Arab drama stirs sectarian debate in Iraq

BAGHDAD Tue Aug 16, 2011 8:31am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi lawmakers' move to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shi'ite sects lays bare the fears of anything that could ignite sectarian tensions as U.S. troops prepare to leave.

Iraq's parliament voted on Saturday to ask the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator affiliated with parliament, to ban "Al Hassan and Al Hussein" on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts.

"This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history ... Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife in Islamic communities," said Ali al-Alaq, a Shi'ite politician who heads the religious affairs committee.

"We are concerned with Iraqi national unity ... You know that Iraq's reality is sensitive," he said.

The fragility of Iraq's security was underscored on Monday when suicide attackers and car bombs killed at least 60 people across the country in apparently coordinated assaults.

Authorities blamed the violence on al Qaeda affiliates who they say are testing local security forces just as Baghdad and Washington debate whether U.S. troops should stay past a year-end deadline for withdrawal.

The controversy over the programme illustrates how close to the surface sectarian issues remain in Iraq just a few years after inter-communal killings among Shi'ites and Sunnis brought the country to the edge of a civil war.

GRANDSONS OF THE PROPHET

The banned series, a joint Arab work with a Syrian director and Kuwait production company, revolves around the lives of Al Hassan and Al Hussein, grandsons of Prophet Mohammed, and depicts the infighting between Muslims over the Islamic caliphate after the death of the prophet.

The two imams are revered by both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims but their lives, and deaths, mark the start of a deep rift between Muslims -- an era known by many as "the Great Sedition" after which Islam split into Sunni and Shi'ite.

Sectarian tensions in Muslim countries are often ignited by issues concerning figures from early Islam.

Only one Iraqi channel, Baghdad TV, broadcast the show during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The channel is owned by a conservative Sunni party, which has a handful of seats in parliament.

On Saturday night, the show was still being televised but on Sunday, the channel said it was halted until further notice.

Baghdad TV is now running a campaign asking the public to vote on whether to resume broadcasting the programme, each segment of which is preceded by a list of the Sunni and Shi'ite Islamic institutions and religious figures who have approved of its content.

Mohammed al-Enezi, a co-owner of the production company al-Maha, said he was surprised about the decision to halt the series.

"This is the first time that a TV serial gets stopped like this," he told Reuters. "The show does not contain any insult to any person, or any sect ... They voted for political reasons and not based on what the show contains"

The TV series has been criticized elsewhere in the Arab world, though it continues to be shown.

In Sunni-led Egypt, the country's highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, one of the oldest seats of Sunni Islamic learning, has objected to the series on the grounds it "impersonates" the Prophet's family members.

In Iraq, Sunni and Shi'ite viewers were divided in their opinions. Some said they watched it despite their disapproval of impersonating the imams, but others saw no harm.

"This is just a political sectarian issue. They (parliament) have more important issues to deal with than a TV series," said Mostafa Assem, 38, a Sunni Iraqi in Baghdad.

But others welcomed the parliament's vote.

"I don't want to watch it. I refused to see it," said Israa Saiedy, a teacher in Baghdad's Karrada district.

"It is against Shi'ite people."

(Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad, Eman Goma in Kuwait, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Editing by Patrick Markey and Sonya Hepinstall)

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