Layalina Productions Inc.,1250 24th Street NW, Suite 300 Washington, DC 20037 Islamic Media and the Shaping of an Arab Identity On October 21, 1998 the first Islamic channel “Iqraa” explosive popularity of Islamic media among the Arab started broadcasting. Presenting itself as being the only public. Indeed, these elements served as the pillars of channel of its kind to introduce Islam on a media platform, what we might call the new Islamic media.
its aim was to redefine an Islamic identity among Arab viewers. The channel, owned by Saudi billionaire Sheikh Two easily identifiable media discourses in the Islamic Salah Kamal’s Arab Media Corporation, was the first one media environment today can be observed: The first to broadcast Islamic-oriented programming until the one is obviously the Saudi-influenced one, characterized launch of the “Alrisala – the Message” channel on March by channels like “Al-Nas or Al-Majd Group, and as well 2003 - five years after Iqraa’s debut. Alrisala’s vision was as channels such as Al-Rahma, Al-Hafiz, etc., which to reinforce the Islamic and Arab identities of all peoples have been clearly embodied by the Salafist ideology and with Islamic and humanitarian values. Similarly, this represent the majority of the Islamic media environment. channel was financed by a Saudi billionaire, Prince Walid Bin Talal, owner of the Rotana TV network.
In January 2006, a religious channel from Egypt, “Al- Nas” (The People), began broadcasting, and soon became one of the most popular Salafi television stations in Egypt, as well as among Salafi communities in the Arab world. movements we political quietism is another Initially, the channel featured an eclectic collection of shows, boasting themes such as music, dance and weddings, in the region, it of topics that are present in leaving much of its vision undefined. Six months following its launch, the channel underwent a radical change in is expected that as the Palestinian issue. outlook by embracing strict religious programming and inviting some of the most popular Salafi preachers (some of whom were considered Salafi militants) to host its play a major role onto the shows and claim to Despite its increasing popularity in the Egyptian media in constructing be moderate, despite their environment as the sole Salafist channel, the financing was actually from Saudi businessmen who knew little about media leadership – unlike their competitors at Irqaa and Alrisala. The original owner, Mansour Ben Kedsa, did not last long, and after being passed among several partners, the channel was finally Mr. Ali Saad’s. well as a lack of artistic input from the technical staff, thus Shortly thereafter, over twenty religious channels appeared one after the other, mainly due to an uncontrolled The second trend that characterizes the other face of media environment over pan-Arab satellite networks. Islamic media is a moderate, or middle ground ideology, The overwhelming majority of those channels promoted embodied in the channels “Iqraa,” “Alrisala,” Islamic a similar Salafi ideology since most of their funding came art channels, such as the channel 4shbab, and religious programs on public channels. All of these stations are characterized by a contradiction of statements both in style Aside from the strictly Islamic channels, there were many and content stemming from their moderate inclinations. Islamic television programs that aired on channels that Some shows have expanded their range of issues covered, were not religious in nature. The spread of the religious beyond Islamic laws and spirituality. For example, they message has contributed to the emergence of a new group not only addressed issues pertaining to ethics and values, of preachers, such as Amr Khaled, Moez Masoud, Ahmed but also featured women as anchors, guests, or among the Al-Shukairy that have reached wide stretches of Arab general public presenting media stories. These channels youth. The ideologies of these three aforementioned started to raise issues pertaining to women, whether within channels, in addition to those religious programs that the realm of religious practice or broader issues, which was appear on non-Islamic channels, have contributed to the a clear departure from the original trend. In addition, these moderate channels and programs persuasive abilities of the viewers of these programs provide broader, more diverse artistic offerings, such as becomes very limited, as their acceptance of the sanctity songs, video clips and drama. Case in point, the “4shaabab” of the texts has extended to an unquestioned acceptance and “Al-Risala” channels not only showcased the use of of their interpretation, with little acknowledgement of music, but also tell-tale signs of Western input with their other possible interpretations. In addition, a heightened anchors. Overall, there has been a unique care for media sense of criticism among viewers has strongly affected appearance and professionalism demonstrated from the their acceptance of the other, which in turn has shifted the beginning by these channels and throughout their time situation from disagreeing with the other to criminalizing in the arena – at least until they reached the point of the other. Moreover, by limiting the viewers’ understanding real competition with general entertainment programs. to the preferred textual interpretation, these channels An example of such distinctive programs is Ahmed Al- have encouraged their audiences to become impervious Shukairy, who acquired advanced high position in polls to intellectual dexterity in approaching the Qu’ranic texts, and left them intellectually stunted in their rejection of the These channels and trends had a considerable impact on Arab identity and reach deep across the board. When The moderate trend in Islamic media, without a doubt, we try to monitor this change, we have to consider three has been more accepting of the other, in spite of its points: namely, the purpose and format of change put tendency to use classical Arabic. That being said, there is a forward by these channels; the power of rhetoric and style; stark contrast in content, with more room for intellectual and finally the area of distribution.
interpretation, particularly for matters unrelated to worship and religious rituals. You can find talk shows that Regarding the purpose and format of change, it is offer various points of views and political perspectives important to note that these media outlets did not specify on topics covering a wider spectrum of interests beyond the form of the Islamic personality they wanted to attain. the Palestinian cause. In addition to tackling a lot of As such, everyone agreed on the necessity of changing the socially and culturally thorny issues, this situation has definition of Islamic identity. Since change in itself means instilled distinctive qualities in viewers, making them more to move from point “A” to point “B,” everyone agreed accepting of the other, more capable of dialogue, and more on the necessity of moving from point “A,” but no one aware of various issues, which they can approach more specified the form and location of point “B!!” freely from an intellectual and critical position.
Instituting such a change within Islamic media is The third and most critical issue is gender relations necessary, given that the current state of Islamic media and the woman’s social situation. Both the Salafi and describes precisely what is at odds with our current Arab moderate parties somehow approach this issue similarly identity. It is often heavily influences by Westernization to a certain extent, but not because they have overcome in as far as outer appearance, language and the nature intellectual differences. Rather, they tend to concur of the relationship between opposite genders. The because the majority of these channels are funded by [obsessive] rejection of these Western topics has shaped Saudi money, which clearly imposes a cultural perception the programming style of the Islamic channels. Each of infused by Saudi society on this aspect. Thus, the two these themes is dealt with according to the network’s own sides agree on forbidding all relations between men and women outside of marriage, and oppose the intermingling of the two sexes. However, the two parties differ in how Naturally, the Salafi trend has been to categorically reject they define and criminalize the mixing of genders. The the Westernized ideas of physical appearance, language Salafi trend rests on completely complete rejection of the and gender roles, and instead establish textual evidence presence of women on the screen. The moderate trend to criminalize those responsible for perpetrating them in allows their presence and some types of impersonal, not the media. Their long-standing focus on the traditional private interactions between women and men, such as trends of Islamic clothing and beards, among other issues, working and studying together. The restrictions imposed further reinforces their anti-Western bias. Therefore, these by the moderate and more popular trend has made the channels have clearly established how they will portray viewers of these channels more accepting of cross-gender their premises: the moderate trend has selectively adopted interactions, and encourages a more active participation some products of Westernization, only criminalizing those of women both on these channels and in other activities that refer to viewers’ daily life practices and ethical issues. generated by their coverage, such as philanthropic and civil For example, the moderate trend does not criticize wearing work – most notably obvious in the Life Makers project, jeans except when they are a tight-fit and “low-wasted,” created by Amr Khaled. Indeed, it is believed that the Life thereby revealing a person’s undergarments. Besides that Makers project has significantly contributed to the recent exception, the majority of young presenters on these revolutionary movement witnessed throughout the Arab channels can be seen wearing trendy, international clothing world. brands. This moderate trend portrays the channels as being consistent with the Arab and Western street scene.
These media policies have been reflected in important areas of the current situation of Islamic media. The On the subjects of language and literature, the Salafi moderate trend appears to be more widespread and trend has generally maintained the usage of classical Arabic influential, despite the fact that it does not characterize [fusha], and remained committed to the predominant most Islamic media outlets. This trend is barely represented usage of religious texts over intellectual expositions and by three channels, and is beginning to diminish within these treatises. Therefore, programs based on the interpretation three due to pressure from the Saudi financiers of those and explanations of written script have been dominant, as networks. Nevertheless, the biggest reason these moderate opposed to intellectual shows focused on personal debates channels thrive and enjoy wide viewership is because they and justifications. Consequently, the argumentative and present religious programs and regularly appear on non- (1) Susan B. Epstein and Lisa Mages, “Public Diplomacy: A Review of Past recom-mendations”, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, October 31, 2005(2) For example one excellent scholar has written a superb book on USIA that pays very little attention to field operations: Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States information Agency, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)(3) Pew Research Center, “Confidence in Obama Lifts U.S. Image Around the World”, research report July 23, 2009, http://pewglobal.og/reports(4) Testimony of Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, March 4, 2010, Jan Melissen, “The New Public Diplomacy”, in Jan Melissen, Ed, The New Public Diplomacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p.24.
(7) Kristin Lord, “Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century, Washington DC: Brookings, November 2008, pp.18-23.
(8) For example Wiliam P. Kiehl, “The Case for Localized Public Diplomacy”, in Nancy Snow and Philip M. Taylor, Eds. Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, New York: Routledge 2009, pp.212-24, and Mike Canning, “The Overseas Post: The Forgotten Element of our Public Diplomacy”, Washington DC: Public Diplo-macy Council, 2008, religious channels. For example, the presence of Amr Khaled on channels such as Al-Mihwar, Ahmad al-Shukairi and Sheikh Salman al-Oadah on MBC, and Dr. Mohammed al-Oraifi on LBC has moved the Islamic discourse to new areas beyond strictly Islamic channels, which typically have limited viewership. In the shade of the revolutionary movements we are witnessing in the region, it is expected that the Islamic media discourse will play a major role in constructing the new Arab identity – though whether it will be the moderate or existing Salafist trend that will formulate this new identity, Islam will remain the true foundation of Arab character, and will have the final say in Ahmed Abu Haiba is the founder of 4shbab, the first Islamic Musical Channel targeting Youth in the whole world, and the General Manager at “Al Tahrir TV,” a channel established following the latest revolution in Egypt. Mr. Abu Haiba gave a speech on “Innovation in the Arab Media” at Georgetown University and was a participant in CNBC’s “Executive Vision” series. Perspectives is a monthly opinion piece authored by leading practitioners and academics in the fields of public diplomacy and Arab media. The publication provides a forum to contextualize and analyze salient topics, concepts and developments that are of interest to the public diplomacy community as well as to Arab media followers. The views expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Layalina Productions, Inc.
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