Forbidden programme breaks new ground in promoting religious freedom
Forbidden (“Mamnou’a” in Arabic) is a SAT-7 ARABIC programme that addresses sensitive and sometimes controversial Arab cultural topics from a Christian perspective. These topics range from adoption to human trafficking and sexual violence. But perhaps its biggest success has been to win agreement from many Muslim viewers that people should be free to follow the faith of their choice.
The host of Forbidden, Dr Imed Dabbour (above), is a pastor and poet from Tunisia who himself came to Christ from a Muslim background. Over the last two years, he has seen tremendous growth in the programme’s audience size and many changed minds.
“When we started Forbidden people recognised me and would hurl insults or harass me publicly,” Imed said. “Now, people stop me in airports and want to take photos with me! This is a big change in attitude.”
“This season was a great achievement for empowering the concept of freedom of choice to believe in what you feel is right,” Imed said, “Choosing your own beliefs is a foreign concept, as it is assumed that each person in the Arab culture is born into his or her religion to stay… For many, it’s considered apostasy to change, a crime. In some countries, you can be imprisoned or executed.”
“Forbidden has succeeded in talking openly about these issues, in gentle ways,” Imed explained. “Someone from my background who speaks to these issues is breaking new ground and breaking down taboos which exist in Arab culture.”
Some of this has been achieved through Imed’s policy of inviting high profile guests on the show, irrespective of their religion.
“We have over twelve Muslim VIPs – artists, thinkers, clerics – who have participated in Forbidden in a very positive spirit of building bridges,” Imed said. They have “talked openly about their personal experiences in life and their faith and how they see Jesus from their perspective. They have been willing to be challenged and to hear about our faith in a kind way.”
What amazes Imed is that such well-known guests have been willing to appear on the show, knowing his background. “Actually, I received a statement that would never be heard on other Arab media: ‘You are free to change your faith or your beliefs; we respect you, Imed.”
Imed’s guests range far and wide, but recently included famous Arab singer Ali Haggar whom Imed described as “one of the voices of the Egyptian revolution”. There have also been Egyptian comedian Ahmad Rateb, actress Ilham Shahine, and fellow Tunisian, poet and journalist, Kamal Ayadi.
Christians are a tiny minority across North Africa, but interviewing recognised figures from the major faith, has brought Forbidden “a huge volume of responses”.
“It is so obvious for my viewers that this is a new way to deliver our message, to explain the Gospel and the Christian world view in a practical manner and through the life experiences of my VIP guests.
“There is much positive feedback from my Muslim and Christian viewers – but criticism as well,” Imed added. “The radicals are usually angry with me no matter what, but we are gaining the moderates and many seekers.”
“One of the major fruits of this is a major shift in mentality concerning freedom of religion,” Imed explained. “A Muslim background believer is not [seen as] an apostate, a “kafir” or infidel, but is an artist, an intellectual, a socially active contributor at every level.
“A radical change”
“I recently received an invitation from Tunisian TV to discuss the presidential elections. I was in the studio with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and other famous politicians, and it is hard to find the words to describe their respect for me and how they treated me, and the kind words that they have for my work and ministry. This is the first time in the Arab Muslim media for such respect [to be shown], not cursing or harassing.
“Praise the Lord,” Imed reflected, “this is a radical change taking place. By the grace of God, SAT-7 and Forbidden are leading this.”
Clarifying Christian belief
Alongside prominent non-Christians, Forbidden, also regularly hosts Middle Eastern and overseas Christian spokespeople. In two recent episodes Imed chatted with American bestselling author Philip Yancey and asked him questions that often had special resonance for Middle Eastern audiences.
Among the issues that Yancey addressed were why Jesus? Does the Trinity mean Christians believe in more than one God? Where is God in the midst of the terrorism we have witnessed from groups like so-called Islamic State?