x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ramadan TV drama fuels sectarian fears in Iraq

Parliament wants to ban programme about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects.

BAGHDAD // A move by Iraqi legislators to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects lays bare the fears of anything that could ignite sectarian tensions as US 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 Shiite 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.

Authorities blamed the violence on Al Qaeda affiliates who they say are testing local security forces just as Baghdad and Washington debate whether US troops should stay past a 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 Shiites and Sunnis brought the country to the edge of a civil war.

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 Shiite 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 Shiite.

Only one Iraqi channel, Baghdad TV, broadcast the show during the holy 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 had been 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 Shiite 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.

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