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Salafi satellite TV in Egypt

Issue 8, Spring 2009

By Nathan Field and Ahmed Hamam

Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Hassan preaching on al-Rahma

Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Hassan preaching on al-Rahma

According to conventional wisdom in Western media, an ultra-conservative form of Islam is gaining traction in Egypt, pushing aside other moderate interpretations and threatening the country’s cosmopolitan nature.[1]  Often cited as evidence of this trend are popular “Salafi” satellite television stations, which since 2006 have been licensed to operate inside the country.  While religious television is not new in Egypt, traditionally stations have focused on prayer recitation or readings from the Qur’an.  Since 2006, however, roughly corresponding with the Muslim Brotherhood’s capture of a fifth of the seats in the 2005 Parliamentary elections, several new stations have been founded that focus on preaching from a more puritanical perspective that does not emphasize politics.  Many Egyptian experts such as Khalil Anani believe that these stations are the most watched in Egypt.[2]

Since the Egyptian government does not allow the more politically-active Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) to base their own satellite stations in the country, some critics claim that this is part of a strategy to cultivate Salafism as a counterweight to the Brotherhood.  According to Egyptian novelist and cultural commentator Alaa Aswany, “the political quietism of the Salafis and their injunctions to always obey the ruler are too good an opportunity for established Arab rulers to pass up,” adding that Salafism is “a kind of Christmas present for the dictators because now they can rule with both the  army and the religion.”[3]

Yet outside of these dramatic claims – usually made by non-Islamists writing in opposition newspapers – there has been little in-depth study of the issue, and nothing in English.  We attempt to rectify this situation by addressing two questions: To what extent, if any, is the popularity of Salafi television a reflection of the rise of a distinctly more puritanical form of Islamism in Egypt?  And to what extent, if any, are these stations a tool in a competition between Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood?  We base our study on extensive interviews with Egyptian and American experts, a survey of the available written Arabic language material and our personal viewing of the stations. [4]   Given our research limitations, [5] we do not believe that the presence and popularity of Salafi television is causing Egyptians to become more conservative in their religious beliefs nor is it part of a government strategy of cultivating Salafism as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, as Aswany claims.  Rather, its popularity is best viewed, mundanely, as reflecting a logical shift towards more puritanical interpretations of religion, across broad segments of society, in response to specific economic, cultural and political developments.

Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Before going any further, we must distinguish between these two trends.  Like any Arab political movement, Islamism must be understood in its proper historical context.  The central question of modern Egyptian intellectual thought is how to deal with a decline made clear by French and British occupations and subsequent Western hegemony over the country.  Non-Islamists generally viewed these developments through the lens of imperialism against weak states and therefore advocated adopting the tools of Western strength to propel Egypt forward.  Islamists, however, have a much different interpretation of what went wrong and what to do about it.  In their perspective, Egypt declined precisely because Islam, the system which governed the country for a thousand years, was marginalized at the expense of inferior Western ideas.  Their approach to reform is to re-Islamicize society and rid it of what they consider corrupting Western influences such as secularism.[6]  Islamists agree on this general end goal but what distinguishes movements is their strategy for achieving it.

The difference between the Salafis and the Ikhwan is “a matter of degree rather than a sharp divide,” explains Marc Lynch, an American professor of Arab politics.  He describes the Muslim Brotherhood, which since its founding in Egypt in 1928 has been the most influential reform movement, as “highly pragmatic, not particularly textual, and focused on carving out deep Islamic spaces in society through deep participation in society.”[7]  The Brotherhood’s approach can be described as comprehensive because it uses all of the tools at its disposal to bring about reform, including politics.  Close to the Ikhwan are independent Islamists such as the cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, intellectuals Fahmy Howedi and Tariq al-Bishri, and the preacher Amr Khalid who may disagree over details but generally follow the same strategy of Islamization through deep engagement in society.  Members of this group often describe themselves as adherents to Wasatiya, a term popularized in the 1980s by Qaradawi to describe an Islamic centrism positively distinguished from more conservative Islamists and violent groups like al-Qaeda.

Salafism is an alternative reform trend that emerges from the same 20th century context of reform and revival.  Traditionally, the term refers to those who want contemporary society to be reordered based on the model set by the Prophet and his companions – the Salaf.  On this basis, all Islamists can be considered Salafis.  However, in a newer formulation that seems to be gaining currency in the last five years,[8] Salafism has come to describe a more puritanical alternative to the Brotherhood that emphasizes study of the Qur’an and scrupulous imitation of the personal characteristics of the Salaf.

In comparison to the Brotherhood, Lynch describes Salafism as “far more interested in textualism, focused on Islam for its own sake, and much more concerned with external manifestations of religious practice.  It also has a much more rigid view of gender relations and the symbolic aspects of religion and is more Wahhabi and Saudi in its orientation.”[9]  Indeed, many of the Egyptian self-defined Salafi preachers received their religious training in Saudi Arabia instead of Cairo’s al-Azhar and millions of Egyptians became more conservative while working in the Gulf.[10]  However, if Saudi interpretations of Islam are influential in Egypt it is incorrect to think of Egyptian Salafism strictly as a Saudi import.  This newer trend must be seen as a puritanical alternative to a more pragmatic reform approach, and, as evidence of this, Salafism exists wherever there are Islamist movements, even in countries with much less Saudi influence than Egypt.[11]  Furthermore, the geographical distribution of Salafism, present mostly in the cities of northern Egypt and not the rural south[12] which has provided much of the labor in Saudi Arabia, further illustrates that Salafism is an Egyptian trend first and foremost.  In Northern cities, where foreign influence is strongest, the question of taking a position for or against it — the central question of modern Egyptian intellectual thought – is most present.  By contrast, in rural Upper Egypt, which lacks significant foreign and non-Muslim influence, Muslims are merely conservative.

The primary difference between Salafis and the Brotherhood lies in tactics and strategy.  If Qaradawi and the Brotherhood evoke the spirit of the scriptures, Salafis evoke the letter.  Whereas Qaradawi and the Brotherhood make heavy use of the four schools of Islamic law that have been debated and developed by scholars over the centuries, Salafis generally believe that the Qur’an, read literally, provides sufficient guidance for contemporary situations.  The Brotherhood holds that individual Muslims accepting the central pillars of faith provides a basis for simultaneously pursuing reform in other areas such as politics (applying Sharia).  Salafis counter that it is fruitless to talk about applying Sharia if Muslims do not have what they consider proper beliefs, and so they focus on correcting these beliefs.

Another critical difference between Salafis and the Brotherhood lies in their position towards the West.  Salafis are hostile to the West for what it is, whereas (at least officially) the Brotherhood and like-minded intellectuals are hostile to the West for what it does – confining their criticisms to Western dominance or “imperialist ideology.”  In December 2008, when we asked Mohamed Habib, the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, what he thought of President-elect Barack Obama, he replied by saying “we will wait and see what his policies are.”[13]  For Salafis, who interpret the Qur’an more literally, there is less gray area:  the world is divided into infidels and believers and the West clearly lies in the latter category.  Therefore, at least theoretically, dialogue with the “other” is unlikely.

Conventional wisdom holds that Egyptian Salafis are disorganized and it is true that security forces do not allow organization along the lines of the Brotherhood – a traditional political and social movement.  However, it may be that other forms of organization exist or are developing, although this requires further study. [14]  Salafis are not apolitical.  Throughout the Arab world, Salafi movements choose to enter politics based on calculations about whether participation is possible without compromising their puritanical beliefs.  Salafis participate in political life in Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Kuwait.  In Egypt, where the state is centralized and far more powerful, Salafis refrain from political activity out of necessity, not lack of desire.  In Alexandria, for example, Salafis display the interest and ability to engage in politics but choose not to as it would require a compromise on principles and likely cost them popularity.[15]  And the former militant group al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, which Anani argues is now part of this Salafi trend, clearly want the state to let them participate in politics.  During the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, a disgruntled younger member posted but quickly removed a statement on the group’s website saying “Let us engage in politics or go fight in Gaza.”[16]

Pinpointing clear differences between the two trends is not always easy.  One reason for this is that Islamists see themselves as pursuing something bigger than mere politics, and therefore behavior normally associated with Western-style politicking, denouncing individuals or overtly trying to convince people that their approach is better than other Islamist trends, is frowned upon.  At the same time, Islamists, either intellectuals or clerics, are ambitious; they want people to listen to their ideas and there is some evidence that elements of the two approaches see themselves as engaged in a competition for influence and followers.

Some non-Salafi Islamists view Salafism as simplistic or fanatical.  Fahmy Howedi[17] claims Salafism focuses on the external trappings of religion but ignores its supposed true meaning, and, like Rafiq Habib,[18] points to an alleged predisposition for violence.  An Azhar-trained Imam called Salafism “a misreading of the scriptures that occurs whenever Egypt passes through socio-economic crisis.”[19]  For their part, some Salafis accuse certain non-Salafi preachers[20] of compromising on principles in order to gain fame or influence.  In a recent speech, a popular Salafi cleric mocked the “artist” Amr Khalid.[21]  While the Salafis we talked to were careful to speak only about their personal beliefs,[22] one was clearly referring to the Brotherhood when he said “God bless those who do not seek personal glory in religion.”[23] 

Station profiles

NileSat, Egypt’s main satellite broadcaster, currently carries at least twelve stations that give significant airtime to Salafi programming. [24]  Given Salafism’s focus on the basics of Islam, program content does not vary dramatically; a station’s success depends on the presence of popular personalities.  By all accounts, al-Nass and al-Rahma are the most popular due to the star power of their main preachers. 

Al-Nass.  When founded in early 2006, al-Nass (The People) was not originally a Salafi station and featured music, dancing and dream interpretation.[25]  But when this formula failed to attract high numbers of viewers in a crowded market, owner Mansour Ben Kedsa, a Saudi investor, invited three prominent Salafi clerics, Mohamed Hassan, Abu Ishaq al-Heweny and Mohamed Yacoub to join the station.  Women and music disappeared from the airwaves, the slogan changed from “Qanat al-Nass: for all the people” to “Qanat al-Nass: the station that takes you to paradise,” and viewership soared.  Since that time the station has been dominated by Salafi-oriented preachers.

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[1] One of the most outspoken proponents of this idea is the secular Egyptian writer Alaa Aswany, whose novel The Yacoubian Building has played a major role in shaping how Westerners think about the country.  It is important, however, to note that Aswany’s biggest following is abroad, and his secular, Western vision for Egypt is shared by only a minority of Egyptians.  For example, several recent articles quoting Aswany have lamented the decline of bars in downtown Cairo, portraying this as a sign of increasing intolerance.  But for most Egyptians, if they care at all, this is seen positively, as a removal of negative foreign influences.  See Christian Fraser, “Sad Goodbye to Cosmopolitan Cairo,” BBC, 17 March 2009.

[2] Four interviews with Khalil Anani, a specialist in political Islam at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, 2008-2009.

 [3] Paul Schemm, “Ultra-Conservative Islam on Rise in Mideast,” The Associated Press, 19 October, 2008. 

We should note that those who criticize this so-called “game” usually point to an alleged Salafi disposition for violence.  Their argument is that Salafis are peaceful now due to weakness but due to their extremism, will eventually show their true violent colors – if the government keeps allowing them to grow.  See Nabil Sharf ad-Deen.  “Salafism: The Worst Alternative to the Ikhwan,” Al-Masri Al-Youm, Arabic section.  16 September 2008.

 [4] Since November 2008, we have interviewed in Egypt, seven non-Salafi Islamist intellectuals, four Salafi preachers, three self-defined Salafi students, and four non-Islamist commentators on Islamism.  In America we interviewed three non-Islamist professors of Arab politics.  

 [5] Many factors make this a difficult topic to research.  For security reasons Salafis are cautious about meeting with people and hesitant to talk about anything other than their personal beliefs.  Second, unlike the United States, there are no accurate systems for tracking television viewership.  Stations might have their own data, but as this information affects advertising rates, it is sensitive and they have little interest in giving it away to journalists.

[6] Islamists are often portrayed as reactionaries, especially in Western media, in comparison to “forward-thinking” secular and modern types.  But Rafiq Habib counters that “there is the Islamist vision of reform from the perspective of left-wing or secular analysts and then there is the Islamist vision for reform  as seen by Islamists.”  Islamists have a vision for the future of Egypt that is every bit as “modern” and forward thinking as their secular counterparts.  It is based on the model set by the first generation of Islam whereas secular thinkers want to copy the Western model. 

[7] Interview, Marc Lynch, Professor of Arab Politics, George Washington University, January 2009. 

 [8] There have traditionally been apolitical Salafi institutions in Egypt which focus specifically on studying the Qur’an.  In this article we are talking about a newer trend that has emerged more recently.  Anani calls it a “new wave” of “political Salafism,” and like several others we talked with dates its emergence to about 2003-4.  See also William Raymond Baker’s Islam without Fear:  Egypt and the New Islamists.  Writing in 2003, he does not use the word Salafi but “extremist” to describe what is widely described in 2009 as Salafi.

 [9] Lynch, Interview.

 [10] Toth, James. “Islamism in Southern Egypt.”  International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2003.

 [11] Interview with Dia Rashwan, prominent Egyptian journalist, December 2008. 

 [12] Anani, interviews.

 [13] Interview with Mohamed Habib, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, November 2008.

[14] It may be that the Salafis are developing smaller forms of organization in comparison to the large bureaucracy of the Brotherhood.  Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Heweny is the son of the founders of the Matimdiya Islamic Association for Muslims to Unite Efforts to Act According to the Qur’an and Sunna.  This is a possible organizational link.  Also, the television stations in themselves could be a unit of organization. 

 [15]Ali Abdel Aal, “Salafists in Alexandria: Interested in Politics But Not Preoccupied With It,” Islam Online, Arabic section.  March 24, 2008. http://islamyoon.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1203758305161&pagename=Islamyoun/IYALayout&ref=body .  The author said the same thing in an interview in January.   

Two factors explain why Salafis in Alexandria are more organized.  Due to a less imposing security presence in Alexandria in comparison to Cairo, Salafis have more room to maneuver, and given the smaller size, geographically, can communicate more easily.  The following video, from 13 January 2009, (http://youtube.com/watch?v=aPNOvfcBk0w) is from a Salafi pro-Gaza rally in Alexandria.  In it the speakers assert that assisting Gaza and its people is a major priority.  Such an action did not take place in Cairo, even though all Salafi stations and the majority of viewers live in the capital. 

 [16] We heard this from a Salafi cleric and Dia Rashwan and Khalil Anani confirm that it happened. 

 [17] Interview with Fahmy Howedi, one of Egypt’s most influential intellectuals, December 2008.

 [18] Three interviews with Rafiq Habib, prominent Coptic Christian expert on Islamist movements, 2008-2009. 

 [19]  Interview with al-Azhar trained cleric and expert on Fiqh, November 2008. 

 [20]  A commonly held claim is that Salafis and the Brotherhood “hate each other” but we did not find strong evidence of this in our interviews with Islamists.  If they hate each other, they keep it to themselves. 

 [21] In this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkakThjUZKo), dated 7 June 2007, Salafi Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Heweny mocks Amr Khalid.  But notice that the criticism is directed at Khalid’s approach, and his alleged lack of credentials, but not his actual Islamic message. 

 [22]  This was for security reasons.  Every non-Salafi Islamist we interviewed talked about any subject, on tape, without any hesitation.  The Salafis, however, generally did not agree to taped conversations and were very cautious about talking about anything other than their personal religious beliefs. 

 [23] Interview, Salafi cleric, February 2009.

 [24] Salafi stations are:  al-Nass, al-Hafith, al-Baraka, al-Rahma, al-Hekma, al-Majd TV, al-Fajr, al-Huda, al-Efasi, al-Madinah, al-Ummah, and Tiba. 

 [25] See Ali Abdel Aal, “Salafis and Qanat al-Nass,” Islam Online, Arabic section.  7 May 2008 and Mustafa Suleyman, ‘From Salafism to the New Religiosity,” Islam Online, Arabic section.   7 May 2008. 

 [26]  Ibid. 

 [27] http://alnas.tv/new/index.php?option=com_content&task=category&sectionid=2&id=3&Itemid=38

It does not seem that the website gets a lot of traffic.  We logged on and there appeared to be only twenty or so visitors, this is in comparison to music sites which have thousands of people logged on. 

 [28]  See his official biography at his website:  http://www.mohamedhassan.org/ta3reef%20belshiekh.htm

 [29] Interviews, Khalil Anani

 [30] See the station’s Website:  http://www.alrahma.tv/olmaa.php

 [31] See 27 August 2007 episode of al-Jazeera program Sharia and Life.

 

 [32] Mustafa Suleyman. Islam Online. 7 May, 2008.  http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1209357320618&pagename=Zone-Arabic-Daawa%2FDWALayout

 [33] 22 March 2009 Episode of Sharia and Life on al-Jazeera. 

 [34] From 1 July 2008:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7ieYQQHU3c

 [35] Posted on 1 October 2008:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgLHMPyUvJE

 [36]  Interview with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Al-Masri Al-Youm, 8 September 2008.

 [37]  In this video, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rawfEcLHq3Q&feature=PlayList&p=7AE73F8454E76767&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=26), posted on 13 January 2009, Sheikh Hassan says that all people are going to die but Muslims should die with honor and that dying with defending God’s word in Gaza is the highest honor.  He also indirectly refers to the Arab leadership when he says “Did a king or sultan or an emperor defy death?  Did their possessions protect them or was that a hindrance to death?  We should die with honor – what’s the difference between us and those who know nothing about God and judgment day.”

 [38] Interviews, November-December 2008.  

 [39] Tamem, Hussam.  Islam Online.  8 July 2008. 

 [40]  Al-Sayyid, Zayyid. "Female Presenters on Salafi Stations," Islam Online, 2 March 2009.  See the article here:  http://islamyoon.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=ArticleA_C&cid=1235628736401&pagename=Islamyoun/IYALayout&ref=body

 [41] Mshari Al-Zaydi,  “Qaradawi vs Amr Khalid,” Asharq al-Awsat, Arabic section.  3 September 2006.  Amr Khalid was seen by many as intervening in an area he was not really qualified.  He had no special knowledge of Denmark, for example.

 [42] Habib, Interviews, 2008-2009.

 [43]  Anani pointed us in this general direction.  Traditionally, if there was alcohol consumption in Egyptian film it was to prove some kind of social point and as a criticism of certain social or political conditions in Egypt.  For example, if Adel Imam’s characters have traditionally consumed alcohol, the message was that he was driven to do this by conditions in society.    More recently his films feature gratuitous alcohol consumption and blatant glorification of womanizing and this was not the case before.    One recent film, Hayna Meysura, featured an implied lesbian sex scene, a topic that has never been present in Egyptian film.  

[44] Interview with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Al-Masri Al-Youm, 8 September 2008.