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Not Your Father's Islamist TV: Changing Programming on Hizbullah's al-ManarIcon indicating an associated article is peer reviewed

Issue 9, Fall 2009

By Anne Marie Baylouny

fromn al SharqAlAwsat

fromn al SharqAlAwsat

            The image of Islamist media is one of grim old men dictating extremist and male-centered religious precepts; Hizbullah's al-Manar television, not just Islamist but also owned by a political party with a militia, has been equated with broadcasting terrorism and waging psychological operations against its enemies.[1] Yet much of al-Manar today is nothing like the picture painted of the station. Classified as terrorist by the U.S., most topics broadcast have little to do with Hizbullah, its resistance, Shi'a religious teaching, or the fight against Israel.

 

On Hizbullah’s al-Manar, non-veiled women dominate the airwaves on many programs. Only a small minority of programs on the television is religious. Christians regularly participate as experts and audience members, including priests and bishops, and scientific studies from the west are used as affirmative demonstrations of how Lebanese need to change. Problems are discussed in an open-ended, non-authoritative format, and a broad, multi-communal audience regularly participates. Programming promotes values often considered western, such as individual and human rights, and non-violence. Television shows tackle domestic violence by patriarchal figures and protest violence in video games. In a style echoing Oprah, civil society is urged to volunteer and help the disadvantaged, even though this affects the core of what many assert is Hizbullah's base of legitimacy--its provision of social services.

 

            Hizbullah has had ongoing political alliances with other sects since its entrance into the electoral field in post-civil war elections, yet in its media in recent years the organization has gone beyond politically pragmatic moves to affirm its inclusion of alternative communities and sects. The media presentation of other communities demonstrates to viewers an acceptance of diverse lifestyles and ideas, often highly Westernized, that is communicated in the sphere of popular media run by Hizbullah members.[2] This change has been taking place particularly since 2000, but was sped up in the following years. Such programming, diametrically opposed to popular and Western images of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization and its media as a propaganda outlet for violence and Shi’a exclusivism, is a result of Hizbullah’s increasing Lebanonization or nationalization. The organization is becoming more beholden to and embedded with domestic actors than was true of the organization’s founding some two decades ago, reinforcing its Lebanese character. Al-Manar is a window into these changes, for some more dramatic and perhaps convincing than the organization’s political statements and alliances. The television demonstrates Hizbullah’s desire to broaden its support and assure its future domestic legitimacy within the Lebanese multi-religious community. The extent of the television’s integration of other communities suggests that the embrace of the multi-confessional nature of the country is not fleeting. Indeed, al-Manar presents to its constituency the image that a multi-religious community is legitimate, even promoting unveiled Christians as experts in the intimate zone of family matters.

 

The practice of incorporating multiple perspectives and communities on the television indicates an acceptance and commitment to a multi-cultural nation, potentially intended to assuage fears that the organization takes orders from Iran or seeks to establish an Islamic state. Such reassuring messages are increasingly important as foreign threats and foreign presence disappear from Lebanon, removing the primary raison-d’être of Hizbullah’s militia. Further, through al-Manar, Hizbullah attempts to demonstrate how the organization addresses issues of concern throughout Lebanon, particularly among youth and women, in ways that are modern and progressive. In doing so the organization positions itself at the forefront of Lebanese ideas about the future, securing Hizbullah’s existence in a peaceful Lebanon. In turn, these messages have profound potential to affect the actions and expectations of Hizbullah’s constituency.

 

Media messages differ from political speeches and alliances, since media is not merely public but also popular, and potentially, lasting. It can reach wide segments of society communicating images of society and behavior that other forums cannot. In other words, the multiple voices and approval of differing perspectives communicated on al-Manar cannot be easily reversed.[3]

 

            In this article I provide an initial analysis of this change in al-Manar's programming, concentrating on non-political programs.[4] Before reviewing al-Manar’s human interest profile, I depict the progression of the television station along with Hizbullah’s changing position in Lebanon. I deal briefly with al-Manar’s political programming—the news, talk shows and promotional spots. These have changed through the years as Hizbullah has evolved but are more clearly political and embrace a line close to the organization’s image as defender of Lebanon. I demonstrate that a substantial amount of al-Manar's current shows and their substance do not fit the common idea of al-Manar as affirming violence, religious preaching or particularism. They deal with human-interest concerns, especially women, youth, and community relations, many of which would be topical for Westerners as well. Research for this article was conducted primarily by watching al-Manar from November-December 2004, May-June 2005, and from October 2007 to the present. The 2004 research was completed with the aid of a researcher; the author completed the rest. Television from 2007 on was viewed by streaming media over the Internet. Viewing averaged seven to ten hours a week over the Internet and twenty hours a week in 2005.[5]

 

Lebanonization and Changing Programming

 

Al-Manar, the television affiliated with Hizbullah in Lebanon, mirrors Hizbullah’s stance and projects an image that the organization foresees as important for its future. Hizbullah, simultaneously an Islamist social movement, militia, political party, and participant in government, has taken part in political institutions in Lebanon since the post-civil war elections in 1992.

 

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* Author’s note: The views here are the author’s alone and not that of the U.S. government or any other institutional affiliation. The author thanks the AMS editors and reviewers for help and comments.

[1] This view is most polemically portrayed by Mark Dubowitz, "Watching Al-Manar: Violence in the Media," National Review Online, no. 17 July (2006). On Islamist television of the Salafi variety, fitting much of this description, see Nath Field and Ahmed Hamam, "Salafi Satellite Tv in Egypt," Arab Media & Society, no. 8 (2009).

[2] Hizbullah and al-Manar maintain that they are separate entities, but Hizbullah almost wholly finances the television, and the ties between the two are not seriously disputed. The question of journalistic and professional independence of the station, and goals unique to media (audience share) remain to be investigated.

[3] Assessing how audiences receive and process programs is a complicated and multi-faceted issue; I do not deal with it here but instead depict the media presentation of interaction with other communities on the station.

[4] By non-political I refer to the human-interest programs distinct from news, political talk shows, religious programs, documentaries and spots overtly promoting Hizbullah and its military. These human interest programs form a significant percentage of all programming and air on prime time, including the prized Thursday night spot. To date, there has been scant academic analysis of these programs; writing has focused on overtly political programs, not common concerns, or what some would view as everyday politics. This bias reflects one common in social science. As I argue below, by neglecting this realm, analysts remain ignorant to the future that Hizbullah views for itself and that is projecting to viewers, including its constituency.

[5] This article is the beginning of a larger project on al-Manar's multi-communal public sphere and the influence of political constituencies and audiences in Hizbullah. Al-Manar over the internet can be found at http://www.almanar.com.lb/NewsSite/ManarLive.aspx, accessed through the home page of almanar.com.lb. Alternative portals also provide access to the station over the web.

[6] Joseph Elie Alagha, The Shifts in Hizbullah's Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology, and Political Program, Isim Dissertations (Amsterdam: ISIM/Amsterdam University Press, 2006), Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[7] Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, "Know Thy Enemy: Hizbullah, 'Terrorism' and the Politics of Perception," Third World Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2005).

[8] Walid Charara and Frédéric Domont, Le Hezbollah : Un Mouvement Islamo-Nationaliste (Paris: Editions Fayard, 2004), 170.

[9] Hugh Dellios, "With an Eye toward Politics, Hezbollah Recasting Its Image; Savvy Tv Campaign Credited in Group's Battle with Israel," Chicago Tribune, 13 April 2000.

[10] Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 59.

[11] For academic accounts of the early al-Manar see Frederic M. Wehrey, "Hizbullah's Psychological Campaign against Israel in South Lebanon," Small Wars and Insurgencies 13, no. 3 (2002), Ron Schleifer, "Psychological Operations: A New Variation on an Age Old Art: Hezbollah Versus Israel," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 1 (2006).

[12] Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah, 60.

[13] Robert Fisk, “Television news is secret weapon of the intifada,” The Independent (London), 2 December 2000.

[14] Avi Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah's al-Manar Television. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004. While based on research, Jorisch’s work is also directly tied to a political goal, that of banning al-Manar, and lacks an understanding of context. As an example, the lack of context is apparent in the interpretation of a phrase used by the station, “Jerusalem, we are coming,” as a threat. The line actually comes from a well-known song by the Lebanese (Christian) singer Fairouz, about religious unity, worshiping in Jerusalem by all religions, and Jerusalem as a city of peace. The viewing audience would know this song and tie the phrase to it. Avi Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah's Al-Manar Television (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004), 67, 85. See Fairouz's song in Arabic at http://www.fairouz.com/fairouz/special/poem.html#arabic.

[15] One of the chief programs substantiating the claim that al-Manar is anti-Semitic was a Syrian-made drama that the station said it purchased quickly without viewing the entire series in advance (the Diaspora). The series repeated stereotypical myths about Jews. When this came to light, al-Manar reportedly stopped airing the series. Whether this version of events is true or not is arguably less important than the station’s realization and public statement that airing the series was a mistake. Charara and Domont, Le Hezbollah, 171.

[16] Avi J. Jorisch, "Al-Manar and the War in Iraq," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 5, no. 4 (2003), Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred, ch. 5.

[17] Caroline Drees, “Manar TV as ‘Terrorist,” www.washingtonpost.com (Reuters), 17 December 2004; “Al-Manar TV to go off Dutch platform,” aljazeera.net, 17 March 2005.

[18] U.S. Department of the Treasury, "U.S. Designates Al-Manar as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entity; Television Station Is Arm of Hizballah Terrorist Network," ed. Department of the Treasury (2006). Two men were arrested for installing al-Manar in the United States. Pincus, Walter, "New Yorker Arrested for Providing Hezbollah TV Channel," The Washington Post, 25 August 2006; p. A10. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/24/AR2006082401461.html. One, a businessman providing access to a wide range of stations including pornography, was sentenced to six years in prison. Larry Neumeister, Associated Press Writer, April 24, 2009, “6 years in prison for airing Hezbollah TV in NYC,” posted, among other locations, at http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=251&sid=1659031.

[19] For example, Daniel J. Wakin, “Hezbollah Seen Making Subtle Changes After War in Iraq,” New York Times, 11 May 2003.

[20] Dellios, "With an Eye toward Politics, Hezbollah Recasting Its Image."

[21] Qasim Qusayr, "Hizbullah Rearranges Its Information Organization to Confront Changes in Lebanon and the Region (in Arabic)," al-Mustaqbal, 9 March 2006.

[22] Daily Star, "Hizbullah’s Broadcasting Arms Garner Awards," 12 July 2002.

[23] Juhayna Khalidiyya, “Is this another step toward Lebanizing al-Manar? "Word to the nation": the opinions of prominent personalities regarding the maintenance of the resistance's arms...not its removal (in Arabic)." al-Safir, 17 August 2005.

[24] Lebanese Ministry of Information, 24 June 2005, Shameem Rassam, 19 November 2008.

[25] John Lancaster, “Hezbollah Tunes In On Profits; Party’s TV Station Airing U.S. Movies,” Washington Post, 19 June 2005.

[26] Madouna Sama'an, "'al-salam 'alaykum wa rahma allah wa barakatuhu' min kaneesa ghazeer waraqa al-tafahum taftah khataan askariyyan amam 'al-manar' fi fatouh kasrawan," al-Safir, 4 April 2006.

[27] Whether this is due solely to Hizbullah’s new direction or to a parallel professionalization of the media in its search for an audience has yet to be determined.

[28] Firmo-Fontan, Victoria. "Power, NGOs, and Lebanese Television: a Case Study of Al-Manar TV and the Hezbollah Women's Association." In Women and Media in the Middle East: Power through Self-Expression, edited by Naomi Sakr, 162-79. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

[29] Over 50 random street interviews were conducted in Lebanon and Jordan on al-Manar in June 2005, in addition to intermittent interviews with Lebanese and other Arabs watching regarding al-Manar in 2006-present.

[30] Author interviews with Lebanese of Aoun’s party.

[31] Conway, Maura. "Terror TV? An exploration of Hizbullah's al-Manar television." In Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, edited by James F. Forest, 401-19. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

[32] Eli Lake, "Israel War Effort Extends Even to Hezbollah Tv," The Sun, 2 August 2006.

[33] Matthias Gebauer, "Broadcasting from the Bunker: Hezbollah's Al-Manar," Spiegel Online, no. 8 August (2006).

[34] "IDF broadcasts Hizbullah's dead on al-Manar," ynetnews.com, 8 August 2006, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3288442,00.html

[35] Hasan M. Al-Rizzo, "The Undeclared Cyberspace War between Hezbollah and Israel," Contemporary Arab Affairs 1, no. 3 (2008): 400.Marwan Kraidy, "Hizbollywood. Hizbullah's Information War Viewed from Lebanon," The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 17 October 2006, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?topic_id=1426&fuseaction=topics.event_summary&event_id=201758.

[36] Abu-Fadil, Magda. "Hezbollah TV Claims Credit for Ousting Israelis." IPI Global Journalist, www.globaljournalist.org/archive/Magazine/Al%29Manar-2004q.html, Marvin Kalb and Carol Saivetz, "The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict," Press/Politics 12, no. 3 (2007).

[37] Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal. "People say no." Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 3-9 August 2006, Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal, and Marina Ottaway. "Hizbollah and Its Changing Identities." Policy Outlook (Democracy & Rule of Law Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) 2007.

[38] For coverage on al-Manar after the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, black ops and guerilla warfare leader in Hizbullah, see Ajemian, Peter. "Resistance beyond time and space: Hezbollah's media campaigns." Arab Media & Society, no. 5 (Spring) (2008).

[39] Estimating viewership is difficult, due to the channel-flipping characteristics of the Arab audience and concomitant lack of reliance on advertising for funding. Paul Cochrane, "Bombs and Broadcasts: Al Manar's Battle to Stay on Air," Arab Media & Society, no. Feburary (2007). A Zogby poll puts the viewership of al-Manar at 2% of the Arab world, which translates to about $10 million. See Pro Publica’s Arabic Language Regional Television News comparison chart at http://www.propublica.org/special/arabic-language-regional-television-news. Al-Arabiya had 9% and one of the most popular Lebanese stations, LBC, 3%.

[40] Marwan M. Kraidy, "Arab Media and Us Policy: A Public Diplomacy Reset," in Policy Analysis Brief (The Stanley Foundation, 2008), 4.

[41] Hisham Sharabi, "Arab Satellite Channels and Their Political Impact after the Iraq War," al-Hayat, 18 July 2003.

[42] West Bank and Gaza Presidential Elections, Final Report, European Union Election Observation Mission, 9 January 2005. Available from www.amin.org/eng/uncat/2005/mar/mar002.html.

[43] Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred.

[44] Cochrane, "Bombs and Broadcasts." Goldman, Dudi, "War soars al-Manar popularity," ynetnews.com, 24 August 2006, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3295190,00.html;

Mizroch, Amir. "Al-Manar TV soars into ratings 'Top 10,'" Jerusalem Post, 25 August 2006, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1154525941045

[45] See Pro Publica’s Arabic Language Regional Television News comparison chart at http://www.propublica.org/special/arabic-language-regional-television-news.

[46] Petra News Agency, "Winners of the Inquirer Award 2007 Announced," Open Source Center, GMP20080302966007  (2 March 2008).

[47] Assaf David and Oren Barak, "How the New Arab Media Challenges the Arab Militaries: The Case of the War between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006," The Middle East Institute Policy Brief, no. 20 (2008).

[48] Lawrence Pintak, "Reporting a Revolution: The Changing Arab Media Landscape," Arab Media & Society, no. February (2007).

[49] As a religious party, Hizbullah receives tithes from the Shi’a community, which in Islam constitute one-fifth of individual income. Iranian funding of Hizbullah dropped dramatically in the 1990s.

[50] Pro Publica, Arabic Language Regional Television News comparison chart, op cit.

[51] Magda Abu-Fadil, "Hezbollah Tv Claims Credit for Ousting Israelis," IPI Global Journalist, www.globaljournalist.org/archive/Magazine/Al%29Manar-2004q.html.

[52] Avi Jorisch, "Al-Manar: Hizbullah Tv, 24/7," Middle East Quarterly XI, no. 1 (2004).

[53] For examples of recent media campaigns see Peter Ajemian, "Resistance Beyond Time and Space: Hezbollah's Media Campaigns," Arab Media & Society, no. 5 (Spring) (2008).

[54] Interview with Rassam.

[55] Kraidy, "Arab Media and Us Policy," 4-5.

[56] On Hizbullah’s modernity that is mixed with the practice of piety, see Lara Deeb, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Deeb also highlights the prominent role of women in Hizbullah, corresponding to evidence from al-Manar.

[57] I have left out the entertainment series, discovery-type programs, games and children’s shows.

[58] French education and speech even at home is characteristic of segments of the Christian community in Lebanon.

[59] On Lebanon’s media sectarianism, see Paul Cochrane, "Are Lebanon's Media Fanning the Flames of Sectariansim?," Arab Media & Society, no. May (2007), Nabil Dajani, "The Re-Feudalization of the Public Sphere: Lebanese Television News Coverage and the Lebanese Political Process," Transnational Broadcasting Studies, no. 16 (2006).