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Belly-dancing TV show shakes Egyptian religious body, which demands the program be suspended

Ferial, a belly dancer, performs at the Abdin Casino in Cairo, Egypt on March 25, 1956. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, file

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Ferial, a belly dancer, performs at the Abdin Casino in Cairo, Egypt on March 25, 1956. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, file

CAIRO - Egypt's top religious body demanded Wednesday that a new belly-dancing TV show be suspended for "corrupting morals" and serving "extremists" who could use it as a pretext to depict Egyptian society as anti-Islamic.

The call by Dar al-Ifta, the top body that advises Muslims on religious and life issues, follows others criticizing the show called "Dancer." But the debate over it isn't all about it being too racy for television — it's part of a concerted effort by Egypt's government to show its both challenging Islamists as a political forces while still respecting the country's more-conservative values.

"Dancer" aired only once on the Cairo and People satellite television network. A famous belly dancer known as Dina was among a three-member panel that chose the most-talented dancers, many of whom were not Egyptians.

In an advertisement, the network said the winner would receive the title "the best belly dancer in the world." The contestants also shouted at each other and fought in the advertisement in the tradition of Western-style reality shows.

The network ran an announcement Tuesday saying it postponed the show's second episode over the country mourning the killing of security forces in a militant attack in northern Sinai Peninsula.

Belly dancing has been famed in Middle Eastern countries for centuries, though many Egyptian conservatives now believe it immoral. Many belly dancers here say Egyptian movies — in which belly dancers are often characters who only lust after men and their money — is to blame for the negative image.

Foreign belly dancers, instructors and fun-loving amateurs fly to Egypt from as far as Japan, the United States and Australia to learn more about the art and get a sense of the culture in which it originated.

In its statement, Dar al-Ifta said the show "serves extremists who take such matters as a justification to promote the idea that society is fighting religion."

But the criticism of the show goes beyond that. Critics of the show are clerics who also opposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group, who were toppled last year by the military.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the ouster of Morsi after mass protests, has portrayed himself as standing up against extremism and the political use of Islam. But while battling Islamists, el-Sissi also has tried to show himself as representing a "true Islam" and serving as a guardian of "society's morals." El-Sissi's government has banned some books and movies to do that.

Anti-Muslim Brotherhood cleric Muzhir Shahine and a group of professors Al-Azhar, a Cairo university prestigious in the Muslim world, issued a statement criticizing the belly-dancing show as part of "attacks on society's values," while also trying to compare it to atheism and homosexuality — which a large number of conservative Egyptians perceive as taboos.

The clerics also hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit to suspend the program.

"Why some insist on embarrassing the state ... especially that the country is heading to decisive parliamentary elections," their statement Tuesday read.

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