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

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Numerous programs parallel western public broadcasting such as PBS. This includes scientific interviews on meteors and geology, new technology from the U.S., and “Discovery”-style programs on animals, including some targeted toward the needs of the agricultural segment of the audience (such as new cow-milking technology for example). Others discuss history, architecture, and nature. The programs are not local, but Western with voice-over. They are not censored. Men and women dressed in styles that contravene current Islamic norms are shown as is. Many historical programs focus on Arab topics, examining places, art, and architecture in the Islamic and Arab worlds. Programs acting out historical events are often aired. As elsewhere in the Arab world, popular series are historical or have political importance, such as the Syrian bab al-hara (The neighborhood gate).[55] Soap operas also air uncensored. Romantic series from Egypt, the Gulf, and Syria depict men and women's love and family problems. The women, veiled or not, appear as in the original soap, and a significant amount of the soap operas contain unveiled and scantily-clad women. One racy series is set in a hospital. Children’s programs resemble public television elsewhere in the world. There are cartoons, computer-generated “Teletubbies”-style shows, and puppet shows that warn about the dangers of smoking.

 

 

New Perspectives and a Multi-confessional Audience

 

            Through al-Manar, Hizbullah is building a new image of itself and projecting this to its constituency and new audiences. In[AB1]  this vision, Hizbullah is not only modern, but future-oriented, multi-cultural, and progressive,[56] and the programs on the television bear such an image. Al-Manar communicates a sphere of debate that specifically marginalizes political cleavages and discussions in favor of general problems common across religions and political parties. Further, the programs project a view of life that appears to contradict Hizbullah and its interests, quite surprising given the image of the station is a propaganda front for Hizbullah. Al-Manar caters to and reflects a wide range of audience of religions and lifestyles, and has successfully attracted at least some of these broad constituencies as participants on the station.

 

            Non-political programming includes shows centered on youth, women, and community issues, which I describe here.[57] Al-Manar airs programs for women, such as sabah al-manar (Manar's morning), mushkila wa rai' (Problem and opinion), and wijhat nathr (Point of view); programs for youth, taht al-ashreen, now 'ashreenat (Under twenty; changed to Twenties in 2008) and shebab (Youth); and community and civil society programs such as safahat mulawanna (Multi-color magazine), a variety show, and ya'ishouna baynana (They live among us) spotlighting the disadvantaged. Sabah al-manar, a daily program, is geared toward women's issues, discussing health problems, how food should be handled and meat cooked, how people can get the medicine they need, how to mix work with family, legal issues of female equality in Lebanon, senility and problems of the elderly, how to deal with fear, and parents' expression of anger. Mushkila wa rai' and wijhat nathr are weekly shows focusing on women's and family issues. Wijhat nathr turned political in its focus. The new “Youth” program took its spot. Mushkila wa rai' is a long-standing show, taking problems submitted by the audience each week and demonstrating them in a dramatic skit. Experts, audience members and callers share their opinions on how to solve the situation. The various youth programs deal with issues of young people such as driving recklessly, violence against children, male authority, creativity, and inventions by youth. Safahat mulawanna is a variety show that spotlights art, plays, and other achievements of the community, only rarely are these connected to Hizbullah's resistance, Israel or the United States. Ya'ishouna baynana spotlights individuals and families living in extremely difficult circumstances in Lebanon, explores how they could be helped, and the ways society needs to change to prevent such situations.

 

            The community of participants on these al-Manar programs crosses religious divides. The participants and subjects of the programs, from experts to guests, include Muslims and Christians. A priest handicapped as the result of being kidnapped during the civil war was the expert guest on one program, discussing a disabled person's situation, and a bishop was the guest on another program. Female guest experts, audience members and callers are not only regularly non-veiled, but are often Christian (in one case the professor could hardly speak Arabic but kept speaking in French and the hostess translated). In one program, out of 29 episodes for which I recorded data on guest dress, 57% were unveiled women in Western dress, 11% were veiled, and 33% were men. Often, the only one veiled on stage was the hostess. Seven percent were sheikhs, who appeared particularly during programs that pushed the boundaries, such as adoption, men contributing to housework, societal restrictions and stereotypes of divorced women, and violence in the family. A substantial number of these unveiled women and many men were Christian, apparent either by their names or language use. Some were unable to express concepts except in French (in one case the professor could hardly speak Arabic but the hostess translated from the French).[58] The audience and callers mirror this pattern. For one program, half of audiences were consistently non-veiled. In mushkila wa rai', Problem and opinion, a skit is acted out to illustrate the problem for that week, brought by a viewer. The skits show veiled and non-veiled women. In another example, a Christian man working in the non-profit sector brought a problem to the station, indicating that different religious communities are more than guests, audience, and callers to al-Manar, they also turn to this Shi'a-owned station for help. The constituency is not only multi-communal, but international as well.

 

The multi-communal atmosphere of Lebanon, a country intensely globalized in the ideational realm, is reflected in the norms and values proposed in al-Manar’s non-political programming. Indeed, the ideas communicated in the non-news programming bear striking resemblance to those promoted by the United States and the West generally. Far from positing an alternative vision of modernity from an Islamist point of view, in most issues Western knowledge, idioms, and solutions dominate the discussion. The reputed xenophobia of Hizbullah to the West, or at least its animosity to the United States, is nowhere to be found. American scientific studies are used as proof and to demonstrate points, and individual rights are emphasized. This ranges from the benefits of modern western education with its emphasis on creativity to the need for civil society to care for the disadvantaged including women at risk for domestic violence. Family relations are subject to new norms, as women are assumed to be educated and working. On these programs, men need to participate in household chores and encourage women the way women do for men. Like Western think tanks and Western government policies, al-Manar focuses particular attention to women, youth, and civil society. The multi-communal aspects of the station runs counter to the Lebanese trend of media promoting the sponsor’s sect group.[59]

 

While al-Manar is global in reach, through the Internet and satellite, many of these programs are live and clearly depict the concerns and audience of Lebanon. However, viewers participate internationally, even bringing topics to discuss, not only expatriates but also individuals with no connection to Lebanon. Participants hail from Yemen, the Gulf, and Lebanese expatriates in the United States and Europe. Yet the solutions and perspectives aired on these programs give the distinct flavor of Lebanon or a community comfortable and accepting of current Western ideas. For example, one program expressed that determining what styles and amount of dress for women qualifies as provocative depends on what the society is accustomed to, while another brought up the possibility of stay-at-home dads instead of mothers.

 

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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).