Islamic Televangelism: Religion, Media and Visuality in Contemporary Egypt
While religious preachers have appeared on television since its introduction into Egypt in the 1960s, the advent of Islamic satellite preachers like Amr Khaled marked the first time that the very fact of being on television, the materiality of the medium itself with all its technological capabilities, was made an integral part of the performance. The glitzy studio, the lighting, the panning between the da’iya and his rapt addressees, the music montage introducing the show, the computer-generated title images – these elements were as integral to the homiletic message as the Qur’anic parables and prophetic stories which constituted the discursive substance of the programs. As McLuhan famously remarked: “The medium is the message” (1965:7). McLuhan’s now aphoristic phrase, however clichéd it may have become through overuse, invites us to pay attention to the ways in which, as Kittler puts it (1999), “media determine our situation” – that is, to the ways in which media technologies shape, inflect and constitute modes of perception as well as the objects of perception.
In a published roundtable discussion on religion and media, Derrida (2001:58) makes the point that Christianity is the televisual religion par excellence, the only one of the three monotheistic religions permitting the mediatization of a sacred “event.” By contrast, with regards to Islam, observers working on religious media have stressed how it is “technologies of the voice” (Asad in Derrida 2001) or listening which is “privileged as the sensory activity most essential to moral conduct” (Hirschkind 2006:22). At the same time, as Hirchkind notes (2006:54), the popular attraction to Sheikh Shaarawi, one of the first preachers to have a regular slot on television, “centered on his televisual image and not his vocal performance”. Nevertheless, Hirschkind argues (2006:161) that “televisual technique is for Egyptians necessarily indexical of a national perspective”, and hence morally suspect because politically corrupt. While this claim undoubtedly makes great sense in the context of state-controlled terrestrial television, the advent of a multiplicity of satellite channels, most privately controlled, has dramatically changed the contexts of reception. Indeed, while Abu-Lughod (2004:9) notes that “television may be one of the richest and most intriguing technologies of nation-building in Egypt [as] it weaves its magic through pleasures and subliminal framings”, an argument could be made that television is now also a “technology of piety” for the very same reasons.
In an article on American televangelism, Alexander (1997:198-202) notes how many Christians prayed before and after watching evangelical preachers on television as the “ritual experiences created by the telecast enhances the power of the religious message”. Similarly, some Hindu viewers of televised religious epics such as the Ramayan reported that they watched the show out of a religious devotion that was in turn heightened by its visual mediation on the small screen, with Rajagopal (2001:94) citing “stories of viewers who bathed before the show, distributed sweets, decorated the TV set with flowers and incense”. While it is very hard to find a comparable relationality to religious television programming on the part of Egyptian Muslims, for many Muslims tuning into an Islamic channel is seen as a moral act, a willful choice to improve the self through a shunning of non-Islamic media which may be corrupting to that self in what they project on the screen – scantily clad women, sex-scenes, glorified violence and so on. At the heart of this choice, then, is a concern with vision and visuality – with what to see, what should be seen and how to see.
In his discussion of mediated religion alluded to above, Derrida (2001:58) makes the point that in contrast to Christian media where “the thing actually takes place “live” as a religious event, as a sacred event. In other religions [Judaism, Islam] religion is spoken about, but the sacred event does not take place in the very flesh of those who present themselves before the camera” (emphases in original). While I agree that this is largely true, with the most popular programs on the satellite channels being, as I noted above, talk-shows featuring various du'ah, expert panels or ordinary people talking about Islam, I would still like to complicate this argument in a number of ways. While Islam, like Judaism, is an iconoclastic religion, this does not mean that it is a visually impoverished one. On the contrary, a consideration of contemporary media practices in Islam invites us to expand our definition of what the visual might be and what acts of seeing might entail. The most popular program on Iqraa is an image-driven narrative of the Prophet’s life and times, relying on cinematic techniques (Hirschkind 2006) of story-telling to bring this distant historical period into the imaginative horizons of contemporary viewers, what Mitchell (2000) in her discussion of Christian preaching terms “visually speaking”.
For example, Mustafa Hosni, a twenty-something da’iya on Iqraa, opens the first episode of his show ‘Ala bab al-ganna (At the Gates of Paradise) with a precise laying out of the program’s objective. Perched on the edge of a red-orange couch, a glass table in front of him and various objets d’art around him, he tells the mixed-gender studio audience and viewers at home that tuning into this program will help “transform Paradise from merely an invisible dream to a daily reality” as he brings to life eschatological accounts of the after-life through a passionate narration of Qur’anic and Prophetic stories. Hosni notes that while the Qur’an describes believers as those who believe in the unseen or the unknown (al-ghayb), it is incumbent on Muslims to “bring into being the afterlife into our material reality through our morals and acts.” Hosni thus transports listeners to an Elsewhere even as he concretizes for them this ontologically intangible place through a highly visual language:22 “Imagine the gates of Paradise before you [Hosni draws his arms wide apart to show the immensity of this gate]…the believers are walking one after the other on a tight-rope toward it [he rocks from side to side on the couch as if precariously balancing]…the hell-fire is below [he furrows his brow in horror]…the Prophet is waiting patiently besides the gates for all his umma to pass through [he smiles, a calm expression setting on his face as he raises his right hand to his chest, a traditional gesture of peace].”
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.