Pokemon Go ignites debate in the Middle East

Mobile gamers are taking to the augmented reality game, but political and religious authorities are voicing concerns.

Pokemon Go
Exeggcute, a Pokemon, is found by a Pokemon Go player [Alan Diaz/The Associated Press]

The Pokemon Go phenomenon has stirred up a variety of reactions in the Middle East.

Iraqi comedian Ahmed al-Basheer recently ran a segment on his popular programme on the augmented reality mobile phone game, which has taken the world by storm this month.

Basheer’s comedy sketch included a poke at Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with Nintendo’s rich characters.

“I introduce y’all to Abu Pikachu al-Baghdadi and Jigglypuff in a headscarf,” Basheer said.

Comedian Ahmad al-Basheer [Khalil Mazraawi/AFP]
Comedian Ahmad al-Basheer [Khalil Mazraawi/AFP]

His The Basheer Show, often described as Iraq’s version of The Daily Show, implied Iraqis have their own elusive Pokemon Go characters whom they can’t ever catch: their out-of-touch politicians who always walk away from their responsibilities. 

The Iraqi comedian and journalist poked fun at “Trendy Haidori” – aka Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi – and compared House Speaker Salim al-Jabouri to the Japanese cartoons for their “cuteness”. 

Because of security threats, his show is filmed from an office in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Shown on YouTube and Iraqi TV channels, Kurdish NRT, and the Arabic channel of Deutsche Welle, Basheer has a viewership of 19 million. 

In Egypt, meanwhile, there is a heated debate that Pokemon Go is a major threat to national security. Ahmed Badawi, deputy head of the communication committee, urged Egyptian officials to consider banning the game because it allegedly exposes the country’s vital security sites to the world. 

Badawi has proposed the installation of mobile phone and wi-fi jammers in the vicinity of every state institution to prevent anyone from streaming videos of these sensitive areas while playing the game

Hamdi Bakheet, a member of Egypt’s committee of defence and national security, told parliament: “Pokemon Go is the latest tool used by spy agencies in the intel war, a cunning despicable app that tries to infiltrate our communities in the most innocent way under the pretext of entertainment. But all they really want is to spy on people and the state.”

Last week, Abbas Shuman, deputy chair of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, wrote that he discourages Muslim youth from playing Pokemon Go because it is an addiction, comparing the gaming sensation to “alcohol substance abuse”. Shuman later posted a message on his official Facebook page saying he never forbade the game, as some media outlets reported, and stressed he only warned of its addictive nature and players could be put in dangerous situations while hunting and catching digital monsters.    

Others in the Arab world are taking similar approaches to Pokemon Go. Saudi state TV reported that the kingdom’s Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) warned that Pokemon Go and similar gaming applications will expose players’ geographical locations to prying eyes.


The CITC warned that the game would allow hackers to invade the privacy of users, and criminals could lead them to isolated places where they face violence and theft.

Kuwait’s Ministry of Communications issued a similar warning to Pokemon Go players.

In Qatar, meanwhile, some players launched a channel and Twitter account called @PokemonQatar to give players tips, hints, and updated news on how to play the game in the country.    

Qatari business magnate Adel Bin Ali, director at Amwal QSC, poked fun at the game mania by tweeting: “#TurkishCoup? what coup? #Turkey’s Generals stormed #Erdogan palace looking for #PokemonGO”. 

It’s not the first time Pokemon has raised concerns in the region.

In 2001, Saudi Arabia banned the cartoon and game based on a fatwa by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the now Qatar-based cleric known as the leading religious voice of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi issued an Islamic edict banning Pokemon as “un-Islamic” because the cartoon aimed to “possess the minds” of children, while promoting Zionism and gambling. 

Saudi Arabia’s Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law supported Qaradawi’s edict. “Most of the cards figure six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel.”  

Religious officials also said at the time that the game and cartoon should be banned because Pokemon uses symbols such as “crosses, sacred for Christians, triangles significant for Freemasons, and symbols of Japan’s Shintoism, which is based on the belief in more than one God”.

Follow Saad Abedine on Twitter: @saadabedine

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Source: Al Jazeera