Islamic Televangelism: Religion, Media and Visuality in Contemporary Egypt
The performance of representation here makes visible and present the invisible and absent and in doing so enacts it as a representational subject (Spyer 2008). In Derrida’s terms, the “sacred event” here becomes the visible transformation of inward dispositions that is effected through these performances – it is not uncommon to find Amr Khaled and his audience in tears sobbing at the end of a show, moved as they are by the retelling of the Prophet’s deeds. Viewers at home are in turn visibly moved by the display of such a transformation, experiencing a feeling of spiritual catharsis that is, for them, a testament to the authenticity of the television event – a friend once told me he came home one evening to find his parents making tearful supplications in front of their television as Amr Khaled beamed in from Mecca during the final days of Hajj, exactly as if they were in Mecca themselves.
Within these Islamic visual modes, myth, metaphor (cf. Zito 2007) and the body become signifiers of an affect, praxis and imaginative landscape informed by a relationship to the necessarily unseen, invisible and unrepresentable – a transcendent God. In one of Amr Khaled’s earlier shows on Iqraa, he introduces the idea of a “visual da’wa” whereby a Muslim, through his very bodily and sartorial appearance, can come to call others to a more faithful adherence to faith, an inward disposition not accessible to external knowledge except through its visual embodiment. For him, the hijab (head-scarf), for example, is “a walking symbol of Islam” and “wearing your higab at the beach, even if surrounded by semi-naked girls, will lead to society becoming more religious. This is the way to fix society.” In another lecture he says, addressing women, “remember you are a da’wa to God with your higab. Your higab combined with your education, beauty and wealth is a powerful blend. Through this you will purify society.” Moors notes (2006:116) how “conceptualizing the modern public sphere – be it “secular” or “Muslim” – as an arena of verbal debate easily leads to the neglect of other forms of communication, such as comportment, body language and styles of dress. In short, public spheres are not simply sites of disembodied debate but also arenas for the formation and enactment of embodied social identities…” Unlike the academics who write about them, the Islamic media producers are highly conscious of embodied communication, tightly controlling what is allowed to appear on their pious screens and what cannot – a modest dress-code is mandated for the studio audience, for example, while women’s cleavage in street-footage is blurred out. A producer working for one of the leading Islamic satellite channels told me that they are very careful about filming in public locations such as shopping malls because they cannot always control what might appear in the background, specifically women not conforming to the station’s interpretation of what constitutes acceptable Islamic attire. Viewing such women would undermine the pious efficacy of the, in Derrida’s terms, “sacred event” being broadcast.
As should be clear by now, the Islamic media this paper has been concerned with are engendered by a profound concern with how to lead an Islamically correct life in a secular modern age. An ethics of vision – how to see and what to see – is central to this concern as visual culture becomes a key site for thinking out the different trajectories of religion in contemporary Egypt. At the same time, as the first section of this paper attempted to lay out, the scopic regimes enacted by Islamic media producers depend for their efficacy, appeal and coherence on the technologies, genres and visual modalities of commercial television, whose ambit transcends any religious moorings. Further exploring new practices of Islamic preaching on television will no doubt complicate and enrich anthropological understandings of the intersections of media technologies, religion and authority, but also invite us to rethink some taken-for-granted assumptions about “ways of seeing” and how this may be important for mediating the sacred.
Yasmin Moll is a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University. Her dissertation research, based on on-going ethnographic fieldwork with Islamic satellite media producers in Egypt, focuses on the intersections of new media technologies, visual culture, and religious belief and practice, asking what does it mean to “produce Islam” (both as a media form and in the broader social sense) in a transnational, neo-liberal context. Her other research interests include ethnographic film, directing in 2009 the short documentary "Fashioning Faith." Yasmin holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS and a BSc in International Politics from Georgetown University.
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.