Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2010
Issue No. 988
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Screens to heaven'

More and more conservative religious channels are appearing on the small screen, changing the way people consume religion, writes Mohamed El-Sayed

One of the figures of Al-Nas channel promoting unorthodox opinions

One of the figures of Al-Nas channel promoting unorthodox opinions

Twenty minutes to ten in the evening in Studio No. 6 in the Media Production City in 6 October governorate on the outskirts of Cairo. The heavily bearded, turbaned preacher Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub reviews final instructions about the positions of the cameras with the director before he goes on air on the religious satellite channel Al-Nas. At 10pm, images of a turbulent, dark blue sea and a tear-stained face appear on the screen against the background of a religious song, heralding the beginning of the popular "Fadfada" show.

Ensconced in his tiny mud-brick grocery shop in the small village of Al-Qarnashawi in Beheira 200km from Cairo 22- year-old and lightly bearded Ahmed Mustafa is glued to the screen of his TV set, tuned to his favourite religious show. The camera pans and settles on Yaqoub's face. "How is the state of your relationship with God today?" asks the lay preacher after a long introduction replete with prayers.

The topic of the show is death, to the delight of Mustafa. "I used to lead a life of sin, watching obscene movies and committing immoral acts," he says. "Watching religious channels, and especially this series about death, has changed my life," he adds. "Having watched several episodes of this series on Al-Nas, I feel that the sheikh is talking to me, telling me that death is at the door," Mustafa says.

For over four years now, Mustafa has been a loyal viewer of the religious satellite channels that flooded onto the small screen in the past few years. For decades, religious preaching in the Egyptian media was confined to a few specialised religious newspapers and magazines mostly issued by state- affiliated establishments like Al-Azhar or programmes aired by the state-run Holy Quran Radio Station. In addition, there were audio- and video-cassette tapes containing religious sermons given by Islamic scholars and lay preachers, as well as a small number of TV shows aired on the state TV channels.

However, with the proliferation of satellite channels in the Arab world in the 1990s, hitting more than 300 channels in 2009 and mostly owned by businessmen, and as Arab satellite broadcasting began to offer unparalleled opportunities for media businesses and advertisers, broadcasters began to think about launching specialised religious channels to cater to the growing number of pious people in the Arab world.

Amidst such favourable circumstances, a host of religious channels were launched over the last decade. The most popular were launched by Saudi businessmen. The first, Iqraa, was launched by the Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel in 1998 as part of the ART satellite television network. Saudi businessman Prince Walid bin Talal then launched Al-Resala in 2006 as part of the Rotana satellite network, and Saudi businessman Mansour bin Kadsa followed suit the same year by launching Al-Nas in 2005, which started as an entertainment channel broadcasting Arab pop songs and the interpretation of dreams, and afterwards was converted into a religious channel.

Apparently the resounding success of Al-Nas as a religious channel persuaded the businessman to convert another entertainment channel he owns, Al-Khalijia, into a religious station as well.

A SCREEN WILL LEAD YOU TO HEAVEN: This is the slogan that appears on a small sticker on the seat of a Cairo bus. It refers to the television channel Al-Nas, giving the station as the source of religious knowledge that will lead people to enter Paradise and including a photograph of the Salafi preacher Yaqoub.

The rise of conservative Islam in Egypt since the second half of the 1970s, due to Egyptians working in the Gulf bringing home with them that region's brand of puritanical religious thought, provided favourable circumstances for the flourishing of religious channels. "The decision to turn Al-Nas from a channel broadcasting songs and the interpretation of dreams into a religious channel came after viewers asked us to do so," says Atef Abdel-Rashid, a pioneer of religious satellite channels and founder of the Al-Nas, Al-Khalijia, Al-Baraka and Al-Hafez channels.

Abdel-Rashid believes that, "the sources of religious knowledge were limited before the emergence of the religious channels. Listening to the Holy Quran Radio Station, a sermon at a mosque, or a 10-minute daily programme on state TV were the only sources of religious knowledge." He adds that, "the religious stations have presented new sheikhs and lay preachers in new shapes, and that's why people have been attracted to them."

The emergence of the religious satellite channels could be seen as an attempt by Saudi businessmen to capitalise on the growing tide of Salafism in the Arab world, or a desire by Salafi preachers, who have gained popularity through their sermons in mosques, to reach out to a wider audience.

"The Salafists have taken a great interest in the satellite media, seeing it as one of the most effective platforms for building a direct relationship with their audience. The image interacts with the language, producing a high level of communication," says Hossam Tammam, researcher and expert in the Islamist groups' affairs. "For the owners of the channels, the preachers have served as a golden opportunity to attract viewers to the religious channels, since they already enjoyed popularity before appearing on these stations."

While some observers believe that the rise of the religious channels is a predictable result of a free-market economy, others think that the Egyptian government has sought to encourage the Salafi current in order to act as a counterweight to the country's largest Islamist opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that many of the religious channels are headquartered in Egypt and transmit via the state-owned satellite NileSat gives some credence to this supposition.

All the channels need a licence from the authorities and work under the umbrella of the Ministry of Investment in the Free Media Zone in 6 October governorate. "Contrary to our expectations, the government did not object to the establishment of the channels, and astonishingly it has not interfered with our work," says Abdel-Rashid.

Critics of the religious channels accuse them of keeping away from discussing people's daily problems. "The new preachers who appear on the religious satellite channels focus on attracting the audience by programmes about morals and behaviour, without dealing with the problems of the nation under the pretext of keeping away from politics. This is because they have a list of taboo subjects from the official media and the security establishment," says Montasser El-Zayyat, a lawyer for Islamist groups.

However, in reply Abdel-Rashid says that, "religion, not politics, is our business. If we decided to discuss politics on the religious channels, Arab governments would not be happy with us." He adds that, "opposition forces might make use of the channels to criticise governments. We're only concerned with indoctrinating people in religion. When one of our clerics touched upon political issues, we notified him that it was prohibited."

Abdel-Rashid says that, "we agree with the government on about 90 per cent of issues, and we disagree with it on 10 per cent of issues. We have decided not to debate those 10 per cent of issues."

A RINGTONE WILL LEAD YOU TO HEAVEN: "Call 1748 from any mobile, or 0900 0341 from any landline, and download a ringtone for your mobile phone that will lead you to heaven," runs a commercial made by Al-Nas. The cost of one download is as cheap as LE1.5. While most religious channels have adopted the "spreading of Islam and the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Prophet" in their mission statements, they fail to mention that they are also meant to make a profit.

In fact, revenues generated from interactive services like downloading "Islamic" ringtones and logos are the main sources of the profits of these channels. Al-Nas, for example, has gone so far as to use the voices of its preachers saying prayers, transforming them into ringtones that can be downloaded for a small charge.

Generating profits from interactive tools is not limited to downloads. Innovative means have also been developed to increase revenues from television viewers. "Pray for me so that my daughter can get back her good health, Sheikh Mahmoud," read an SMS sent by Ibrahim Gad from Cairo that appeared on the ticker running across Al-Nas's screen during lay preacher Mahmoud El-Masry's Fadfada programme. A prayer following Gad's SMS read, "May God cure your daughter and all Muslim patients afflicted by disease."

Running commercials that take as long as an hour and that are mostly presented by bearded presenters is another profit- generating tool. Commercials range from goods like crystal vessels and luxurious sheets to cups and chinaware. Tickers bearing information about products can also be seen at the bottom of the screens of most of the channels.

While some commentators see this as an abuse of religion for worldly purposes, the owners of the channels think otherwise. "I don't find anything wrong in financing religious channels from the revenues of call-ins and SMSs or even from commercials," retorts Abdel-Rashid.

"The monthly budget of a religious channel is estimated at hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pounds, and these have to be covered. Multinational companies and well-known brands do not broadcast commercials on our screens, so we have to use such tools to generate money," he says, adding that the annual budget of a religious channel ranges from LE3 to LE40 million.

While the religious channels seek revenues by broadcasting such commercials, they also host people promoting alternative medicine and "Prophetic Medicine" as remedies for incurable diseases. Adel Abdel-Aal, for many months hosted by the Al-Nas and Al-Khalijia channels and advertised as a doctor specialising in alternative medicine, was stopped by the prosecutor-general from appearing on TV in March 2008, since he had no qualification to practise medicine.

FATWA FALLACIES: Asked by the presenter for his view on the reasons behind the emergence of swine flu, the heavily bearded doctor was quick to give an answer. "Swine flu started in Mexico because it, like the United States, produces pornography and because it raises millions of pigs, whose meat God has forbidden us to eat." He added that, "eating pork in general causes cancer, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and hundreds of other diseases."

Apart from the customary calls of divine retribution that viewers hear from fulminating sheikhs on religious channels, a quick glance at the content of the religious edicts on the channels reveals the extent to which these stations adopt an illogical approach to religion. One of the religious edicts broadcast on one of the channels made it impermissible for a naked woman to stand in front of a male dog, for example.

By its nature, Salafism sticks to the practices of the Prophet and his companions, namely the Salaf. Yet modern Salafis take a stance against other cultures, especially Western culture, and therefore many of the fatwas, or religious rulings, issued on the channels demonise the West. "What we see in the West is not civilisation. It is only technology," said one lay preacher who appeared surrounded by hundreds of followers in a sermon on the West aired by the Al-Hidaya channel. "The West lacks morals, so it does not have [real] civilisation. How can they have a civilisation while they allow gay marriages?" the preacher asked.

For Salafis, who tend to interpret the Quran literally, there are no grey areas. The world is divided into infidels and believers, and the West clearly lies in the former category. Therefore, dialogue with the "other" is unlikely to take place, at least in theory. Some Salafis accuse non-Salafi preachers of compromising their principles in order to gain fame or influence. In a recent speech, a popular Salafi cleric mocked the "artist" Amr Khaled, for example, when Khaled is in fact a non-Salafi preacher.

The puritanical religious discourse adopted by the preachers has also ruffled the feathers of the scholars at Al-Azhar in Cairo, the seat of moderate Sunni Islam. "The problem with these channels is that they have imported and promoted austere versions and schools of Islam that do not have roots in most Arab countries, and especially do not have roots in Egypt," said Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of the religious edicts committee at Al-Azhar. "These schools -- the Hanbali, Wahabi and Ibn Taimia schools -- were suitable for certain places and certain times," he added.

Qotb accuses the channels of promoting unorthodox opinions and edicts that cause confusion among audiences. "The [Salafi] preachers seek sensationalism in issuing strange edicts based on weak opinions, and these have caused confusion," he says. Qotb also warns against the possible negative impacts of watching programmes featuring Salafi preachers. "They should take care, given that their programmes are watched by young people and children, and they should be careful about what they say," he adds.

What gives credence to Qotb's views is the fact that attempts to adopt a "modern" approach to religion on the channels is received with contempt by the Salafi preachers. Because of famous preacher Amr Khaled's relatively modern approach to preaching, Salafi sheikhs appearing on the Al-Nas channel, like Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub and Abu Ishaq Al-Howeini, threatened to boycott the channel when it hosted Khaled on one of its programmes in 2007.

Salafi preachers who have influence over the content aired by channels like Al-Nas, Al-Baraka and Al-Rahma are against the "modern" approach to religion adopted by preachers like Khaled because Salafism places a strong emphasis on mimicking the pious ancestors. While they categorically reject Western styles of dress, for example, Salafis view the manners of the Prophet, wearing a long beard for example, as a constant reminder of their commitment that will help them to avoid sin. Such choices are reflected visually on the Salafi stations, where preachers wear long beards and the same type of clothing that the first generations of Muslims would have worn.

SCREENING WOMEN OFF: Fully veiled presenter Omayma Taha enters the studio of Al-Hafez dressed in black. The director sets up the camera, and lights are directed onto the chair that Taha will sit on before her appearance on air in her "Ayat wa Akhawat" programme. All the men leave the set, as they should not be in the same room as a woman, according to Salafi thought.

Taha was perhaps the first woman to appear on a television channel wearing the niqab, or complete face and body covering. Her clothing reflects Salafi views on gender relations and the impermissibility of men and women being present together.

Abdel-Rashid does not find any problem in Taha's appearance on the screen, arguing that priority is given to the content of the programme rather than to her appearance. "Other channels give female presenters the opportunity to wear revealing clothes on the screen. Religious channels gave an opportunity to women wearing the niqab to appear on the screen," he says.

"These women are part and parcel of society. The appearance of the presenters was a response to the demands of numerous female viewers, who asked the channel's administration to put female, rather than male, presenters on, so that they might not be seduced by the appearance of men," he points out.

Other channels, like Al-Nas, have adopted a stricter approach towards women by excluding female presenters from the airwaves. The channel got rid of its female presenters under pressure from Salafi figures like Mohamed Hassan and Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub, who believe that women ought not to appear on TV. One of the staunchest critics of female presenters on TV is Abu Ishaq Al-Howeini, a Salafi sheikh taught by leading Salafi figures like Saudi sheikhs Abdel-Aziz bin Baz and Ibn Othaimin and the Jordanian sheikh Mohamed Nasreddin Al-Albani. Al-Howeini has stipulated that no woman should appear on the screen of any of the channels affiliated with Al-Nas. He believes that a woman, even if fully veiled, could be seductive.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE? "Why don't our honourable [moderate] preachers and intellectuals combat Salafi preachers who call for narrow-mindedness? Why don't they combat the chaos of religious channels and new preachers who issue fatwas without having necessary religious knowledge?" wondered President Hosni Mubarak last week during his speech on the occasion of the Prophet Mohamed's Birthday.

Yet the pioneer of the religious satellites, Abdel-Rashid, believes that they contribute much to the stability of society. "I have met many senior government officials and told them that they should thank and support the religious channels because we have played an important role in making poor people content with their lives. The religious channels counter the influence of the extravagant ways of living broadcast by the entertainment channels. Our preachers advise the poor to remain contented with their lives and to seek compensation in the hereafter."

The popularity of the religious channels is undoubtedly on the rise. "We can measure our popularity from the thousands of call-ins and SMSs swamping the programmes," Abdel-Rashid says. "You also find cafés switching to the religious channels when they turn on the TV," he adds.

Abdel-Rashid believes that the religious satellite channels will continue to multiply, but that they will also become more specialised. "The market has reached saturation point as far as sermonising programmes are concerned. The audience for the religious channels wants new programmes. However, demand for religious programmes will increase, especially among the younger generations," he says.

"The future is for more specialised channels: one channel specialising in religious edicts, another in Quran recital, another in the Sunna, or women's issues. Al-Hafez will branch out into one channel for reciting the Quran, another for explaining it, a third for the Sunna, etc," he adds.

A survey conducted by the Egyptian Radio and TV Union in 2007 showed that Al-Nas was then the most-viewed channel in Egypt, coming ahead of the Egyptian Satellite Channel and the Egyptian First Channel. Another survey conducted by Egyptian TV showed that 38 per cent of those interviewed watched Al-Nas, while the Egyptian Satellite channel only received 19 per cent of viewers.

Observers have sounded alarm bells about the possible negative impacts of such conservative religious channels. "The government has dealt with the religious channels from a purely commercial, security perspective," says Tammam.

"Any businessman can launch a religious channel as long as it does not talk about politics. This is a superficial approach. The government has not objected to the mushrooming of the channels because they help distract people from political opposition to the government. This is made crystal clear by their content, which is devoid of any political discourse and is concerned only with religious rituals."

Tammam also believes that audiences are now suffering from a flood of religious discourse. "Without a shadow of doubt, there will be negative consequences on people's behaviour as a result of the mushrooming of these channels. The prevailing conservative Islam will ultimately lead to the erosion of moderate Islam, which is the Egyptian tradition, as well as to the decline of the official religious establishments. This could affect the religious coherence that Egypt has always enjoyed."

TOO LATE TO ACT? "I can confidently tell you that there are people in every home who are influenced by the religious channels," says Abdel-Rashid. "I can also tell you that numerous women wear the veil or the niqab as a result of watching the religious channels. This impact can be measured through the thousands of daily call-ins, SMSs and questions posed to preachers on the channels," he adds.

Abdel-Rashid's remarks have the ring of truth about them, especially as the sound of Quranic recitals emerges from almost every house in the Al-Qarnashawi village. One hardly sees a woman in the village who is not wearing a black niqab. "All the members of my family watch the religious channels throughout the day," a fully veiled woman says. "For many years we have yearned to see a channel that caters to our religious needs and through which we can communicate with our favourite sheikhs," she adds.

"These channels have changed our lives and even our children's lives," she said with an eye on the TV screen tuned to the Al-Nas channel.

"Yes, I do like the religious channels very much, and I follow what is said in the programmes dedicated for children as well," says her eight-year-old daughter. No wonder the little girl is cloaked in a black niqab.

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