The role of religion in the Arab new media
In Egypt, the Islamist movement has always been excluded from state-controlled television as part of a wider strategy of isolating religion from popular programming. Islamists have been typically represented as hypocritical, corrupt, inept, and often buffoonish characters who are intolerant, sexually repressed and unproductive, and who never act in nation’s best interests. The Egyptian state-controlled media continues to promote this segregation, and yet Islam has now found not one but many places for itself, with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in the Arab world accompanied by an explosion in private, commercial television productions with Islamic themes.
This article is taken from a speech delivered by the author at the “Al Jazeera and the New Arab Media” conference, organized last May by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The representation of Islamists on state-controlled Egyptian television
In 1993, Lila Abu-Lughod published her foundational essay “Finding a Place for Islam: Egyptian Television Serials and the National Interest,” in which she examined the representation of Islamists and Islamist socio-political visions on state-controlled Egyptian television. Noting a general silence in Egyptian television programming on the Islamist movement as a modern alternative to the prevailing paradigm of secular Arab nationalism, she argued that this exclusion was part of a larger strategy of segregating religious from popular programming, a strategy that was meant to emphasize the irrelevance of religion to the public domains of political and economic development and social progress and responsibility. This silence on the Islamist presence in Egypt, she pointed out, was broken only to mock, and since the publication of this essay, several scholars have published studies in English on the negative, often derogatory portrayal of Islamist activists in Egyptian film and television. In these productions, Islamists are typically represented as hypocritical, corrupt, inept, often buffoonish characters who are intolerant, sexually repressed, unproductive and never have the nation’s best interest at heart.
The new Islamic media
Fifteen years later, the Egyptian state-controlled media still attempts to maintain this segregation—its well-publicized refusal to allow veiled female presenters to appear on its channels is an example of the continuation of this strategy. But Islam has now, of course, found not only a place but many places for itself, as the advent of transnational satellite television broadcasting in the Arab world has been accompanied by an explosion in private, commercial television productions with Islamic themes. Some of this programming appears on satellite variety channels, such as Dream, or news channels such as al-Jazeera, and some of it on channels devoted to explicitly Islamic content, such as Iqra, part of the ART network. There are many different genres of programming. There are debates on the news channels on the role of Islamism in Arab politics and social life. There are numerous programs devoted to hosting different sheikhs who respond to audience requests for fatwas, non-binding legal opinions, on specific matters concerning everyday life experiences and ritual practices. Some popular preachers, such as Amr Khaled and Dr. Abla Al-Kahlawy, have their own programs in which they relate the Quran and stories of the Prophet and the Companions to everyday, modern life in conversational, colloquial terms. Still other programs follow a talk-show format and explore current issues faced by the Arab-Muslim ummah, or transnational community. There are channels and programs devoted to teaching the disciplines of Quranic recitation, and finally, there is also a small but growing genre of Islamic-appropriate cultural and entertainment programming: historical dramas, music videos, and fashion and life-style programs.
One salient feature of this new Islamic media is the growing presence of veiled female performers and presenters. In the 1980s and 1990s major figures of the Islamic revival urged the repentance and retirement of female stars and urged audiences to avoid mainstream popular entertainment. In contrast, the past few years have witnessed the veiling of stars or newscasters who have not retired but continued to work, as well as the return of formally retired female stars to the satellite television screen, appearing in Islamic-appropriate dress as hosts of talk show programs, actresses in television serials, and singers in music videos. Likewise, some popular satellite television religious preachers promote the arts as an important aspect of Islamic moral and educational upbringing and civilization and they encourage young people to use their artistic skills productively for the sake of the Muslim ummah.
The music video and the fatwa program
For the remainder of the paper I’ll be pointing to some of the issues raised by the proliferation of representations and discussions of Islam and Islamism in the satellite realm, and in particular I want to point to the importance of two genres that we have not yet dealt with today in our discussions of new Arab media that I think are really definitive of this new Arab satellite realm: the music video and the fatwa program. I point to these two genres in particular, in the first place, because their presence is enormous: the last time I was in Cairo, I counted around 15 channels devoted entirely to the broadcast of music videos on Nile Sat, and music videos are also frequently broadcast on variety channels; likewise, the fatwa program has become ubiquitous on both variety and Islamic channels. The second reason is that these two genres have been the subject of a great deal of controversy in the pan-Arab press. And finally, these two genres point to an alternative understanding of the public sphere that is different than that which is usually associated with discussions of the Arabic satellite news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah.
Habermas’ concept of the public sphere is predicated on the participation of rational actors engaged in reasoned argumentation and the substantiation of truth claims. Many scholars have productively critiqued Habermas’ assumptions about how the public sphere is structured, who can participate in it and how this participation takes place, but most scholars tend to define, with Habermas, the public sphere as a discursive space, one of discussion, debate and deliberation. This has been the case with many scholars of Arab media; Marc Lynch, for example, in his book Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, writes: “What makes the new Arab public “new” is the omnipresent political talk shows, which transform the satellite television stations into a genuinely unprecedented carrier of public argument. What makes it “Arab” is a shared collective identity through which speakers and listeners conceive of themselves as participating in a single, common political project. What makes it a “public sphere” is the existence of contentious debates, carried out by and before this self-defined public, oriented toward defining these shared interests.”
It is this understanding of the public sphere as defined by debate that structures Lynch’s contention, for example, that the Islamist presence, in particular its more radical manifestations, are actually quite marginal to this new Arab public sphere. I want to point to an alternative understanding of the public sphere, one that helps us to think about the role played by the two genres I highlighted earlier—the fatwa program and the music video—as well as other programming that does not readily fit into the mold of “deliberation” and yet nevertheless seems constitutive of the new Arab satellite media: Al-Jazeera’s images of civilian suffering in Palestine and Iraq, al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups’ carefully crafted video messages, Amr Khaled’s colloquial rendering of the Prophet’s life, the presence of veiled female actresses and presenters. This alternative understanding of the public sphere, put forth by scholars such as Nilüfer Göle and Alev Çinar — whose work primarily centers on issues of gender, modernity, and Islamism in Turkey — articulates the public sphere as a space constituted by representation, display, and performance of subjectivity, rather than discursive argumentation and debate. In an article entitled “Islam in Public: New Visibilities and New Imaginaries,” Göle writes: “[I]n non-Western contexts, the public sphere provides a stage for the didactic performance of the modern subject in which the non-verbal, corporeal, and implicit aspects of social imaginaries are consciously and explicitly worked out. Because the public sphere provides a stage for performance rather than an abstract frame for textual and discursive practices, the ocular aspect in the creation of significations and the making of social imaginaries becomes of utmost importance. Social imaginaries are carried by images. The body, as a sensorial and emotional register, links the implicit nonverbal practices and learned dispositions (namely habitus) into a public visibility and conscious meaning. Public visibility refers to the techniques of working from inside out, transforming implicit practices into observable and audible ones.”
Note here that although Göle clearly privileges sight, the image, the last sentence suggests that soundscapes are also constitutive of the public sphere. This alternative description of the public sphere as a space of embodied, visual social practice and representation helps us to understand why the Egyptian government, for instance, has gone to great lengths to control not only discussions about, but also the representations of Islam and Islamism that appear in state-controlled media. Indeed, contests over the symbolic, the public display of Islam, were of central concern to nationalists in the early twentieth century who circulated images of progress and modernity that sought to exclude Islamic conceptualizations of selfhood and communal identity from the public sphere — Walter Armbrust and Alev Çinar, for example, have analyzed images of the beach as the quintessential space of modern, bourgeois life that appeared in popular magazines in the first half of the twentieth century in this context. Just as Talal Asad points out in Formations of the Secular that “the introduction of new discourses may result in the disruption of established assumptions structuring debates in the public sphere,”, so, it would follow, that the display of new images, new symbolic representations would disrupt existing social practices and performative identities. It comes as no surprise then that contests over symbolic representation have been one of the most salient features of the confrontations between secular governments such as Turkey and Egypt since the rise of Islamism in the 1970s — hence the disruptive power of the veil in spaces marked as secular-modern: the university, the parliament, the media; hence, also, the repeated attacks by popular Islamist preachers against secular entertainment industries and their stars.
The Islamic pop
This alternative description of the public sphere as a space of embodied, visual social practice and representation thus helps us to think about the significant satellite television representations or public displays of Islam that do not fit the mold of “deliberative,” but that clearly animate and structure audiences’ experiences of new Arab satellite media. The expansion of Arab satellite production and reception in the last decade has, as I mentioned a few moments ago, given rise to new spaces to publicly practice and articulate Islam and Islamism, and the fatwa program and the music video are two examples of genres which have proliferated in the public space opened up by satellite television. The genre of Islamic pop — what Martin Stokes and has dubbed “Green pop” — became well-known in the Arab world through the music video of a young British Muslim recording artist of Azeri origin, Sami Yusuf. Yusuf’s first album, entitled al-Muallim, or The Teacher, referring of course to the Prophet Muhammad, was released in 2003.
A music video of the title track was shot in Egypt, and it was aired for the first time on the Egyptian-owned music satellite television station Melody during Ramadan 2004. Around the same time, Sami Yusuf appeared on the television show of the popular Egyptian Amr Khaled, one of the new wave of television preachers who encourages youth to create Islamic-appropriate art. Yusuf became an instant success in the urban centers of Egypt and the Arab world among a wide-cross section of audience members, Islamist-identified or otherwise, who embraced his music as a welcome alternative to the increasingly scandalous youth-oriented music broadcast on most Arab music television channels. What many audiences seemed to like about the music video itself was its representation of devout Islamic piety merged with images of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and modern upper middle class young man whose everyday activities, his social interactions with family and community members, even his profession as a photographer are directed towards serving God through following the Prophet’s teachings. Religious piety, art, and the technological trappings of modernity converge in this video to create an image of Islam that animates and contributes productively to social life in the public sphere, yet that is still in harmony with the modern world.
Yusuf’s video, which has been followed by several others from both his first album and the second one, My Ummah, which appeared in fall 2005, seems to have started a trend among pop singers, as if once it was proven that a market did indeed exist for Islamic-appropriate cultural entertainment, others were inspired by (or more cynically perhaps, decided to capitalize on) his success. More and more “family-values” style music videos have appeared on music satellite channels in the past few years, as well as music videos with explicitly Islamic themes — and these are broadcast not only during the month of Ramadan or around the time of the major religious holidays, but throughout the year. And Islamist producers are showing enthusiasm for the creation of similar cultural and entertainment programming. I want to point to one music video that was harshly criticized because many people saw it as capitalizing on this wave of Islamic pop in a very exploitative and commercial way.
This is Haytham Sa‘id’s 2005 video “Humma Malhum Bina Ya Layl” (What Have They to Do with Us?) directed by Sharif Sabry, who also promotes and directs the videos of one of the most controversial of the new generation of female pop singers — Ruby, whose dancing, provocative clothing, and suggestive song lyrics have scandalized many and disgusted others with their perceived poor taste and degradation of moral values. This video and song—which is typical Arab pop love song, with no reference to Islam or family values—portrayed the singer cavorting on Cairo’s famous Qasr al-Nil bridge with his fashionably veiled sweetheart. While some saw this as a welcome gesture towards the reality of youth culture in contemporary Cairo, in which most young women are veiled, many dressed in the latest trendy styles of veiled fashion, others decried this depiction of a veiled young woman hanging out with her lover at night on the bridge as totally un-Islamic, and they resented what they saw as the stripping of the spiritual and ethical qualities associated with the veil to a mere fashion symbol. I mention this video as an example of the kind of controversies that erupt due to these new symbolic displays of Islam in the public sphere.
A brief word about the fatwa programs—in which an Islamic religious personality, who may or may not have authority bestowed by an institution, issues a legal opinion on a matter of ritual practice or on everyday social interactions. These programs are generally structured so that the religious personality answers the telephone calls or email queries of individual viewers—but since these questions are asked in a public space this conveys the sense that the question is of import not just to the individual questioner but the Muslim community at large. Many of the questions revolve around issues concerning sexuality, the body, and mixed gender relationships, and the answers are, not surprisingly, often viewed as controversial, regardless of the institutional authority of the person issuing the fatwa. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali ‘Gumaa, for example, has issued several controversial fatwas in the past year, most recently one concerning the permissibility of hymen reconstruction. These fatwas are so controversial I think, precisely because there is an assumption that this advice will be taken seriously by many “who don’t know better” — that representations of Islamic shari‘a articulated by these religious personalities will be translated into performative social practice. So opponents of particular fatwas voice vehement condemnations of how such and such a ruling tarnishes the nation’s image, misrepresents Islam, leads people into misguiding understandings of their religion, etc.
By way of conclusion I want to emphasize that I don’t think the two different conceptualizations of the public sphere that I’ve pointed to today are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that controversies over symbolic displays of Islam in the public sphere illustrate how deeply intertwined they often are. I would argue that to a significant degree, contemporary debates concerning religion’s place in social and political life all over the Arab world concern the representation and display of religion in the public sphere and how these representations are constitutive of everyday social and political practice. So we ought not to examine the impact of the new Arab media only in terms of how debates that take place within it have or have not transformed particular social or political institutions, but also in terms of how production and reception of new symbolic representations in the new media are constitutive of performed social practices and subjectivities.