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What's on during Ramadan? Antiterror TV

By Charles LevinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2005


In addition to the fasting, feasting, and prayers, in most Egyptian households the Muslim holy month revolves around TV.

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Once the sun sets in the Arab world, the 30 days of Ramadan are like November television-sweeps month in the US - and then some.

This year there are dozens of mini-series and specials ranging from the story of an Arab living in post-9/11 America to a Kuwaiti drama featuring a character who is a lesbian.

But every night at 10, the Refaat family gathers in their living room to watch the most talked about show in the Middle East, "Al Hoor al Ain" (The Beautiful Virgins). It's loosely based on the November 2003 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 18 people, all of them Arab. And it's one of a handful of shows aired here this month that are challenging the view that Islam justifies terrorism.

"This show is very important because it is treating a very delicate and crucial subject," says Rafiq al Sabban, an Egyptian film critic. "It's not solving the problem, but that's not the job of art. It is forcing viewers to confront the problem and think about it."

Al Hoor al Ain, which concludes Wednesday night, was written by a confessed former member of Al Qaeda. It tells the story of a young Saudi male torn between two sheikhs with competing versions of Islam - one militant and the other moderate. The story is narrated by a Syrian girl burned in the bombing, and stresses that the attacks were Arab-on-Arab.

Militant Islamist websites have savaged the show, and some imams in Saudi Arabia have warned worshippers not to watch it. They have singled out the show's title as particularly offensive. Al Hoor al Ain refers to the virgins the Koran says await good Muslim men in paradise. While the Koran makes no mention of "martyrdom" as a qualification, militant groups have used the passage to attract young suicide bombers to their cause.

Despite the objections of conservatives, it is the No. 1 show in Saudi Arabia this Ramadan, according to the Saudi newspaper Al Okaz. And many have hailed the program as a powerful attack on extremism.

"This is an integral part of the battle against terrorism," says Abe al Masry, production manager for the Saudi-owned and Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, which is broadcasting the show. "It shows how bad people intentionally misread religion, and exploit religion to recruit terrorists."

In the Refaat household in Cairo, the show is a source of contention. Ahmed, a 23-year-old who's studying business at Cairo University, says the show ignores the root causes of terrorism.

"In the show the Saudi government is made to look like the good guys," he says. "But it is their corruption and their oppression which is driving kids to blow themselves up."

His sister, Amira, a 25-year-old who works at a health club, says the show teaches "that true Islam is not about killing people."

Beyond terrorism