Media and Religion in the Arab-Islamic World
Origins of Arab Journalism
In the area of accuracy, sourcing, and veracity, the Arab media, however, and in particular the Arabic-language press, can be scandalous. How to understand this dichotomy? How to explain why the Arab media seem adverse not only to the broader canons of journalism but also to the Muslim heritage that insists on the accuracy of the word? When the printing press came, it did not do so within an organic development. It was brought by the sword, specifically by Napoleon’s brief but profoundly important defeat of the Mamluk dynasty and conquest of Egypt; profound because this defeat occurred not on the periphery but in the heartland of Islam.
Napoleon retreated, but the printing press remained, along with the idea of France as the gateway to modernity or at least to the technology of survival in the contemporary world. Conceivably an organic development into an authentic Arab-Islamic journalism honoring accuracy might have arisen in the wake of the late eighteenth-century Hadith Revival that swept the Muslim world, but was particularly noticeable in Egypt given Cairo’s prestige as a gathering place for scholars clustered in and about Al Azhar. This Hadith Revival, like the late eighteenth-century Sufi reform movements, was a religious and spiritual response within orthodoxy to the shambles of a religious culture in such a state of protracted, tensionless equilibrium that degeneration was inevitable.
The Hadith Revival asserted the direct and clear speech of the Prophet and his companions to the overly formal, stylistic, and embellished court Arabic. But the Revival had barely begun when the Napoleonic Conquest occurred. Any number of scholars who prior to the conquest would have been drawn into the ranks of the Revival were now trying instead to come to grips with the demoralizing implications of a military defeat in the very heartland of Islam for a religious civilization that had until then known only triumph however qualified—the loss of Spain or of Sicily offset by the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, the conquests of the Crusaders offset by the Muslim conquest of India and the successful counter-Crusade.
With religious thought in disarray and the technology of the printing press in place, this mid-nineteenth century void was soon to be filled by the more Westernized Arabs from Syria and Lebanon (many of whom were Christian) in contact with modern French culture and influenced by the aggressively laic if not agnostic quality to much of the nineteenth century Parisian press. Instead of hadith, with its insistence on sourcing and accuracy and its quest for objectivity, the secular and often non-Muslim pioneers of Arab journalism were drawn to the belle letter tradition within Arabic literature—Adab literature—which had more to do with literary flourish and self-expression, interpretation, opinion, and literary stance than with accuracy and sourcing.
This tendency was reinforced by the French continental perception of news as a vehicle for analysis—often a most partisan or ideological analysis—rather than news as an objective in itself. It contrasts with the ultimate Anglo-American model, which in its mercantile rather than revolutionary origins sought accuracy and objectivity if only for utilitarian reasons.
The merchant needed fast, accurate information about shifting commodities prices or changing political conditions affecting trade and stability. This utilitarian perspective operated on a far different dimension than the search for veracity for the love of God, but in the end, rigorous sacred journalism and a utilitarian need for accuracy and truth would have married well. But by the late nineteenth century, when the British assumed imperial authority in Egypt, French cultural domination in Egypt was secure and the unique character of the Arabic language press was already defined.
But the French are not entirely to be blamed. There was also the rise of republican nationalist-socialist police states and their Soviet mentors in Egypt, Syria and Iraq—the vital players in the Middle East state system and the nationalization of the press, which was now in the service of the whims of the ruling party rather than the whims of the journalists and former publishers. The printed word became more irresponsible than ever at the same moment it became more servile.
Arab television, which came into being during the high tide of republican police states, did not even attempt journalism. Its photographers covered only occasions of state, and there were no correspondents, since it was “information” not news that was sought. Anchors could do the job of reading state news agency wire copy describing these ceremonial occasions while unedited footage was transmitted. Onto this scene came something new, an odd byproduct of the first war against Saddam Hussein, and some hope.
Arab satellite television, inspired by CNN International’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War changed all that. Suddenly a new cadre of Arab journalists inspired by CNN and trained by the BBC were hosting open-debate talk shows on the Orbit network broadcasting from Rome and field reports for lively news bulletins on the pioneer channel MBC followed by a short-lived experiment of an all-news BBC Arabic Television service—both broadcasting from London. All of these strands were pulled together with the launch of Al Jazeera from Qatar, at the center of which—setting standards for this 24/7 news channel—were a corps of BBC-trained journalists.
With the arrival of Al Arabiya the competition between the two Arab all-news channels (Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya) stimulated reform and improvements in state TV news programming, particularly in Egypt , Jordan, and Abu Dhabi, although sometimes only cosmetic. Nevertheless, by 2005, Bernard Lewis could note in Foreign Affairs that Arab satellite television “brings to the people of the Middle East a previously unknown spectacle—that of lively and vigorous public disagreement and debate.”
Hope for the Future
There are other interesting countervailing trends. MBC, the satellite network that owns Al Arabiya, has been broadcasting programs by Hamza Yusuf, a young American Muslim scholar and dai’ie, or Caller to Islam. Hamza speaks flawless Arabic, and his perspective has been shaped by years of study in the Arab world with Sufi sheikhs. He speaks against the sort of unthinking rage that characterizes so much of popular protest in the Arab world, a rage he admits he himself sometimes cultivated until 9/11. Hamza has a great following among educated Arab youth. Other private satellite channels have also started to counter-program Al Qaradawi and the hundreds of even more vituperative Salifite sheikhs who justify violence and invoke rage as some sort of valid religious sentiment in mosques across the Arab world and in Europe.
The most popular of the Callers is Amr Khalid, who attracted large followings of educated middle-class and upper-class Egyptians to his talks at mosques and in hotel ballrooms and more recently on his own television show carried by Iqra channel. His message encourages orthodoxy married to compassion, as was traditionally the case. He is generally indifferent to the sort of political issues on which Islamist preachers thrive. Other young men like the Egyptian Moeez Massoud and the Yemeni Habib al Jifri have surfaced in recent years with a similar message of personal piety and the practice of religion for the sake of ethical and spiritual realization rather than as a militant ideology, and they are also broadcast on Iqra and Abu Dhabi satellite channels. A new channel launched by the Saudi master entrepreneur Prince Al Walid Bin Talal to be a voice of religious moderation has become another vehicle for these young dai’ie, whose impact on the young Muslims seems to vindicate the thesis of Marc Gopin, who suggested in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor that the antidote to religious extremism is not the emptiness of secularism, but the viable and proven alternative of religious compassion.
During the Danish cartoon disturbances, these young dai’ie urged dialogue with the Danes rather than confrontation.
Indeed, when two or three thousand Arabs demonstrate hysterically in the streets of any Arab capital, we do wrong to automatically assume they represent the views of the millions more who are not committing acts of violence and demonstrating the rage that the Quran and the Prophet caution Muslims against.
Let me sum it all up. Until recently, the media in the Arab-Islamic world by and large have tended to aggravate numerous political and religious pathologies through their disregard for truth and accuracy, a habit shaped by their literary and propagandist antecedents. They have been the least faithful to Islam’s own standards, leading to dangerous distortions of this religion. Paradoxically, the CNN effect, by magnifying these very tendencies, has led to a counteraction. Such countervailing trends spearheaded by the Arab satellite news channels promise that the media in the Arab-Islamic world will not only adhere more closely to standards of honesty and accuracy, but in doing so will become more faithful to the demands of Islam itself. Perhaps, that’s the best news of all.