Melik Kaylan in Opinion Journal reflects on the implications of recent controversies in the Muslim world over Western-style reality TV shows. It is illustrative of the attitudes toward Western mores that many Muslims are bringing West with them. (Thanks to Jerry Gordon.)
This week, the Arab world’s first–and rather confused–experiment in the genre of reality TV closed down after three months of intense controversy.
Called “Hawa Sawa,” or “On Air Together,” the show, which was based in Lebanon, had that splendidly pretzelized quality of a West-meets-Islam hybrid in which pop-culture prurience collided with ancient codes of secrecy and shame. In essence, the show followed a kind of “Elimidate” formula, only the winning couple would actually marry instead of merely (and immorally) going on a date. To that end, young women from all over the Arab world were paraded in a room before suitors all day–not a radical break from tradition, one might argue.
Over the weeks they were gradually eliminated, until the penultimate female, an excitable twenty-something from Algeria, fled in a flood of tears, declaring that she had no intention of getting married, apparently for complicated personal reasons. No doubt, without marriage to show for it, she will carry the stigma of gratuitous exposure to so many men. “Hawa Sawa” has been criticized by conservatives for being too Western and defended by its producers as being thoroughly conservative. Meantime, another such show closed even more swiftly, this one based on the “Big Brother” formula, having outraged its home country of Bahrain by allowing six men and six women, all single, to spend endless hours locked up together in a frenzy of–well, of mildly honest if rather innocuous conversation.
There is nothing more infuriating to diehard Islamists than the spectacle of their young men and women intermingling freely and, what’s worse, publicly. I speak from experience, having some years ago, on assignment from a U.S. glossy, competed in the Turkish version of “The Dating Game”–the first such television show to air in the Muslim world.
Let me add quickly that Turkish society was and is light-years ahead of other Islamic (and many non-Islamic) countries in handling such phenomena. As evidence, the show did not close down. It shot to No. 1 in the ratings and stayed there for several seasons. Applicants mobbed the show’s offices, and many parents came with their offspring just to show a kind of political support for the program. Still, it was sued for obscenity, received threats and caused outrage in pockets of stony chauvinism, such as the Kurdish southeast and fundamentalist shantytowns. Hate mail poured in from the outer Muslim world. The show’s personnel told stories of irate fathers calling up to threaten their daughters into withdrawing. Some even tried to bribe the producers to keep out their kids.
At times, I sympathized with these parents. In particular, when I had to utter lines like, “If you were a juicy fruit, which one would you be and how would I eat you?” In the end, I picked as my bachelorette a capricious little blonde with ambitions to be a rock diva. We went by limousine on a chaperoned date to a night club where the show’s photographer encouraged us to dance on the tables. My bachelorette sang Stevie Nicks songs in the limo and asked me if I knew an agent in the States. I was never expected to marry her, nor was I encouraged to kiss her lingeringly for the cameras either.
I did, however, visit various Islamist clerics and families in conservative neighborhoods to canvass their reactions. One bearded quasi-mullah told me: “You’re an agent of the West trying to cause trouble. The people behind you know exactly what you are doing and so do we. Why should we let you corrupt our youth? Now go.” And for years afterward, I kept probing people in genuinely fundamentalist countries. Would they let their kids watch or participate? Would they object to such a show airing at all?
Consistently, one heard words like “spectacle,” “shame” and “family honor” invoked in negative responses. Above all, it was the appalling “openness” that most offended. They felt the same about the sexes chatting away openly at any street corner, especially in unfettered groups.
Openness as a self-evident evil held many nuances. In women, casualness, natural gestures, the rejection of guardedness–de rigeur television manners in the West–were a kind of provocation to the gods. They would lead to some ineffable civil disorder. The young of both sexes being open to each other–another scary prospect. Immediate disaster would follow. In short, neither collective nor individual reactions could be trusted to stay within bounds. Fear that the wrong notions might flood in suddenly like jinn and carry all before them underlay everything. It was the fear precisely of an open market in ideas.
Above all, it troubled my interlocutors that I couldn’t see what they saw–a circle of causality, like interlocking natural laws. If girls appeared on such public spectacles with no resulting marriage to seal the exposure, disgrace was written on their brows. So they would have to be shunned. Ergo, disgrace would actually result. Nobody had publicly broken that logic. In Turkey, that logic had cracked long since. “The Dating Game” prospered. Bachelorettes lived to date another day without stigma. In many Arab countries, however, the logic remains unbroken. Now that the Arabic “Hawa Sawa” is silenced, its disgrace is confirmed.