CAIRO — Egyptian actress Sama El Masry announced on Instagram March 26 that she would host a religious show during the upcoming holy month of Ramadan. The announcement sparked controversy in Egypt amid objections from Al-Azhar scholars and the Egyptian Parliament.
The question is now whether Al-Azhar will ban the show, for Masry is a media figure of questionable reputation and a long record of controversy. She is the owner of the Sky production company and runs a satellite channel called Al-Feloul ("The Remnants"), which in the past she used to broadcast shows opposing the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Egyptians describe her as a dancer and a porn star, because she uses sexually suggestive content in both her YouTube videos and on her Al-Feloul channel, which is currently off the air. Masry ran in the 2015 parliamentary elections, but Egypt's Supreme Administrative court disqualified her before the vote.
“I cannot seem to understand the uproar that my show has provoked,” Masry told Al-Monitor. She said she would not personally introduce the religious content of the program, which she named “Disobedience to Parents,” and that she would only interview the show's guests.
Masry said the show is not purely religious, but discusses social problems through a religious perspective. She said she will host both Al-Azhar scholars and Christian clergy because the perspectives of the show will not be limited to Islam.
The actress pointed out that she is unfit to moderate religious discussions, a task that requires a level of education she failed to attain. She expressed incredulity at Al-Azhar’s ire, wondering, “Why didn’t Al-Azhar scholars rise up against the Salafist leaders who issued fatwas prohibiting the celebration of Mother’s Day and well wishes for Christians on their holidays while allowing the marriage of underage girls? These fatwas have brought us the social problems we are currently facing.”
Masry requested that Al-Azhar scholars to wait until the show is broadcast before criticizing it, and asked, “How do you judge a show before watching it?”
Belly dancing and dancing as a career is seen as immoral by many in Egypt, and Egyptians treat Masry as a show girl despite her protests. Asked to comment on being characterized as a belly dancer, she said, “I am not a professional dancer and never have I worn a dance outfit. I just make sure to offer the best performances when I sing, and this is what all A-listers like [Lebanese singer] Nancy Ajram do.”
She explained that she initially had no intention of hosting a religious show during Ramadan, and that she was offered a part in a TV production by a station she declined to name. She said that she backed out because she did not like the role, and that the same station asked her to host a socioreligious show to spark controversy, achieve high ratings and attract ads.
Most advertising companies in Egypt and the Arab world wait for the holy month of Ramadan to launch major advertising campaigns in conjunction with the traditional Ramadan soap operas. Egyptian businessman Tarek Nour, the owner of Tarek Nour Advertising Agency and a pillar of the Egyptian advertising industry, created his own station Al-Kahera Wal Nas in 2009. For its first two years, the station only broadcast during Ramadan, but following the January 25 Revolution in 2011, it started broadcasting year-round.
Mahmoud Muhanna, a member of Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, told Al-Monitor that any individual may preach under specific conditions. Chief among them is for the preacher to be knowledgeable about religion and committed to Sharia rules, which include high standards of morality, chastity and modesty and require women to wear the hijab. Preachers who fail to meet any of these conditions become a burden for society and the entire nation, because people will say that Egypt does not maintain high standards for clerics.
Muhanna said that Masry does not meet the required conditions for the role, even if she said that she will not be issuing fatwas and would only interview scholars about social issues. He noted that he is awaiting the decision of the Council of Senior Scholars and Al-Azhar’s sheikh on the show.
The crisis has reached the Egyptian Parliament. On April 1, parliament member Khaled Abu Talib submitted a request to call on Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to ban Masry's religious show.
Abu Talib told Al-Monitor that he had submitted the request because having a dancer and singer host a religious show provokes the religious sentiments of citizens, especially during the sacred month of Ramadan, in addition to Masry's lack of qualifications for hosting religious discussions.
Abu Talib accused the religious institutions of leniency toward those who insult religion by issuing fatwas and hosting religious shows without religious knowledge, with Masry as a case in point. He noted that this accusation also includes Christian religious institutions, and he said that the parliament has repeatedly demanded the reformation of religious discourse, including eliminating extremist fatwas, but the progress has not gone so far as to allow shows like the one Masry is set to host.
Meanwhile, parliament member Amr Hamroush, who serves as the secretary of the parliament's religious committee, told Al-Monitor that the body has yet to discuss Masry's show but will do so once it has all the necessary information, such as the name of the show's producer and the station that will broadcast it. He said that some of the committee's members consider the show a “media stunt.”
According to Hamroush, if the show is broadcast, the committee will immediately take appropriate measures.
Al-Monitor tried to contact Al-Azhar representative Abbas Shoman, but he refused to comment. Priest Boulos Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, also refused to comment on Masry’s claim that she would host Christian clergy.