Shiite clerics dictate rules of the airwaves

BAGHDAD — It has all the elements of a successful youth-oriented radio station — phone-in talkshows, cultural programs, experts speaking on social issues, and, of course, music.

Music — that is — without lyrics.

This is, after all, Karbala FM — broadcasting in one of Iraq’s holiest cities where Shiite clerics dictate the rules and rule the airwaves.

Despite the restrictions, Karbala FM has become the most popular radio station in the central Iraqi city which houses the shrines of Shiite saints Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, visited by millions of pilgrims every year.

Its content frequently ruffles conservative clerical feathers, not least of all because it challenges traditions — for example by carrying horoscopes.

Unlike other radio stations in Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, which are dominated by religious programming, Karbala FM is lively, has young presenters and female producers. And plays music. Samba music, Western pop music, catchy Eastern music, rock, jazz  as well as classic Arabic music.

Among the singers favored are Lebanese diva Fairuz and late Egyptian vocalist Umm Kalthoum.

But it’s the music which is getting the clerics edgy. Not so much the melodies as the lyrics — which may include content not in keeping with Islamic values.

To get around the problem, said Amir Makhif al-Omer al-Jubouri, founder of the radio station, his team simply mutes all the lyrics.

“Some clerics criticize because in their opinion, most of the music the station plays is illicit and the scholars can’t accept it,” Jubouri told a correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in a recent interview.

“If you ask me about what I aspire to, I’ll tell you that I wish I could broadcast all of the original Iraqi songs that made us sing for Iraq and love,” said Jubouri.

Editor and producer Hamza Muhammed Feihan is careful not to play any music with lyrics.

“I may lose my life if I broadcast one song,” he told the institute’s correspondent.

The report added that “Birds of Love,” a nightly call-in show about love and romance, was axed after a militia group visited the station.

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