Two senior Saudi clerics have issued fatwas calling for the owners of Arab television channels that broadcast shows promoting magic, debauchery and vice to be tried in court and face the death penalty.
The sheikhs, both members of the Higher Council of Clerics, said Sunday they stopped short of directly condemning to death purveyors of these shows but denounced them as unsuitable for the holy month of Ramadan.
The head of the Saudi Supreme Judiciary Council Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan said in an interview with Saudi TV Sunday that he objected to the content of many satellite channels but that he did not intend to incite people to kill channel owners, claiming that his original religious ruling broadcast on Saudi radio last week had been taken out of context.
Another senior cleric, Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan, weighed in on Sunday in response to the furor ignited by his colleague and condemned horoscope and advice shows as equivalent to sorcery and therefore apostasy worthy of the death penalty.
"Sorcerers who appear on satellite channels who are proven to be sorcerers have committed a great crime ... and the Muslim consensus is that the apostate's punishment is death by the sword," Fozan told the daily al-Madina newspaper
"Those who call in to these shows should not be accorded Muslim rites when they die," the prominent cleric added.
Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan
Many of the hundreds of Arab satellite channels have sprung up in recent years specialize in horoscope programs and advice shows, seen as "sorcery" by some. Turkish soap operas have also become extremely popular this year in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. They provoked a storm of anger this year among conservatives who fear the spread of secular culture and immoral values.
Lihedan, who holds the highest judicial authority in Saudi Arabia, said in response to a caller’s question during a radio show last week that channel owners should be tried in court where a verdict suitable to the offence, including capital punishment, would be handed down.
"I want to advise the owners of these channels that broadcast programs with indecency and vulgarity and warn them of the consequences ... They can be put to death through the judicial process," he told Saudi radio.
He was referring to comedy shows and soap operas airing in Ramadan, a month of fasting when Muslims are supposed to focus on God. Critics say Ramadan has become an orgy of food and television consumption once the fast ends at sunset.
"I told them I don't mind if they make sure this [immorality] doesn't happen, but obviously this is hard for them because it's against their policies," the 79-year-old cleric told Saudi TV Sunday. He said he had rejected offers to host a religious show before or after the programs because he did not want his show sandwiched between such "indecent" programs.
Lihedan added that when he talked about the topic, he started by addressing channel owners and asking them to fear God and stop airing TV shows that confuse people's beliefs and spread ideas that unsuitable for Ramadan.
Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan
Fozan said entertainment channel owners should be "banished" but stopped short of advocating the death penalty for them.
"The position of Muslims and their rulers about these channels is that they should be talked to and if they continue airing depravity and shamelessness they should be banished from this place and others brought in their place."
The government's official advisor on religious affairs, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh, said in July it was not Islamically permissible to watch the Turkish serials.
In their capacity as judges, clerics of Saudi Arabia's conservative form of Islam often sentence "sorcerers" to death.
The owners of Arab entertainment channels, including MBC (AlArabiya.net's parent company), ART, Orbit, Rotana and LBC, are mostly Saudi royals and businessmen closely allied to them.
Concerned about the country's international image, some key members of the Saudi royal family have promoted liberal reforms. The clerics fear plans to limit their extensive influence in what is the world's largest oil exporter.