Hagar Saadeddin: A reflective pioneer
In the feverish media race to draw audiences using religion, Hagar Saadeddin steers Egypt's "Network of the Holy Qur'an" on a course of moderation and relevance to everyday life
The photo-shop vendor snipped away at the unwanted edges of the pictures he had just produced out of a digital camera.
The radio behind him was tuned to the channel of the "Holy Qur'an" -- a round-the-clock national network relaying recitations of the Qur'an interspersed with programmes in which the central theme is Islam and its different branches (doctrine, interpretation and jurisprudence). "I have it tuned in day and night, actually," said the vendor. "The channel answers questions about religion and its relation to everyday life, and this is important to most people." Having showed some sign of recognising the name of Hagar Saadeddin, the woman who currently heads the channel, he added: "I do know that there's been a major shift in the network since she took over."
In her sparsely decorated office overlooking the Nile on the fifth floor of the Radio and Television Building in Maspero Street, Saadeddin took time out to give an interview on the eve of the month of Ramadan. She was carefully dressed in subtle hues, the browline of her slightly greying hair barely perceptible beneath her headscarf. A kindly, low-key presence, she manages some 120 employees at the state-run Network of the Holy Qur'an, which was launched to broadcast recitations of the Qur'an and commentary on the Holy Book and the Prophet's sayings ( hadith ). Under Saadeddin's leadership -- she took the helm in 1995 -- the channel has slowly edged away from strictly doctrinal issues to treat more worldly and contemporary topics. In addition to the theological experts from established religious institutions such as Al-Azhar who have long been its mainstay, it now frequently plays host to specialists from many fields in both the sciences and the humanities.
Taking stock of the many diverse aspects of religion does not, Saadeddin says, mean mixing them all up together. "We take care to maintain a strict distinction between different areas, such as religious doctrine, law, ethics and culture, and we invite specialised speakers on to our programmes accordingly."
When I visited her; there were no papers on her neatly arranged desk. All her documents had been stacked away in files as soon as she completed the task of coordinating the myriad programmes -- all of them quick, five-minute segments -- that are to be aired in Ramadan. The holy month is not only the busiest for the networks, it is also that which sees the keenest competition between them.
The phone on her desk rang almost incessantly. She received a call from a producer for the private satellite channel Al-Mihwar, inviting her to appear as a guest on one of it programmes. She declined courteously, saying that she'd be "very happy to appear on television for the audience", but that her schedule was too busy. She is aware of the challenges that are posed to her network by the satellite television channels propagating religion as their theme, funded with extensive resources from the Gulf, and which often resort to sensationalist methods to attract audiences -- hosting once glamorous and now repentant actresses who have given up their professions, and such like. She remains unperturbed. "The polls done by the Federation for Radio and Television have shown, year in year out, that the Holy Qur'an network is the most popular with listeners of all the national broadcasting channels." As for the satellite channels, she believes that even their competition may be countered by "concentrating on the quality rather than quantity of programmes. We also make them short, so as not to tax the listener, and always, always, tie the themes to people's everyday concerns."
The network never directly broaches political issues, yet is remarkably in tune with contemporary events. When media coverage of abuse of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison by US military personnel was at its height, and with the treatment of the prisoners of war in Guantanamo Bay still not far from her audience's memories, Saadeddin presented a programme on "the rights of prisoners of war in Islam". The guest speakers were specialists in Islamic jurisprudence and international humanitarian law, as well as a former POW. "We don't go into politics," she says, "or follow the direct approach of denouncing what happened in Abu Ghraib, or such like. We just show Islam's perspective on the matter and leave it to listeners to draw their own conclusions." In the wake of the 1997 Luxor tourist massacre, Saadeddin hosted a programme on the "status of foreigners in Islamic countries". This elaborated the fundamental principles in Islamic doctrine and law which govern the safety and lives of non- Muslims residing in Islamic communities.
As in every Ramadan, Saadeddin is presenting a special version of her programme "Women in Fiqh [Islamic theology]", tailored for the Holy month and revolving around different aspects of prayer and fasting. In the other months of the year, the programme -- a staple of the network ever since she took over -- addresses broader questions relating to women. This focus is no surprise: Saadeddin, who graduated from Al- Azhar University, prepared her PhD dissertation on "the rights and duties of women derived from the marriage contract in Islamic law."
In the race to keep listeners tuned in, the Holy Qur'an network has also started relaying regular news bulletins covering international and local events. During the US-led war on Iraq, the bulletin was broadcast every hour on the hour. At the onset of the war, adopting a typically indirect approach, Saadeddin chose to present a programme entitled, "Baghdad, its civilisation and history", highlighting the city's role in Islamic history and Iraq's role in the region.
The medium might appear orthodox, but the message is one of moderation, derived from rather than challenging both the principles of Islam and traditional interpretations of religion.
Saadeddin's appointment to the position she now holds was not a political one, she says, but part of the natural progression of her career in the national broadcasting service, where women have always been among the pioneers.
By the time she became first deputy director, then head of the network, she was already a veteran presenter on national radio's General Channel: the first woman to present specialised religious programmes dealing with Islamic law and family matters.
She was not the first woman to work for the Holy Qur'an network or present one of its programmes, however. "There was Fatemah Taher before me, as well as several other women," she stresses.
Despite her quiet and amiable appearance, Saadeddin is a true boss, managing some 120 employees. Not all of them were equally receptive to the idea of a woman occupying a position which until then had always been held by a man, she admits. In line with her training as a researcher, Saadeddin demanded of her staff strict discrimination as to which religious texts could be used in the preparation of their programmes. A department for reviewing texts was subsequently established.
"Presenters are directed never, for instance, to resort to a Tradition (Hadith) attributed to the Prophet which is classified as 'weak' or not certainly verified." Another guideline is "to keep up with contemporary developments and take into account the changes in historic and social context. The staff is directed to never simplistically measure issues by what happened during the time of the Prophet, as if nothing had changed between then and now."
Inevitably the conversation turned to Amr Khaled, the accountant-turned-religious preacher who currently hosts a programme on "Iqraa".
"He's good," said Saadeddin, "because he has brought religion home in an uncomplicated manner to a generation of young people who up till then were totally disinterested in the subject. How you deliver a message is very important." Why then does the state-owned media in which she works distance itself from Khaled? Some observers suspect the state of frowning on Khaled's popularity. She raises both hands, smiling. "No comment!" she says, then adds: "Our policy, after all, is to host only specialists and academics, and Khaled is neither."
The Holy Qur'an network has not addressed the ongoing controversy over unifying the call for prayer, a still-to-be implemented decision announced by the minister of waqf. "We don't scout opinions about something which is not yet clear," explains Saadeddin. "We don't know if such a decision will be implemented, or what the rationale behind it is exactly. How can there be a debate about something that has not yet been decided? This doesn't mean we don't approach controversial issues, or air views which are in opposition to one another."
The head of the syndicate of reciters of the Holy Qur'an, Sheikh Abul-Enein She'isha', had just been in to meet with her. One of the Islamic world's greatest living reciters, he sits on the committee headed by Saadeddin which approves the reciters whose recordings may be aired on the network. "We have approved only two new reciters in the course of the last two years," she says. "There's been a sharp decline in standards. I wish one could still find voices like those of (the late) Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat or Sheikh Ali Mahmoud."
The network also airs religious chants, ibtihalat, by famous performers such as Al- Naqshabandi and Al-Fayoumi throughout the day. This, again, is a direct outcome of Saadeddin's appreciation of the value of artistic expression for a network that had formerly and rather austerely abstained from these genres. During prime time, the Qur'anic recitations are restricted to the less-than-a-dozen great reciters, such as Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat, Sheikh Khalil Al-Husari and others. The network does not broadcast recordings by reciters from the Gulf states, opting instead to present the distinctively melodious style developed over the ages by Egypt's own Qur'anic reciters. But nor has it ever aired the famous and rare recordings of the legendary singer Um Kulthoum's recitations of certain Qur'anic verses. "We never thought of this before actually, but why not? It could be incorporated in a future plan," Saadeddin responds.
The Holy Qur'an network now enjoys a regional outreach, and has relayed prayers from Jerusalem, Damascus, Tunis, Rabat, Tashkent and Jakarta. Disseminated by NileSat, it now boasts an international audience of listeners in areas such as central Europe. "The idea of this cooperation and integration was inspired and encouraged by the interaction between our broadcasters and those from other Islamic countries when our staff used to go there themselves, and later when they were relayed through the satellite channels."
During Ramadan, it will often be after sunset when Saadeddin reaches home from the office. She lives with her three sons, in whom she has instilled an open mindedness along with a deep sense of religious values. Her husband died two years ago, a military engineer whom she loved and who she says always supported her in her studies and her career. She is not a gregarious person, describing herself as "reflective, preferring solitude". Her father, an engineer whose family were pioneers in the textiles industry, hails from Shebin Al-Kom in the Governorate of Menoufiya. "I don't want to say how many brothers and sisters I have. It would sound so much like a statement against family planning!"
She has aspirations for the network of the Holy Qur'an to eventually present a programme in English targeting foreign listeners both inside and outside Egypt. She sees Islam as "under attack" in the current circumstances and says that much of the negativity derives from ignorance of the religion and its principles.
"I don't think Islam should be put on the defensive, but there are misperceptions. We simply need to show what this religion is." Would an English broadcast be welcomed by the government? "I hope so," she says. "I know it will be by the listeners!"
By Aziza Sami