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Cosmopolitan Islamism and its CriticsIcon indicating an associated article is peer reviewed

Issue 10, Spring 2010

By Maurice Chammah

The 4Shbab logo

The 4Shbab logo

Cosmopolitan Islamism and its Critics:

Ahmed Abu Haiba, 4Shbab TV, and Western Reception

 

4Shbab is an emerging music-television channel based in Cairo, financed by Saudi investors, and directed towards a global Muslim public. Through its programming and the public and private statements of its main producer, Ahmed Abu Haiba, it hopes to articulate a source of entertainment set apart from other music video channels by a religiously motivated practice of selecting material based on moral or ethical criteria.

Abu Haiba was able to solicit funding for the channel, in his explanation, by seeking investors in Saudi Arabia, who historically have spent the most on media and have, by his account, an “Islamic culture” with stronger roots, as opposed to Egypt, where that culture is, in his view, a “political trend”. He explained to these investors, and then to me, that music channels generally take 14 percent of advertising revenue, while religious channels take 5 percent. 4Shbab would thus be able to combine both sources, with profits expected after three years (press conference, 5 March 2009).

As with his earlier success with Kalam min al-Qalb (Words from the Heart), a TV show featuring Islamic preacher Amr Khaled, Abu Haiba’s religio-ethical goals are impossible to separate from his commercial goals, and so I try in this article to analyze this phenomenon without the celebratory tone often accorded such hybridity, but more importantly without the critiques of opportunism often woven through discussions of commercial ventures founded on appeals to consumer identity. I think that we would miss a great deal if we were to look at Abu Haiba’s intervention as solely opportunistic and an instrumental use of religious beliefs in the service of personal wealth. Such critiques ignore the complex way Abu Haiba’s goals theoretically work together. How does such a linkage become possible? The answer involves looking at how Abu Haiba conceives of an artistic repertoire of ethical merit (or without sexualized and impious content) and a pedagogical process of remaking the sensibilities of young Muslims as a marketable producti.  Following the framing of anthropologists Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin, Abu Haiba’s venture indicates how “any analysis of subjective and imaginative must be linked to the economic and social” (2002, 17) and in this vein, my treatment will focus less on the reception of the channel, which would follow the “reception ethnography” of Abu-Lughod (2005), and more upon the initiative of Abu Haiba and the content of the channel itself. In this article, I attempt to connect the ethnographic moments in which I encountered the beginnings of 4Shbab with the resulting texts of those moments, which were newspaper and internet media coverage of 4Shbab. My interviews with Abu Haiba, the 4Shbab press conference, its subsequent coverage, and the music videos themselves are attempts to intervene in a cultural and historical moment constructed by Abu Haiba, but no less real for it. I seek to bring together Abu Haiba’s words with brief ethnographies of the encounters I had with him and with Western journalists. It is not just the words of his interlocutors I focus upon, but their perceived affective responses, their context, and their frames for speaking when they contested his vision. It is this breadth, which does not collapse 4Shbab into simply a text, or an object to be interpreted hermetically, that will allow me to suggest in the end how to approach future reception of the channel.

Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “mediascapes” helps here, because they attach the spatial idea of a landscape to the centralized and non-spatial practice of media, and extend Jurgen Habermas’s famous understanding of a public sphere (1989) to a global level. “Mediascapes” function, in Appadurai’s view, by providing “large and complex repertoires of images, narratives and 'ethnoscapes” to viewers throughout the world, in which the world of commodities and the world of 'news' and politics are profoundly mixed” (1996, 9). 4Shbab attempts to enter the “mediascape” by establishing a field of artistic production (Bourdieu 1993), glossed in 4Shbab’s sloganeering as a “new form of art”, through which images, sounds, and narratives of an ethical Muslim lifestyle can resonate with an audience that crosses national boundaries.

Arguments about “cosmopolitanism”, as one way of figuring what Appadurai calls “cultural dimensions of globalization” offer a means of understanding the relationship between Abu Haiba and the Muslim consumers he hopes will watch 4Shbab. Abu Haiba, who has traveled widely and cited experiences outside of Egypt constantly in my interview with him, situates himself as a “citizen of the world” by establishing three ideas about globalization. The first is that it is not new, as the Muslim world has spanned an essentially global space for centuries. The second is that this Muslim world is still set off from the Western world, or, there are still lines between distinct civilizational/cultural wholes of “The Islamic World” and “The West.” Thirdly, he and his Muslim viewers, brought by the various globalizing processes into a global cultural economy, traverse these static civilizational wholes and must negotiate an identity between them, as they are constantly subjected to the “Other’s” terms of discussion, media forms, and “stereotypes”.

One of the most important aspects of my encounter with Abu Haiba’s project is his own theorizing practice, as academic language of the “Other” and the idea of “deconstructing stereotypes” flowed through his account of personal interaction with “the West”, as well as the broader narrative of exchange between the Muslim world and the colonial powers, and later, the United States (interview with author, 19 March 2009).

As a result, talking to Abu Haiba and witnessing him deliver a press conference upon the launch of 4Shbab, I was struck by the immediate tension between his intellectual preservation of civilizational wholes (we vs. them, West vs. East) and his own embodied appearance in between them. At the press conference, he sported a fashionable American-made black suit, with a prominent zabiba on his forehead, a public symbol of piety in Egyptian society (as it results from rubbing one’s head on the ground in prayer). Without prior knowledge, one would hardly know that the press conference or the office in which 4Shbab is housed have anything to do with an Islamic, or even religious, commercial venture. 4Shbab’s logo shows a muscular young man’s silhouette, in pants and a t-shirt, approaching the viewer against a cloudy sky background. Many of the music videos do not reference religious themes directly.

Even so, Abu Haiba’s pronouncements did not discuss the channel in terms of trying to “fit in” or “assimilate” to Western cultural values. On the contrary, he made very clear the argument that Islam and the West represent two distinct religious and civilizational wholes. Though this rhetoric would seem to belie the hybridized appearance of the channel’s presentations, it is the very idea of difference or incompatibility that makes possible such a venture in the first place. Put simply, Abu Haiba needs to have 4Shbab appear in between two different cultures, and so he must discursively maintain a difference between the West and the Islamic world that is, outside of his own project, unbridgeable. If the West and the Islamic world were growing together culturally as a result of globalization, there would be no need for a “bridge” like 4Shbab, which is an articulation crucial for the commercial value of the channel. 4Shbab, for Abu Haiba, thus manifests as a borrower of cultural vocabulary (images, sounds, music video formats), that does not borrow the underlying values of the vocabulary’s source (Western culture). His cultural vision uses the commercial appeal of Western culture without endorsing its values, which in his view objectify women and give license to sexual impropriety.

Such a conception of translation guides how Abu Haiba conceives his mode of cosmopolitanism, wherein the underlying values can be broached only when the cultural vocabulary (of music videos and pop songs) represents a way in. In our interview, Abu Haiba illustrated this narrative of translation with an anecdote he had clearly told many times before of meeting a woman in Germany and with her discussing European modes of romance. His framing question for the anecdote was simple and theoretical: "How can I accept the Other?". He then explained how he “used to be” one of “those Egyptians” who repeated the trope of the "loose West" and Europe and America as a "society of adultery". Upon meeting this German woman, he had asked her if she had a boyfriend, and when she answered positively, he probed further about the details of their relationship's public reception as a sort of archetypal case. The couple was committed to one another and everyone in the community respected this commitment, and so Abu Haiba came to see this couple, for the purposes of his own religious outlook, as married, and only using a different term to describe it.

So, he concluded, "I came to see the Other in the Other's eyes and now I am asking the Other to do the same for my culture." He added to this story the image of Saudi men wearing flowing, white cotton gallabiyas (robes). In the West, he said, they would think this was the clothing of a “crazy, backwards person” until they went to Saudi Arabia and “felt the hot weather there”.

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i Saba Mahmood makes a similar point about feminism, wherein she attempts to theorize the political project of feminism in the West with the intellectual project of understanding agency. In this vein, I want to consider the project of understanding capitalism as it relates to identity politics (or colloquially, how people choose products based on their identities) as separable intellectually from the post-Marxist critique of capitalism itself. This is not to say that bringing the two projects together would not be a useful future task.

 

ii This prohibition can be understood in the way music was historically criticized by Islamic scholars, often due to its early associations with qaynah, the figure of the slave or freedwoman singing in taverns and private parties in which other forbidden activities (chiefly, alcohol) were present (see Nelson 2001; 37).