TV Station Stirs Sectarian Tensions

Over the last few weeks a Sunni satellite television station based out of the Gulf has begun attacking Shiites during its broadcasts raising new fears about sectarian tensions.

The channel, named ‘Al-Khalijiyah’, has quickly become notorious for its attacks on Shiite Muslims and their religious authorities. In Najaf, the holy Shiite city, local residents say the channel has become a source of provocation.

The channel says its main focus is to “spread awareness among Shiites and to show them the right path.” Prominent Wahhabi figures regularly appear on the channel inciting attacks on Shiites.

“If I have ten nuclear bombs, I would use one against Christians and Jews, and the remaining nine against Shiites," proclaimed a recent slogan. Another declared: “Oh God… humiliate the Shiites and those who support them; count them all, without skipping any of them, and kill them all.”

According to 39 year old Kathim, a resident of Najaf, “this provocative rhetoric is an unprecedented media call for violence against Shiites and it will not bring any good to the people of Iraq and neighbouring countries."

Kathim, an architect, believes that dialogue over Islamic sects and their beliefs should be exclusively initiated by Islamic scholars. “It is wrong to see that dialogue taking the form of sectarian and violent rhetoric, and it is wrong to allow those who are not specialists in this topic to discuss it,” he said. “Such a sensitive issue requires in-depth knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and of Islamic history.”

Local Shiites told Niqash that they are stunned that the government has not acted to shut the channel down.

The channel was launched some years ago, broadcasting Arab songs and video clips from prominent Gulf singers. But, two years ago the channel’s owner announced his "repentance" and said that he had "returned to Islam," prompting a new religious approach.

Then, a few weeks ago, the channel launched an offensive against the Shiite community, especially in Iraq. A daily program entitled: “The prevention of Sedition," is now aired and some people have called in asking for the “needed support to exterminate the Shiites in Iraq."

Ibrahim Hashim al-Musali, a student at the religious Hawza in Najaf, said that media attacks on Shiites are “a common practice. Unfortunately, these attacks are demagogic in nature and not based on the principles of dialogue and reason."

The proclamations aired by al-Khalijiyah come at the same time as continuing protests in Najaf against statements by Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, the Imam of the Holy Mosque in Saudi Arabia, to BBC Arabic, in which he explicitly calls Shiite scientists infidels. These statements provoked a wave of protests in Iraq, the Islamic world and Saudi Arabia itself.

Hammoudi Hassan, a political analyst, warned that the work of al-Khalijiyah risked inflaming new sectarian violence in Iraq. “We should carefully read and understand these calls as attempts to provoke hatred and bloodshed in Iraq,” said Hassan, calling on the Iraqi government to “seriously deal with such calls.”

The continued controversy over Shiite convictions is a reflection of the dramatic transformation of Iraqi society since 2003. This period has witnessed a Shiite political class taking power for the first time in hundreds of years, as well as the emergence of new media forms dedicated to the Shiite faith, all of which have provoked a Sunni backlash.

Yet, even as the controversy flares, others are calm and dismiss the channel as insignificant.

"In the past, we used to listen to heated discussions on TV stations regarding Shiites’ beliefs and convictions, but this channel’s programs are irrelevant and do not add any substance to the on-going discussion,” commented 40-year-old Najafi al-Ibrahimi.

Faris Harram

Faris Harram was born in 1972 and lives in Najaf. Following degrees in philosophy from the universities of Baghdad and Koufa, Harram has worked as a cultural journalist, poet, author and playwright and has won many awards for his work including the UAE al-Shariqa poetry prize in 2005 for his collection One Time. Harram also collaborated with Abdul Mouhsen Saleh in writing "Iraq- 360 degrees" which chronicled the Iraqi refugee diaspora (published by MICT in cooperation with the Fredrich Ebert foundation). Following the collapse of the Saddam regime Harram and a number of his friends in Baghdad established the Najeen Group for Culture and Arts.

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