Every year, new TV series are released during the Muslim religious holiday. And every year, some cause controversy, upsetting clerics, governments or activists. Media analysts in the Middle East say they know why.
The scandals have become something of a holiday tradition. Every year, during the month-long Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, there will be at least one major dispute arising out of what is commonly known as the Ramadan season of new television shows. In the recent past, new series released during Ramadan have seen ambassadors summoned, clerics lectured and activist groups protesting.
This year's Ramadan is no exception.
The Tunisian education minister has already called for a Tunisian-made series, Fallujah, to be banned from local screens. It portrays the dark side of local student life, complete with drug deals and students beating a teacher. A legal bid has also been launched to take it off the air.
In Iraq, a historical drama series called "Muawiya" (Muawiya headed the first Umayyad Caliphate), has also caused controversy because it looks at the first Muslim civil war, an event that led to the rancorous split between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims which still exists today.
And another new Iraqi series called "Al Kasser" (The Predator) has also been cancelled there because senior members of the Iraq government said the historic series insulted the tribes of southern Iraq, depicting their leaders as primitive tyrants obsessed with sex and power. The private TV channel that broadcast the show had received threats and, in a statement, the country's federal media-monitoring commission explained that it had banned the broadcast in the interests of "social cohesion."
But this is not surprising. Scandals around the extremely popular Ramadan TV shows have become almost as much of a tradition as the holiday itself.
Daily life during Ramadan
During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast during the day. After sunset, restaurants open and families come together to break the fast. As a result, the whole pattern of daily life shifts during Ramadan, people stay up late and one of the most popular evening activities involves watching the latest episode of a new TV series together after dinner. These series often start at the beginning of the holiday and screen a new episode every night, or every second or third night, before finishing up at the end of the month.
"Ramadan is not just a time of fasting and reflection, it's also a time of peak TV viewing and shifting entertainment preferences," said Joe Khalil, an associate professor of global media at Northwestern University in Qatar, who has authored a number of studies and books on television made in the Middle East.
A survey commissioned by Netflix in 2018 found that, during Ramadan, television viewership in the region shot up by around 80% and that peak viewing times shifted, moving to between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Other surveys show that the cost of advertising slots on satellite channels during popular Ramada series will triple.
This is why Ramadan TV series offer something for everyone, from spies and pranksters, historic tales of war and adventure, celebrity chefs, game shows, soap operas and comedies.
Why so scandalous?
Èxperts in the sector have some theories as to why controversies around these TV series are also predictable.
It may partially be due to the fact that Ramadan is a religious holiday, which makes associations with socially controversial subjects, and standard soap opera fare, more sensitive. It may also be that so many more people are paying attention. But mostly, they say, it's the increasingly intense competition.
After the proliferation of Arab-owned satellite channels in the early 2000s, the competition to get your show in front of Ramadan viewers has increased substantially, said Ahmad Hayat, an assistant professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee in the US, whose past research has focused on Kuwaiti Ramadan series.
Hayat describes the last two decades as a "network proliferation era."
"Now, if you look at audience criticism, the comment you most often find is 'this is repetitive' or 'we've seen this before'," Hayat told DW. "So if you're not competitive enough, if you don't have the best stories or something that distinguishes you from everything else on these networks, then it's extremely difficult to have your show put in front of these audiences. And you won't survive," he concluded.
"Controversies around Ramadan TV shows arise for multiple reasons, including the highly competitive industry environment, where rushed decisions can lead to poor content choices," Northwestern University's Khalil confirmed. "Additionally, as cultures and societies evolve, creative choices and people's tastes change, making it challenging to cater to everyone without upsetting or offending some."
Sending political signals
This is also true for the subtle — and sometimes, not so subtle — political messaging in the TV shows. Most production houses and satellite channels in the Middle East have some kind of connection to political figures, as well as widely varying levels of state censorship and state support. So just as movies made in Hollywood or China often reflect nationalistic politics and patriotically portray certain kinds of foreigners as the most villainous, so too do those made in the Middle East. And they do this while carefully balancing what their governments and audience attitudes permit.
For example, as Kareem Shaheen, the Middle East editor at New Lines magazine, pointed out this month, a new series that looks at the Ottoman empire's colonial legacy is just the latest show to portray the Turkish negatively. In this way, entertainment can have real life diplomatic consequences, he warned. "The entrenchment of Turkey's image as an abusive colonial overlord is likely to have far reaching repercussions and to complicate the regional realignment that is taking place today," Shaheen wrote.
All publicity is good publicity
With the increased competition, sector observers also suspect that in some cases, part of a marketing campaign might even involve orchestrating a scandal.
Because of the attention traditionally given to Ramadan series, production houses have often already done background checks on everyone who's involved, including researching their political views, what they wear to social events and what they've posted on social media. In other words, they already know which actor or director might be controversial and what reactions they may get.
"Producers have become adept at dealing with scandal or even orchestrating it," Khalil explained. "The whole idea is to hook the audience in during the first few episodes. If they can do that, the audience will presumably stick with them for the rest of the month."
Thanks to the Internet and social media, ordinary viewers also have more power. If it gains traction, one influencer's complaint about a show can lead to government intervention. This season in Iraq, a senior Iraqi cleric caused local headlines by criticizing the portrayal of an Iraqi woman in a drama series about Arab women living in London. In the show, the Iraqi was depicted as subservient to women from the Gulf states and this was offensive, the Iraqi cleric argued.
In 2021, the historical Egyptian drama, "El Malek" (The King), was cut short because of audience complaints about the accuracy of the costumes and even the lead actor's beard, which had religious significance. A 2022 Tunisian series called "Baraa" (Innocence) came under fire from local women's rights activists for how it depicted polygamy, which is illegal in the country.
More controversy in the future?
Khalil says it's hard to quantify all of the Ramadan TV controversies and their impact.
"I don't think that you can say there's more or less [controversy]," he argued. "But I do think you can say that, if you look at the continuity of controversies, they are changing in various ways — for example, the socio-cultural aspects or the political orientation, or those created for marketing purposes," he concluded.
Edited by: Andreas Illmer
Muslims observe beginning of Ramadan
This story was amended on April 4 to clarify that the historical figure, Muawiya, headed the first Umayyad Caliphate.