'Death of a Princess' gave flawed view of Arab society, Islamic law

Did viewers of the controversial television film "Death of a Princess" get a true picture of the peoples of the strategically crucial Arabian region? Debate over the issue takes on added force among experts of Arab-Islamic culture because the film was the most widely watched program in the history of US public television.

Editorials in some US newspapers heralded it as an honest and sympathetic treatment of social dilemmas in the Arab world. But the experts say the film did far less than many commentators claimed in portraying a region of such vital importance and sensitivity.

Most agree, however, that "Death of a Princess" did serve to highlight some genuine dilemmas in the Arab world.

In tracing a real-life journalist's puzzled search to understand why a Saudi Arabian princess was executed for adultery in 1977, it reflected some dilemmas posed for Muslim women by exposure to Western freedoms, fashion, arts, and education. It reflected something of the tension between Islam's democratic ideals and the political power concentrated in the hands of the Saudi royal family. And it reflected the problems a Western reporter can face in trying to learn about Saudi Arabian society.

But Westerners trying to relate to the oil- rich Middle East should understand the film even more for what it did not explain than for what it did, say various experts (So far "Death of a Princess" has been seen in Britain, the Netherlands, and the US.):

* The film is not a balanced vehicle for understanding Islamic law in Saudi Arabian society, says Roger Fisher, professor of international law at Harvard Law School. "That would be like trying to understand American justice through even an excellent film on lynching or on Charles Manson that directs people to one part of the problem while omitting the rest of it," he says.

* It does not give anything close to a balanced view of the challenge modernization poses to traditional Islamic cultures, Clovis Maksoud, ambassador of the Arab League to the United Nations told the Monitor. It provides no background on Saudi Arabian society, and what it has been trying to do in recent years to meet the challenge, he says.

* It did not reflect the diversity of the world's 140 million Arab people, although phrases stand out in the film as generalized conclusions about all Arabs, Arabist Peter Iseman said in a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program analyzing the program. Such phrases include: "To survive as an Arab you have to be schizophrenic" and "She created a very grave crime against Islam: she had to be sacrificed or all sorts of silly girls would have followed after her."

* "Death of a Princess" does not give enough background to actions that are bound to seem unusual or unjust to Westerners, observes Imam Muddassir H. Siddiqui, Muslim leader of Greater Boston who lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. It may seem unusual that a reporter would have so much trouble finding out about the execution of this pricess, he says, but in Muslim societies adultery involves very sensitive matters of honor for a man and his family. On another thing that may appear baffling, the princess's desire to confess her crime and face execution, the film implies that this was her way of defying restrictions on women in her society. In fact, argues Mr. Saddiqqui, religious values could be the explanation: In Islam confessing a crime can be a way of purifying oneself.

* The film also is not accurate on all points. It gives a false impression that it would be somehow immoral for Muslim women of the royal family to listen to and enjoy music in their palace quarters, Professor Fisher says. The overall image of the repressiveness of the Saudi government was also exaggerated, in his view. Most powerfully denied by the Saudi Arabian government is the image of royal Muslim women cruising through the desert looking for male companions. "This simply does not happen," former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Aikens told PBS.

Much of the Arab objection to the film is explained by the fact that it is the first major introduction in the mass media of Arab culture to the West, Ambassador Maksoud says.

In the end, for all its provocative value, the film may have been more a characterization of the amazement of a Western journalist who runs into Arab-Islamic culture without reaching a deeper understanding of it.

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