Over 21,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the BBC removes from iPlayer a documentary which exposed three Iraqi “Shia clerics” pimping out young girls.
The petitioners say that “Undercover With The Clerics Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade,” which was first broadcast on October 3, is disrespectful to Shia Islam.
During the filming of the documentary journalists caught so-called clerics offering “temporary marriages” to girls as young as nine.
Temporary (or mut’ah) marriage is allowed in Shia fiqh but only between consenting adults and with strict requirements for both parties. The practice is banned in Iraq but is thought to be widespread nevertheless.
As part of the show, BBC Arabic’s Nawal Al-Maghafi explored claims that since the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq destabilised society, Iraqi women have been trapped into prostitution and pimped out by members of the religious elite.
One young widow alleged that a cleric sold her to his friends in a prostitution ring, while secret filming revealed another cleric conducting a what the programme called a “pleasure marriage” with a girl, aged 13.
In Karbala, Iraq’s most important religious city, the undercover reporter was introduced to a cleric who claimed pleasure marriage with a child is halal: “Nine years old plus, there’s no problem.” Footage showed him explaining: “It’s up to you how you want to do it, she’s permitted to you. You’re allowed to perform from behind. Do what you desire.”
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Two of the three clerics secretly filmed by BBC Arabic describe themselves as followers of Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, perhaps the most senior figure in Shia Islam, which seems to have particularly enraged the petitioners.
In a statement to the BBC, the Ayatollah said: “If these practices are happening in the way you are saying then we condemn them unreservedly. Temporary marriage is not allowed as a tool to sell sex in a way that belittles the dignity and humanity of women.”
Supporters of Ayatollah Sisitani told 5Pillars that indirectly linking him with pimps is outrageous. They said that the Iraqi religious institutions had done a lot for women who had been widowed post 2003.
They said the documentary should have focussed more on how the West destroyed the country which made it easier for criminals to flourish. And they called the documentary a typical BBC hit job designed to make Islam and Muslims look bad.
The petition to the BBC reads:
“The BBC have recently published a documentary titled ‘Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade’, in which they go undercover to reveal the heinous crimes committed by a number of men who claim to follow the Shia faith.
“Instead of making a documentary about the world’s largest, peaceful, annual pilgrimage held in Iraq, hosting 20 million people each year; the BBC have decided to cherry-pick a handful of misguided men who do not represent Shia Islam in any way, shape or form to tarnish the image of Iraq and Shias worldwide.
“Ayatollah Sistani (a highly revered Shia cleric), who the oppressors claim to follow, strongly condemned the act. This is featured in the programme, but nonetheless his condemnation of the act was not stressed as much as the fact that the oppressors in the programme claim to be Shia.
“Furthermore, the female interviewees featured in the programme were unaware of its purpose. They did not know that it was being used to belittle Shia Islam and they did not know their own words would be used against their faith. They were under the impression that they were complaining about their oppressors, not their religion.
“To add insult to injury, the programme shows the holy shrines in Karbala several times, when the men buried in those shrines stood for peace and unity. Hussain (a.s) is the man Nelson Mandela looked to for inspiration when he was wrongfully imprisoned and yet, in this programme he is depicted as the reason why some find it acceptable to practice child prostitution!
“The men in the programme should be ashamed of what they have done, but they are wrongful men who happen to identify as Shia, have offices outside shrines to manipulate people and are pimps, so why did 200 million people have their faith slandered on national television at prime time on a Friday evening as a consequence?”
However, a BBC spokesman said the programme would not be deleted and said: “This thorough investigation was conducted over an 11-month period and exposes the sexual exploitation of children and young women. The documentary fully complies with BBC Editorial Guidelines.”