'The Fatwa Show': Moroccan journalist tells clerics to just have some fun

'The Fatwa Show' satirizes Islamic legal opinions, and is one of the most popular features on the new Arab world news and commentary website Free Arabs.

A woman places her foot on the table and Sheikh Muslim Jiddan gingerly lifts the hem of her robe – then drops it again in shock at an impossibly hairy calf.

In Tunis, a roomful of young bloggers bursts into laughter as the scene unfolds via a laptop and wall projector.

The fictional sheikh appears on Free Arabs, a new secular-minded website that includes skits poking fun at Islamic legal opinions by dramatizing them far beyond their logical conclusions. (This one advises women not to shave their legs.) 

The site is far more than satire, though. Most content is reporting and commentary on current events by writers from across the Arab world. Launched last month by Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi, it aims to sustain the spirit of intelligent irreverence that helped drive the Arab Spring. 

Serious fun

Mr. Benchemsi is an old hand at critical journalism. For a decade in Morocco, he scrutinized authority and challenged taboos at the helm of sister newsweeklies TelQuel (in French) and Nichane (in Arabic).

However, in 2010 Benchemsi ran into trouble. Nichane was shuttered after what he calls an advertising boycott led by a holding company owned by King Mohammed VI. To protect TelQuel, he resigned and moved to the US.

He watched the Arab Spring unfold from Stanford University, where he became and remains a visiting scholar.

“I discovered there were thousands of people out there sharing the same values,” he says. “Democracy, but also individual freedom, secularism, and creativity.”

According to a description on the website, Free Arabs is built on democracy, secularism, and fun – intrinsically linked concepts, says Benchemsi. 

“Fun is a very serious matter,” he says. “All the humor on the site is about the Arab world and Arab mainstream mores, which means it’s self-criticism.”

Authority, meanwhile, often seems allergic to criticism – lighthearted or otherwise. Last week the popular Egyptian TV satirist Bassem Youssef was arrested for allegedly insulting Islam and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Slapstick sheikhs

In addition to reporting Arab-related news, Free Arabs aims to prod the sore spots of Arab-Muslim society – thus features like “The Fatwa Show.”

In one episode, Sheikh Muslim Jiddan (“Very Muslim”) recites in flowery classical Arabic what the site says are real fatwas, or Islamic legal opinions. (Details and web links are provided with each video clip.) A disciple bangs the table for emphasis. 

Next, the pair act out each fatwa with props, music, and a touch of slapstick. 

Each clip of “The Fatwa Show” contains a disclaimer that no insult to Islam is intended. The skits’ target, says Benchemsi, are those who exploit religion to bully and meddle.

Fatwas are non-binding legal opinions based on Islamic scripture and precedent, says Sheikh Musa Furber, a scholar at the Tabah Foundation, an Islamic NGO in Abu Dhabi. Many Muslims seek them as guidance to living ethically.

Traditionally, that meant directly contacting a recognized Islamic authority. But these days Muslims turn increasingly to the internet for religious advice, says Dr. Gary R. Bunt, a specialist in online Islam at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

The consequences can be hard to predict, he says. “Anyone can technically go online, set up a website, start generating fatwas, and acquire an audience.”

While the internet connects people, it also offers a platform for ill-informed or extreme views that wouldn’t survive in mainstream Islamic institutions, says Dr. Bunt.

The best response to questionable fatwas is respectful criticism, says Sheikh Furber. Not “personal attacks against and mockery of the source (whether it be the individual or the religion itself).”

Jokesters, or 'satan worshippers'?

Free Arabs is still a work in progress, says Benchemsi. So far it has been volunteer-funded and most content is in English, but Arabic and French versions are planned. 

Two weeks ago Benchemsi showed off the site to around a dozen young trainee bloggers at Nawaat, a Tunisian independent news website.

“The next one’s not for under-18’s,” he joked, as he queued up a “Fatwa Show” clip.

The bloggers giggled and took notes. One sketched Benchemsi, lean and energetic, with large eyes and a crisp white shirt.

Some visitors to Free Arabs are less enthusiastic. One commenter on the site said “The Fatwa Show” was “kind of tasteless.”  Another advised the site’s creators to “Fear God, O Satan-worshippers.”

Benchemsi is undeterred. 

“A society that can’t take a joke is a society that can’t be taken seriously," he says.

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