This week 16 nervous performers took to the stage in Algeria to compete in the latest winner-takes-all reality television programme. Unlike previous shows in the North African nation modelled on American Idol-style talent competitions, the new programme will see reciters compete against each other by reciting the Quran - a bold shift designed to appease religious conservatives increasingly concerned at pervasive western influences.
Knights of the Quran, which started at the beginning of Ramadan, allows viewers to vote for their favourite reciter. But more important, it replaces two racy music talent shows that were pulled out from Algerian screens by the state-owned broadcasters following pressure from Islamic political parties. It is the latest move by the Algerian government to reduce the number of western television shows and replace them with more conservative religious shows. The government has already banned Star Academy, the Middle East's answer to American Idol, following complaints the show was inappropriate and "un-Islamic", along with a locally produced version, Alhan ya Shabab (Welcome Youth).
Knights of the Quran will screen on ENTV, the state-owned television broadcaster, and is being promoted by the religious affairs ministry, which said the show was intended to provide a balance to what many Algerians were watching on TV. It is one of many Quran recitation contests that will be held throughout the Muslim world this month, most notably a popular recitation prize in Dubai. Already there are signs the show will be popular in Algeria with organisers claiming they were swamped by more than 16,000 contestants eager to showcase their talents. Programmers are planning a separate contest for women that will screen next year.
The recital contestants will visit such religious schools in the region, such as the Al Qarawiin mosque in Fez, Morocco, the Al Zeituna mosque in Tunisia and the Al Azhar mosque in Egypt. The best Quran reader will be named "Knight of Quran" and will be announced on the last day of Ramadan. The show's announcement enjoyed a warm welcome from readers on Arab internet forums, with comments including "we need this type of programme in our Islamic world" and "we need to have a better understanding of our culture and our traditions".
However, the reality television concept promoting Islam may cross a line, said Marwan Kraidy, who is writing a book on reality television and Arab politics. "Once you put Quranic recitation in the form of a game show, there is a give and take. The Islamic form does not stay pure as there is a mixture with popular culture." Mr Kraidy said the new show was a sign that the government believed it had to promote religion.
"It could be a way for the government to appease the Islamists to say 'Look, you are demonstrating against these shows, you are constantly objecting to these kinds of talent shows, here we are offering you a talent show that furthers your aims'." "It's partly a political compromise with the Islamists to appease them because they have been very vocal in Algeria and elsewhere against these western-formatted shows."
The Algerian government has recently shown signs of increased conservatism, including enforcing a law restricting non-Muslim worship that has forced dozens of Protestant churches to close. According to Algerian newspaper reports, the move to ban Star Academy was led by Bouguerra Soltani, the president of the Islamist party Movement of Society for Peace, with the backing of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country's president.
The show, which started in 2003 and featured contestants wearing provocative clothing and performing hip-shaking moves more common to MTV, was called "offensive to national identity and the values of our society" by the government. Mr Kraidy said the Knights of the Quran was part of a trend toward locally made shows that he calls "Islamic pop" and includes music videos by Sami Yusuf, a British singer-songwriter who has reached wide acclaim in the region.
"It is using a format developed in the West to explore aspects of local culture that are not a part of television on a daily basis," he said. "With this kind of thing, they can claim that this is something that furthers the aim of Islam to a younger generation that is hooked on television about Quranic recitation. Adel Iskander, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on Arab media, said the show was part of a resurgence of Islamic programmes that to preserve cultural and Islamic identity.
"Scriptural content is making its way into different types of programming," Mr Iskander was quoted as saying on Al Arabiya, an Arabic news website. "It's a manifestation of how the medium and the programme format can be hybridised." Religious and cultural recitation competitions are becoming more common in the Middle East. In a similar vein, Abu Dhabi's Prince of Poets aims to foster an interest in classical poetry.
However, Mr Kraidy said one element of Knights of the Quran, viewer voting, could cause problems. "With this kind of show, it introduces an element of unpredictability, because once you open it up to viewers' votes then you are introducing something you can't quite control. The show will have a captive audience with television shows proving popular during Ramadan. A survey last year of 3,305 people aged 16 or older suggested that 25 million Algerians watched ENTV during Ramadan last year. The survey concluded that "Algerians watch a huge amount [of television] and much more ENTV than usual during Ramadan".
Viewers spent an average of 4 hours and 15 minutes per day watching Algerian television during Ramadan, while they usually spend an average of only 3 hours and 17 minutes. Many people boycott western channels and watch the national channel, which typically shows comic sketches and religious serials. State TV viewership swells from its typically meagre 30 per cent to 80 per cent during Ramadan. However, Mr Kraidy said the government would ensure the new show would not infuriate conservative Islamists in the country, who have voiced their concern over the interaction of males and females on the stage during the holy month of Ramadan.
"I don't expect there to be any dancing, and I expect the clothing to be quite conservative. If that is done, I don't think it will be controversial. "It is state television, and I think they will manage it in a way that it would not stir up objections," he said. email@example.com