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Islamophobic BBC Documentary Denounced by Shia Clerics

We stand in full solidarity with the victims of this abuse – our sisters – and urge the Iraqi authorities to swiftly prosecute those who are found to have broken Iraqi law and Islamic laws and values.

The following statement has been issued by Shia organisations and leaders of Islamic Shia communities in the UK regarding the recent BBC documentary:

On 3rd October, the BBC broadcast a documentary entitled ‘Undercover with the Clerics: Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade’.

The film suggests serious abuses of power on the part of men described by the filmmakers as clerics. We stand in full solidarity with the victims of this abuse – our sisters – and urge the Iraqi authorities to swiftly prosecute those who are found to have broken Iraqi law and Islamic laws and values. For them, there are no excuses and nowhere to hide. We are all the more dismayed as Shi’a clerics ourselves that anyone portrayed as a cleric could abuse their power in such a way. Iraq’s respected Shi’a clerical institutions and associated charities have done invaluable work to assist widows of war; to resettle internally displaced families of all faiths and none; and to provide aid for orphans who suffered at the hands of ISIS.

All of us in the international community bear the burden of the trauma that the Iraqi people have suffered for the last sixteen years of war and the previous three decades of dictatorship. Today, Iraq endures the entrenched unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunity that creates space for opportunists to abuse their power. We are deeply concerned that the language, framing, choice of contributors and factual inaccuracies in the documentary will make it more difficult to seek justice for the victims of the abuses shown.

The documentary was shown on BBC Arabic, and trailed by tweets from the BBC News Arabic and BBC World social media accounts. The documentary featured prominently on the BBC News at Ten in the UK: as the third headline story; with a five-minute extract from the documentary inserted into the news bulletin; and viewers were directed to watch the film online.

The extract was introduced on BBC News at Ten using highly charged and irresponsible language, with the primary allegation being that some Shi’a clerics are using “pleasure marriage” as a sexual “grooming” tactic. The use of such inaccurate and sensationalist language coupled with imagery of shrines and clerics in an atmosphere of febrile Islamophobia cannot be accidental, especially when far-right threats and violence towards Muslims are so often based on the same ideological tropes. The film attempts to suggest that places of Shi’a pilgrimage are dens of prostitution – a deeply offensive assertion obviously not supported by the evidence.

We are also seriously concerned that the men secretly recorded in this film, who the filmmakers introduce as clerics and portray as representative of Shi’ism and its clerical institutions, in reality have no standing in the Shi’a world. The film’s insensitive Islamophobic treatment of serious abuses of power will set back opportunities to address those abuses. The filmmakers mischaracterise mut’ah (a time-limited marriage contract) as “pleasure marriage” throughout, linking a contractual safeguard that is often used to protect women in pre-marital relationships to prostitution. This gross and deliberate mischaracterisation is the premise for the entire documentary. The 57-minute film features only 30 seconds of comment from a senior Shi’a religious authority by way of balance. In that 30 seconds, we hear that Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, one of the world’s foremost Shi’a clerics, condemns and denounces the practices shown.

Meanwhile, ideologues primarily known for their polemics against Shi’a clergy or Islam in general are treated as expert commentators and suggest that such abuses are widespread. The filmmakers inflate the religious status of those found to be engaged in or endorsing the crimes they claim are widespread. Of the three men secretly recorded, one appears never to wear the clerical garb associated with a Shi’i cleric. In another case, the filmmakers appear to have confused a man wearing traditional Iraqi dress worn by many communities – but which has no religious significance – with a cleric. This should have rung alarm bells in the editorial process for anyone familiar with the subject matter.

These factual inaccuracies are central to the film’s premise and its justification under the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines. A gratuitous attack on the beliefs and institutions of a persecuted minority in the Arab world, broadcast in English, Arabic and Urdu, has been justified by senior BBC management on the basis of one apparent cleric having been secretly recorded endorsing a criminal act that would be widely considered abhorrent.

Given the lax editorial standards on this film and previous coverage of stories relating to Shi’ism, there is a clear need for more religious literacy within the BBC, including at BBC Arabic. Unfortunately, films such as this one create deep reservoirs of mistrust which makes co-operation on religious literacy all the more difficult.

We fear the film’s sensationalism will lead to increasing mistrust of the BBC in Iraq and throughout the Arab world; a spike in sectarian rhetoric; an entrenching of Islamophobic attitudes; and difficulties for legal authorities in Iraq to investigate cases of abuse of power. We are deeply concerned that the victims of this abuse will suffer again as a result of the BBC’s carelessness.


What is mut’ah?

Mut’ah, incorrectly and offensively translated throughout BBC Arabic’s documentary as “pleasure marriage”, actually refers to a temporary marriage contract. Mut’ah is supposed to safeguard a woman’s rights in a pre-marital relationship. Mut’ah is often used by couples during the courting period, or engagement before permanent marriage, to establish their compatibility in conditions agreed upon by consenting adults and their families. Some couples agree under mut’ah marriage contracts that they will not have a sexual relationship during the period of that contract.

But the condition of informed consent must always be satisfied in an Islamic marriage of any kind for that marriage to be valid. And if it is a woman’s first marriage, her father or guardian must also consent to it as a form of protection for her. In Islamic law, a minimum of two months has to pass before a woman can re-marry following a divorce or the end of a previous mut’ah contract. This is intended as a specific protection against abuse of mut’ah and if these conditions are not met, a contract cannot reasonably be described as a mut’ah marriage consistent with Islamic laws.


About Ali Teymoori

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