianism toward Shiites, even if it still has a long way to go.

The decision to produce this show surprised many because it threatens to undo the progress made between the two countries. The MBC Group is seen across the Middle East as a front for the Saudi government, with no content produced without approval from the authorities. Calls to cancel or boycott the series are increasingly being heard in Iraq, along with a revival of deeply hurtful sectarian undertones in the public conversation. In response, the Iraqi TV channel Al-Sha’aer announced it would produce a series about Abu Lulu Perouz, the Persian man who assassinated the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, a revered figure for Sunnis. The Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also intervened, urging Riyadh to cancel the Muawiya series and calling at the same time for production of the Abu Lulu series to be scrapped. Al-Sadr made reference to the steps Saudi Arabia has taken to crack down on sectarianism and pleaded with it to avoid creating an international sectarian incident. Iraq’s Media Regulation Directorate formally demanded MBC Group avoid airing content about controversial figures that could cause discord in society and affect the peace and harmony of Ramadan.

MBC Iraq agreed to not air the show on its channel, but MBC Group as a whole denied the series would be canceled and stated it “will air once production concludes,” without referring to any release date, during Ramadan or otherwise. The delay and ambiguity surrounding the release have left the fate of the entire series, which cost $75 million to make, in much doubt.

Historical dramas are not new to the Middle East and have been more or less the norm during Ramadan for the past three decades. During the 1990s, Egyptian productions about such hallowed figures as Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz and Haroun al-Rashid — caliphs from the Umayyad and Abbasid eras, respectively — were positively received by viewers across the region. Other shows that depicted the stories of princes and the Muslim conquests were broadcast with little controversy. What makes this series controversial to viewers and problematic for Iraq in particular is the lead figure and the events surrounding him.

The Caliph Muawiya and the initial discord among the earliest Muslims are too complex and consequential to be treated as mere history. What Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims may view as merely a political struggle among rivals competing for power and legacy holds a completely different meaning for Shiite Muslims. History books describe Muawiya as a shrewd political leader and strategist but, for Shiites, he was an enemy of the Imam Ali: the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Islam’s fourth caliph and the most revered figure in Shiism after Muhammad himself. Muawiya, in the Shiite view, was the Muslim leader who normalized a hatred of Muhammad’s kin that would last for generations. The early intra-Muslim wars are existential battles of identity for Shiites, not just history. The events that led to the isolation and later assassination of the Imam Ali, the martyrdom of his son, the Imam Hussein, and the persecution of his kin cannot be viewed from a non-theological perspective, because these events form the basis of Shiite identity.

The script and adaptation of the series are not public and it is unknown how any of the historic figures will be treated in the drama. Without having even seen the series, the Iraqi authorities determined it was controversial and in violation of regulations aimed at avoiding sectarian and divisive content. This reaction appears to have taken the show’s production team by surprise. The MBC Group has invested substantially in its Iraqi fanbase, which makes the production of this series somewhat strange. Of course, not every Shiite Muslim is offended by the production of this series, but many Muslims across sectarian lines who have been following this developing story are asking one simple question: If a TV show has the potential to undermine coexistence after years of sectarian instability, why produce it at all? The issue transcends the concept of media regulation and censorship. These are topics that the Muslim world has yet to emotionally overcome, and many political and security factors are involved when they are in focus. The debate around the film has become one that eschews concepts of free speech and expression, focusing instead on the immediate concern of inflaming sectarianism.

As my colleague Kareem Shaheen explained recently, Muhammad’s companions are portrayed as demigods above worldly concerns. The intention behind this portrayal, which comes across as apologetic in the sense that it minimizes tragic events, is to reconcile with the past and move on. One way to reconcile is to acknowledge that the past still has resonance today. Sentiments that have held strong for more than 14 centuries will not easily change, and it is perhaps best to accept and coexist with the differences.

Even though the show could be an attempt to mend wounds, it has already backfired before its first episode has aired. One Iraqi post said millions of dollars and decades of work to spread tolerance and acceptance between Sunnis and Shiites have been undermined by a TV show that no one has yet seen. Though MBC Iraq will not be broadcasting the series, if it is aired, there will be ways to access the show in Iraq. Only then will we come to know its effects.

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