Comedy actor wins case against Saudi cleric who called him an infidel

In a rare turning-of-tables in the land of the Prophet, a Saudi court has sentenced a cleric to 45 days in prison for defaming a comedy actor.

The case arose out of a popular Saudi TV series, Selfie, which satirised ISIS/Daesh. One episode poked fun at religious figures who smash musical instruments because they believe music is forbidden by God, and this proved too much for a cleric, Saeed bin Farwah, who denounced the show's creator, Nasser Al-Qasabi, as an "infidel".

Bin Farwah had previously achieved some notoriety by using a crude word to describe fathers who supposedly promote immorality by allowing their daughters to work in the medical profession.

As a result of the defamation case which has spent a year rumbling through the courts, Bin Farwah will now be sent to jail unless Qasabi forgives him for the insult.

Qasabi hailed the outcome as a vindication of Saudi Arabia's justice system. In a post on Twitter, he said it shows there is "no immunity for anyone no matter how long their beards or short their thobe is". He added: "People’s dignity is preserved by the law and nobody is usurping the role of the state."

Meanwhile Majed Garoub, a lawyer, told Arab News there were lessons in the case that would benefit Saudi society: 

“First, it sends a message on how comprehensive the Saudi legal system is in all cases. Second, the legal system in Saudi Arabia preserves people’s rights and dignity from unlawful assault, either through words or opinions.”

Others, though, are not so sure. One reader's comment posted below the Arab News report says

"The man was a well known actor – that's why. If he had been unknown or shia, things would have been significantly different."

While the case does show that Saudi courts don't necessarily side with the most religious, the real test of a judicial system is whether its courts can produce verdicts that are contrary to the authorities' wishes – and Qasabi's case isn't an example of that. It's a case of a popular TV celebrity defeating an out-of-favour cleric.

Qasabi, who has more than 1.4 million Twitter followers, rose to fame mainly through a long-running satirical TV show, Tash ma Tash. At one point (more than a decade ago) the kingdom's highest clerical  body, the Permanent Committee of the Grand Ulema, declared that watching the show was sinful – though it still attracted huge audiences. 

Qasabi has also been a judge on Arabs Got Talent. His Selfie series, launched in 2015, angered some religious elements but proved useful to the authorities because of its criticism of ISIS.

On the other hand, Saeed bin Farwah, the defendant in the defamation case, is not supported by the kingdom's religious establishment. According to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs he is not an accredited preacher and his earlier comments about women working in medicine were condemned as "dangerous" by Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti.