Middle East

Saudi imam apologises to 'apostate' comedian

Women and men walks on the streets of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. File photo
Image caption Saudi Arabia is a conservative kingdom, where criticism of the government is not tolerated in the media

A Saudi imam has apologised after accusing a well-known Saudi comedian of apostasy for mocking overzealous clerics.

The Islamic affairs ministry called for an investigation into Saeed al-Farwa after he denounced Nasser al-Qasabi for his latest TV show for Ramadan.

In the show, he made fun of Saudi imams smashing musical instruments.

He has faced death threats from Islamic State supporters for another show in which he ridiculed jihadists.

'More dangerous enemy'

Mr al-Qasabi has been a popular TV personality and comedian across the Middle East for a number of years - still something of a rarity for a Saudi.

His best known programme Tash ma Tash has satirised a number of taboos in Saudi Arabia and wider Arab society.

In one sketch several years ago, he turned the issue of Saudi men being able to have four wives at a time on its head. A woman with four husbands is shown facing the dilemma of trying to divorce one so she can marry a fifth.

The episode was attacked by the more conservative elements in Saudi Arabia as blasphemy.

Mr al-Qasabi has won further fame as a judge on the Arabs Got Talent show.

His latest series, Selfie, has already been a big hit this Ramadan.

In one episode, he played a Saudi mutawwa - a conservative preacher - enraged at Muslims indulging in music during the Muslim holy month.

He and one of his fellow actors smash an oud to pieces before an approving crowd of men in Saudi thobes (robes) and ghutras (headdresses). The camera focuses on the shortness of their thobes - a characteristic of the mutawwa.

Shortly afterwards, Saudi preacher Saeed al-Farwa rose to the bait. He accused Mr al-Qasabi of apostasy, and other imams made similar accusations.

But their fury has led to a rebuke from the Islamic affairs ministry. It is reported to have ordered the investigation into the accusations made by Mr al-Farwa, who has now stepped back and apologised on Twitter.

Prominent Saudi journalist Khaled al-Maeena has written a strong defence of Mr al-Qasabi, saying that "for too long, we have kept quiet... We have allowed these imams a free rein to spew hatred and falsehood".

Mr al-Qasabi has long been used to such attacks. But his latest series may have attracted a more dangerous enemy.

In another episode of Selfie, the satirical sights are set on Islamic State. Mr al-Qasabi plays a father who travels to Syria in search of his son who has joined IS.

The show has had a big impact, impressing many viewers not just with its humour but its bravery. But inevitably, there has been a darker response from IS supporters on social media, with some literally calling for his head.

Mr al-Qasabi has responded by saying that it is the duty of artists to reveal the truth - even if they have to pay a price for doing so.

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