This is what more and more ‘Moderate Islamists’ ought to do.
Brave Saudi housewife set to win Arabic X Factor after blistering attack on hardline Muslim clerics on live TV
A brave Saudi housewife has reached the final of the Arabic version of the X Factor after lashing out at hardline Muslim clerics on live TV.
Wearing a black burkha, mother-of-four Hissa Hilal delivered a blistering poem against Muslim preachers ‘who sit in the position of power’ but are ‘frightening’ people with their fatwas, or religious edicts, and ‘preying like a wolf’ on those seeking peace.
Her poem got loud cheers from the audience last week and won her a place in the competition’s final on April 7.
It also brought her death threats, posted on several Islamic militant websites.
The programme, ‘The Million’s Poet’, is a chance for poets to show off their original work and is broadcast live every week on satellite television across the Arab world from Abu Dhabi.
Contestants are graded on voice and style of recitation, but also on their subject matter, said Sultan al-Amimi, one of the three judges on the show and a manager of Abu Dhabi’s Poetry Academy.
Over the past episodes, poets sitting on an elaborate stage before a live audience have recited odes to the beauty of Bedouin life and the glories of their rulers or mourning the gap between rich and poor.
Hilal is the first to launch a political attack – a brave move by a Saudi woman.
‘My poetry has always been provocative,’ she said. ‘It’s a way to express myself and give voice to Arab women, silenced by those who have hijacked our culture and our religion.’
Her poem was seen as a response to Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia who recently issued a fatwa saying those who call for the mingling of men and women should be considered infidels, punishable by death.
But, more broadly, it was seen as addressing any of many hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region who hold a wide influence through TV programmes, university positions or websites.
‘Killing a human being is so easy for them, it is always an option,’ she told AP.
Poetry holds a prominent place in Arab culture, and some poets in the Middle East have a fan base akin to those of rock stars.
Hilal’s 15-verse poem was in a form known as Nabati, native to nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. She criticised extremism that she told AP is ‘creeping into our society’ through fatwas.
‘I have seen evil in the eyes of fatwas, at a time when the permitted is being twisted into the forbidden,’ she said in the poem.
She called such edicts ‘a monster that emerged from its hiding place’ whenever ‘the veil is lifted from the face of truth’.
She described hard-line clerics as ‘vicious in voice, barbaric, angry and blind, wearing death as a robe cinched with a belt,’ in an apparent reference to suicide bombers’ explosives belts.
The three judges gave her the highest marks for her performance, praising her for addressing a controversial topic. That, plus voting from the 2,000 people in the audience and text messages from viewers, put her through to the final round.
‘Hissa Hilal is a courageous poet,’ said al-Amimi. ‘She expressed her opinion against the kind of fatwas that affect people’s lives and raised an alarm against these ad hoc fatwas coming from certain scholars who are inciting extremism.’
Fatwas are not legally binding – it is up to individual Muslims to follow them.
Clerics of all ideological stripes pronounced fatwas on nearly every aspect of people’s lives, from how they should deal with members of other religions to what they can watch on television.
Hilal said she had heard about the death threats posted on Islamic extremist websites and was concerned, but ‘not enough to send me into hiding’.
What’s more on her mind is how sudden fame will change her quiet family life at home in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
‘I worry how I will be perceived after the show is over, when judgment is passed and people begin to talk about my performance and ideas,’ said Hilal, a mother of four who has published poetry and previously was a poetry editor at the Arab daily Al-Hayat.
‘I worry the lights of fame will affect my simple and quiet existence.’
The Million’s Poet was launched in 2006 by the government’s Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to encourage poetry.
In this, the fourth season, 48 contestants from 12 Arab countries competed, including several women along with Hilal.
On Wednesday, Hilal will be joined by five other poets in the final round. The winner of the $1.3million grand prize will be declared a week later on March 31.
Their topics are already known. One of Hilal’s rivals will address terrorism. Another woman in the finals, Jaza al-Baqmi, will reflect on the role of women.
Hilal says her poem will tackle the media, but wouldn’t elaborate so as not to spoil the surprise.
‘My message to those who hear me is love, compassion and peace,’ Hilal said. ‘We all have to share a small planet and we need to learn how to live together.’