Islamic Televangelism: Religion, Media and Visuality in Contemporary Egypt
Of course, such a linkage between the medium of television and entertainment is by no means unproblematic for all actors in the da'wa (Islamic evangelism) movement. For example, Hirschkind notes (2006:92) how for many of the Egyptian preachers he interviewed, the medium of the cassette, being also a medium for “merely” entertaining songs, was a cause of anxiety: “How is the experience produced by the tape different from the non-ethical senses of pleasure, fear, or well-being produced by other popular media?” they worried. Furthermore, “for khutabaa’ (mosque preachers) and their audiences, the danger of Western cultural forms and popular-media entertainment lies in the fact that they engender emotions and character attributes incompatible with those that in their view enable one to live as a pious Muslim” (2006:127).9 Hirschkind states (2006:127) that cassette sermonizers routinely criticize “media entertainment, film stars, popular singers, and television serials” while viewing categories such as fann (art), adab (literature), thaqafa (high culture) and mooda (fashion) as partaking in a strictly secular-Western genealogy.
The new television du'ah this paper is concerned with, whose influence arguably equals if not exceeds the more traditional preachers of Hirschkind’s ethnography, operate within a vastly different set of premises regarding the relationship between piety, entertainment and popular media. Rather than worrying about the “secular” origin of the television medium, du'ah such as Masoud and Khaled make this medium an integral part of their pious performance aimed at moving their audience to a more virtuous life. It deeply matters that one can see them – educated, young, attractive, obviously well-to-do – working the camera, inhabiting spaces of modern technology, yet still maintaining a high commitment to Islamic practice, as their middle-class audience should too (so the message goes). Furthermore, it is the precisely the association of television with entertainment (its “promiscuity” in Larkin’s terms) that makes it such an attractive medium for these televangelists, rather than a source of anxiety. This association works to bolster Islam as a viable (entertaining) alternative to secular and potentially immoral media. Thus, far from shunning Western media/cultural forms as morally suspect, these forms are appropriated to new moral ends. The theme song for Moez Masoud’s show “Al-Tareeq Al-Sahh” (The Right Way) can become, without any sense of trepidation, a popular hit alongside non-Islamic songs, and downloadable as a cellphone ring-tone. Song and sermon don’t compete for the sensory attention of believers, but conjoin to amplify it. Film actresses and drama stars are brought in, now in Islamic attire, to preach a moral message of repentance to an audience which tunes in as much for spiritual upliftment as to take pleasure in seeing their favorite celebrity speaking “From the Heart” – as the title of Amr Khaled’s first show puts it. At the same time, the televangelists themselves become celebrities in their own right, hailed by their believing “fans” – the word almost doesn’t need the square-quotes, seeing as one can join Masoud’s “fan-page” on Facebook – in much the same way secular celebrities are (“He is better than Brad Pitt” one female Masoud fan tells a Washington Post reporter as she waits in a long queue to greet the latter).
Given these factors, it is clear that Islamic televangelism in Egypt, despite being the most prominent part of that country’s contemporary da'wa movement, can only be productively understood within the context of regimes of mediated technology and celebrity as much as religion. This is not to subscribe, however, to a technological determinism displacing the centrality of the pious message itself and its perceived ethical consequences for individual viewers, which count as the most important aspects for interested Muslims. Following De Vries (2001:19), it is clear that “where a relationship between the phenomena is acknowledged at all, the assumed link is often an instrumentalization of one by the other, as if media formed the mere vehicle of religion or as if the medium could ever succeed in creating religion in its own image. Yet the medium is not secondary, nor is the religious mere epiphenomenon.” Indeed, the fact remains that the most publicized and closely followed shows on the channel remain precisely those programs about the Qur’an, the Prophet’s biography and questions of Islamic ethics and values. Click on Iqraa’s “most-watched” program icon on its fully functional website, which permits live streaming of its shows as well as access to a downloadable archive, and the three that pop up are Amr Khaled’s most current talk show followed by two others hosted by newer tele-preachers who acknowledge a deep debt to Khaled. These shows have at their center an ethical discourse that draws upon both traditional forms of speech (popular story-telling about the Prophet’s time, exhortatory and exegetical modes of address) as well as Western-derived genres such as a “panel of experts” with viewers calling in to weigh in with their own opinions. These shows thus speak to an intense interest in, and desire for, religious knowledge on the part of ordinary Muslims concerned with leading a more pious life.10 Muslims tuning into these Islamic programs are not only conscious of being hailed as Muslim subjects, but in fact call forth this interpellation themselves as they make a conscious choice to watch an Islamically correct media and accrue the virtuous benefits such a choice brings. In the next section, I would like to examine in greater detail both how Islamic media producers imagine this television audience and the best way to reach out and “connect” with it.
Ordinary Muslims Addressing “Ordinary” Muslims
Abu-Lughod notes (2004:172) how by the 1990s the influence and scope of the Islamic Revival had led to the allocation of more air-time to Islamic programs on national television in Egypt as the state “tried to appropriate for itself the role of supporter of a legitimate Islam”. However, the fact that these programs were on state television ultimately worked to discredit them among those they were designed to attract most – young, educated and motivated Muslims who were critical of the secular regime’s domestic and foreign policies. Seeking to attract such Muslims, the religious programs on satellite television position themselves as viable alternatives to the religious discourse of state television. At the same time, it is not exclusively this audience segment which the new Islamic channels aim to capture as loyal viewers. Indeed, the satellite channels, whose footprints usually extend beyond the Middle East into Europe and, although less so, into North America, seem to be addressing two distinct audiences. On the one hand, their producers seek to counter dominant stereotypes of Islam in the West as a violent and irrational religion by presenting what they describe as a “moderate Islam” to a non-Muslim audience which they hope might, however intermittently, tune in.11 On the other hand, the new Islamic channels aim to attract Muslim youth who might not necessarily be drawn to religious discourse and might take as unproblematic secular, Western-inflected imaginings of what it means to be modern in today’s world, as well as other youth who might have fallen under the ambit of extremist articulations of Islamism, especially those espousing violence as a political instrument.
1 See Schielke 2008 for an excellent discussion of the different modes of diversion at work among Egyptian youths, albeit in a rural context.
2 Amr Khaled’s popularity soared as the show attracted an increasingly vocal viewer-ship, leading to thousands of young people attending his Friday sermons in a 40,000-capacity mosque in one of Cairo’s new satellite suburbs and his well-maintained website receiving more than 3 million hits per month, making it one of the most visited sites in the nation. The domestic press simply could not get enough of the then-thirty-something “sheikh in a suit.” By late 2002 the Mubarak regime, always wary of a religious charisma it cannot lay equal claim to, had had enough and Khaled, the aristocratic former-accountant turned pious celebrity extraordinaire, was banned from preaching both in mosques and on television. The ban was apparently lifted a few years ago, with Khaled returning to Egypt from what he said was a voluntary exile in the UK. He had never stopped his satellite television programs, however, taping and airing many while abroad, a testament to the inability of the state to (fully) control this transnational, privately-owned medium as well as its spin-off small media such as CDs, DVDs, downloadable mp3 files and internet-clips (cf. Mohammedi and Sreberny-Mohammedi 1994).
3 There are of course other, equally popular, “televangelists” appearing on more Salafist Islamic satellite channels such as Al-Nas. Such du’ah have not been as successful in attracting the attention of Western observers, perhaps because they are not perceived as “modern” due to their conservative appearance and religious discourse. In this paper, I have not focused on such televangelists because I am interested in Islamic preachers who occupy spaces of “in-betweeness” (what used to be fashionable to call “hybridity”). This understanding of such preachers -- and the channels they appear on -- is echoed by Muslim viewers of Islamic satellite channels. An Egyptian woman who recently took on the niqab (and who is an avid watcher of Al-Nas) told me Amr Khaled was key in her transition from laxity to piety because “you can’t just go from watching Mazzika to watching Al-Nas, you need something in between, and that’s Amr Khaled.”
4 One Iqraa executive estimates that at one point Amr Khaled’s program was providing 80% of the channel’s ad-generated revenue (in Shapiro 2006).
5 Although of course the popularity of Sheikh Shaarawi, who appeared weekly on state television, is legendary.
6 It should be noted that being a “rival” does not preclude joint ownership and overlapping media producers – Prince Talal also holds a major stake in ART, which owns Iqraa (along with a dozen other channels, including those airing the sultry video-clips pious Muslims often criticize) and the general manager of Al-Resalah, Sheikh Tarek al-Suwaidan, used to host a religious program on Iqraa. Amr Khaled has appeared on both channels. The field of Islamic satellite programming still remains a small one, with a dearth of producers and investors.
7 A 2007 Washington Post article notes 27 satellite religious channels in 2007, a dramatic increase from only five in 2005 (Sullivan 2007).
8 Since that interview, Abu-Haibah left his post at Al-Resalah and in 2008 started his own Islamic satellite channel, 4Shbab, which has been dubbed the “Islamic MTV” by the press (see Stack 2009).
9 At the same time, Hirschkind (2006:193) acknowledges that “there can be little doubt that the great popularity of such tapes owes in some degree to their ability to compete with non-Islamic entertainment and to offer their consumers the sorts of pleasure that other media products provide.”
10 This desire is met by Iqraa not only through the actual programs, but also through a constant ticker-tape of fatwas (religious opinions) on various questions running through all programs – “Is the stockmarket halal or haram? Is it haram for women to take part in religious chants? Is it okay to watch soccer matches on TV? Is it okay to play chess?...” The stream of questions-responses is literally unending.
11 This is why ART has set up an English translation department for Iqraa (as well as its movie channels) explained to me the head of that department.
12 Sheikh Kamal is a Lebanese-Saudi multi-millionaire with close ties to the Saudi ruling family and major investments in the construction industry across the Gulf region. His wife is a well-known Egyptian actress who has appeared sometimes on the channel.
13 There was a recent public confrontation between Qaradawi and Khaled involving differences on how to best respond to the Danish cartoon incident. Khaled and Masoud had flown together to Denmark to set up a series of workshops aimed at “inter-faith dialogue” and “reconciliation,” which Qaradawi criticized for being insensitive to Muslim feelings of hurt over the offensive cartoons. In the international media, Qaradawi was characterized as a “hard-liner,” while Khaled emerged as a “moderate Muslim.” For a discussion of this incident and more on Qaradawi, see Graf and Skovgaard-Petersen 2009.
14 At face value, there seems to be much similarity between these Egyptian televisual duah and the Turkish religious media celebrity Ozturk whom Oncu (2006:246) describes as a “sermonizer in tune with the spirit of the times – a happy blending of Islamic theology, aerobics, the Internet, English and a modern (uncovered) wife.” However, Oncu (2006:239) argues that Ozturk’s “claim to authority and self-framing is that of a “man of scientific learning” as distinct from “man of religion” – given the mystique of science, he is thus far from being ordinary. Also, Ozturk apparently “dismisses questions about the morality of everyday practices (swimming in the beach, etc) as trivial” (2006:242) while for Egyptian duah it is precisely these daily practices which matter most. Finally, while Ozturk puts forward a definition of “secular Muslim” as the “real Islam,” the Egyptian dawa movement strives to counter that definition. See Mahmood 2006.
15 As well as being transformed of course by the very medium of television and its attendant grammars; as Faye Ginsburg notes (2002:39) in her discussion of indigenous media “retelling stories for the media of film, video, and television often requires reshaping them, not only within new aesthetic structures but also in negotiation with the political economy of state-controlled as well as commercial media.”
16 Scholars researching satellite television have noted how precise figures of this media’s penetration are notoriously hard to come by in the region – Sakr (2001) puts satellite penetration in Egypt at only 10% in 1999, with much higher figures for the Gulf.
17 This is not to say that Amr Khaled is not popular with other socio-economic groups – to the contrary it seems that his popularity knows no class boundaries. But his message is marketed most directly to upper to middle-class youth and women.
18 This informant stressed that in large part this perceived “chicness” stemmed from the fact that Khaled prefers the more high-prestige television medium to, for example, cheap cassette technology. That Khaled uses this technology, long associated with a libertine secular culture, for Islamic ends is one of the secrets of his success. As Ginsburg notes (2002) in her discussion of Inuit media, “The fact of their appearance on television on Inuit terms, inverts the usual hierarchy of values attached to the dominant culture's technology, conferring new prestige to Inuit "culture-making."
19 As do young Muslims themselves. In an online response to this NYT article, students at Cairo University who were given an Arabic translation said after reading it that “they did not see the connection between government failure and lack of opportunity with their emboldened faith. Being religious, they say, is about leading a good life. For them, it’s a gesture of free will, an individual choice disconnected from larger issues. Determinism plays no part.” (thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/16/what-the-generation-in-question-thinks/).
20 See Mitchell 2005:346-50 for a critique of the positing of something as “visual media.” While I agree with Mitchell that all so-called “visual media” are in fact “mixed media” – and television is of course an audio-visual medium – I still want to refer to Islamic televangelism as a visual media product here because I want to assert the importance of taking into account “vision” in discussions of this particular form of preaching.
21 And nor do I attempt one here. Of course, the literature on “visions” in Islam (especially its Sufi articulations) is quite rich (see, for example, Al-Baghdadi 2006, Green 2003, Hoffman 1997, Mittermaier 2007). As is the literature on aesthetics in Islamic philosophy and art and the role images and sight play within such traditions (e.g. Al-Baghdadi 2006, Blair and Bloom 2003, Gonzalez 2001). What there is a definite dearth of, however, are scholarly discussions of contemporary practices of imaging (e.g. television and film) within an Islamic referent that foreground visual practice as the object of analysis.
22 I owe the stylistic structure of this paragraph to Hirschkind’s (2006) analysis of a cassette-sermon by Sheikh Kishk in Chapter 5.