Who Wants to Win a Million? Maybe Not Egyptians

Published July 21st, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Pokemon was the first to be sent packing – the popular children’s video and card game was labeled a form of gambling by conservative Saudi sheikhs and banished from the kingdom and other Gulf states. Now Islam’s guiding lights have turned to ridding the region of quiz shows, which are also considered to pose a gambling threat to the community. 

Egypt's highest religious authority early this month condemned as haram (forbidden) the popular quiz show Who Wants to Win a Million? and all other forms of phone-in contests, taking the position that winning a trivia show constitutes unwholesome “unearned profit” or gambling.  

The show, the equivalent of the popular British game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is produced by the Saudi-funded, London-based MBC satellite channel and broadcast out of France. 

The ruling is bound to disappoint Egypt’s womenfolk, who according to the daily Al Ahram have grown quite fixated with moderator George Kurdahi. The dashing former reporter doles out questions that can earn contestants from all over the Arab World a three-day, all-expenses-paid vacation in France, and – maybe – the famous grand prize.  

Nevertheless, the supreme mufti's office in Cairo issued the fatwa, or religious edict, calling the game show sinful and a form of gambling, according to BBC Online.  

The Arabic daily Al Akhbar said that the supreme mufti, Nasser Fareed Wassel, decreed that all phone-in quiz shows were prohibited under Islam, without naming a specific program.  

In a strange twist, the ruling put the Islamic authority on a collision course with none other than the Egyptian government, which sees such shows as a boon to the nascent telecommunications industry. 




Mobile telephones are the lifeblood of Who Wants to Win a Million? and its many imitators around the Gulf, since big money rolls in from people scratching and clawing at the lines to answer questions and apply to be a contestant.  

By one account, the penetration of the mobile telephone into Egypt, which began in the mid-1990s with only about 190,000 subscribers, has turned Egyptian communications “on its head.”  

Egyptian cellular franchisers have since been reaping undreamed of success. 

The mufti’s ruling has not managed to nip this entreprenurial eruption in the bud. Despite the power accorded to the mufti’s Al Azhar research institute by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, none other than Minister of Information Safwat Al Sharif has squared off with the Islamic clerics. 

Sharif, who is responsible for the development of media content on Egypt's television stations, recently announced that he viewed the program as an wonderful educational tool because it required intellectual effort and encouraged competition and achievement among the contestants and the public.  

The minister even solicited religious rulings from other Islamists, including members of Al Azhar's faculty, who ruled that there was nothing religiously offensive in the program. Some even compared the program to competitions to master the Quran, which are encouraged by Al Azhar and the government.  

Meanwhile, the mufti’s efforts to enforce his fatwa will be made even more complicated by the fact that the broadcasters of the offending show answer to a fabulously wealthy Saudi tycoon, who may not take this challenge to his profits lightly. 




However, the besieged mufti may find some allies in his corner. Egyptian students and ordinary citizens are famous for taking to the streets en masse at even a whiff of opposition to Islam as interpreted by conservative clerics.  

Despite their love of quiz shows, these ordinary Egyptians may well side with religious authorities who say the programs violate the Quran’s strict prohibition of gambling. 

The gambling prohibition is not aimed at profit as such. Rather, according to www.islaam.org, Islam cannot “tolerate the unjust seizure of another person's wealth (through games of chance) which resulted in crippling the poor even more, and strengthening the rich by accumulation of wealth without any effort, nor could it tolerate the collection of a large amount from the poor and making it one person's property without any lawful religious reason.”  

The unrest of the Egyptian public has on more than one occasion forced the government to tread carefully around religious sensibilities. For example, Egypt's Culture Minister Faruq Hosni in January ordered three books withdrawn from sale that were deemed indecent and sacked the official who published them.  

Hosni said he made his decision because the books offended standards of decency, denying press claims that he was influenced by a protest campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood.  

"These novels contradict government policy, which bans the publication of anything which scorns religion or undermines decency," Hosni told AFP.  

The previous May, Islamists led an angry campaign against the novel Banquet of Seaweed by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, and against Hosni for allowing its republication.  

The book, denounced as blasphemous, was withdrawn. 

So depending on how the Egyptian public feels about the mufti’s fatwa, the answer to question, Who Wants to Win a Million? may turn out to be a very loud and potentially disturbing “Not me.” – Albawaba.com 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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