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Islamic Satellite Channels and Their Impact on Arab Societies: Iqra Channel-a Case Study

This paper was presented at a conference organized by The Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge on "Arab Satellite Broadcasting in the Age of Globalization" held 1-3 November 2002 and is reproduced with the permission of The Cambridge Arab Media Project. This version has been edited by TBS.

In the Name of God Most Gracious Most Merciful

Islamic satellite channels are considered a novel experience in the Arab media world. Iqra Channel, which started transmission from Rome in October 1998, was the first Islamic satellite channel established to serve Arab viewers.

When we talk about Islamic channels two major questions arise: is there any need for an Islamic channel in the modern world; and how do we define an Islamic channel and is it equivalent to the religious programs that have been prevalent in Arab television channels since their beginnings in the 1960s?

We have to answer these two important questions before making an assessment of the present situation of Islamic satellite channels.

The call for establishing an Islamic channel started following the launch of Arab satellite channels in the early 1990s. Such calls were mainly in the form of articles written by academics, thinkers, and journalists who had an Islamic orientation.

I was among those who called for the establishment of an Islamic channel and had published a number of articles. "Are we in need of an Islamic satellite channel?" was the headline of one of my articles published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in July 1994 in Arabic.

In that article, I referred to the growing calls by a number of Islamic organizations and institutions to establish such a channel. The need for setting up an Islamic channel was one of the recommendations of the 8th International Conference of Latin American Muslims in Brazil in 1994. Conference participants emphasized that establishment of such a channel was essential, especially for the benefit of Muslims living in non-Islamic countries as an alternative to non-Islamic channels.

I also explained the reasons for establishing an Islamic channel.

First: Ours is an age of satellite channels, as nations compete with one another to have such a powerful medium to express their identity and achieve their interests. Arabs have also made remarkable headway in the field. This prompted us to call for dedicating some of these channels to the service of Islam.

Second: The minds of a considerable portion of Muslims have been distorted as a result of their wrong understanding of Islam. It was the result of a campaign to Westernize culture on the one hand and conflicts between various schools of thought and religious movements in the Arab and Islamic world on the other. It created groups in our societies, some of which have deviated from Islam and lost their identity while some others held extremist views and kept away from Islam's moderate line. Both groups will leave a negative effect on society, especially on youth. So the launch of an Islamic satellite channel will not only contribute to correcting misconceptions about Islam, but also enhance Islamic knowledge and help disseminate moderate Islamic teachings.

Third: Millions of Muslim minorities and communities living in non-Muslim societies, especially in Europe and America, lack proper knowledge of the Islamic faith and culture. These communities are in need of an Islamic channel to protect their Islamic identity and link them with their roots. It will strengthen their cultural orientation by providing them with spiritual and intellectual input and enable them to interact with non-Islamic societies in which they live.

Fourth: The picture of Islam is totally distorted in most societies, especially in the West. It is our duty to project the correct picture of Islam and an Islamic channel can play a vital role in achieving this objective.

There were incessant calls for an Islamic channel since then. The last of them came from the third conference of culture ministers in the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Doha in December 2001. The conference approved a project to establish an Islamic satellite channel and assigned the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) to implement the project.

In a study presented to the culture ministers, ISESCO emphasized the need for an Islamic satellite channel. It said most channels in Islamic countries were transmitting national programs via satellite without focusing on common Muslim issues. If they had focused on Muslim issues, it would have contributed to unifying Muslim ranks and creating a general Islamic opinion.

ISESCO also pointed out that although Muslims constitute a strong economic and human force they still lack a powerful media organization to raise the voice of Islam and defend Muslim causes. It said an Islamic satellite channel would help strengthen Muslim solidarity, improve their image, and defend their honor.

With regard to the definition of "Islamic channel," researchers have different opinions on the definition and nature of Islamic satellite channels. Some of them give an impression that Islamic channels are just an extension of religious TV programs, in both concept and application.

Some thought that it should be a collection of da'wa (religious preaching) material transmitted by Arab TV stations, which would be reproduced and transmitted by a single satellite channel, targeting a particular audience of religious people who do not like to watch other channels.

In our opinion this common notion is not true. There is a fundamental difference between the concept of da'wa media and Islamic media. It can be said that da'wa media is part of Islamic media as the latter is more comprehensive.

It appears to me that there is an apparent mix up in concepts and this is evident from the writings of certain researchers who consider the media and da'wa as one and the same. Some people look at the Islamic channel with a narrow historical or geographical perspective. Media is different from da'wa as it is used for purposes other than da'wa, including transmission of news, recreation programs, advertisements, etc.

In light of the same criteria, it is not acceptable to restrict an Islamic medium within the limits of a closed history because it is not linked to a particular period. On the other hand, it transcends the limits of time to live in all ages, to make impacts, and tackle issues.

Another important point is that a medium established by Muslims or a Muslim country will not be considered an Islamic medium as long as it does not conform to Islamic ideology and the Islamic conception of the universe, life, and human beings. We have to correct the wrong notion that an Islamic medium is the one established by Muslims irrespective of whether it conforms to the Islamic faith and concepts. When followers of other faiths and cultures establish their media on the basis of their ideologies, it is quite natural that Muslims regulate their media in light of Islamic teachings.

Subsequently, the basic objectives and methodology of an Islamic medium will be derived in light of its Islamic concept toward universe, life, and man.

Islamic ideology will also determine the media's general and specific functions, its style, means, and methods of presenting programs as well as media ethics and regulations.

Islamic media philosophy provides the general intellectual framework and necessary guidelines for our media activities. We look at the Islamic media as a comprehensive and total system, which determines its objectives and motives.

Our talk about an Islamic channel, its concept, content, audience and impact, should be made within the framework of this Islamic media philosophy. And we say that an Islamic channel is not a specialized religious channel, although it transmits religious programs. It is also not a da'wa channel, although it highlights the salient features of Islamic faith and culture to win the hearts of the followers of other faiths. The Islamic channel's audience will not be restricted to Islamists, although it pays them special attention.

When we talk about the Iqra Channel, I would say that it started with this comprehensive and wider concept of an Islamic medium. It was the first such experiment in the whole Arab and Islamic world. It required a full year of serious thinking and continuous work as it was not an easy task. We had to work for a novel and pioneering venture with a totally new media concept. We had to overcome a lot of obstacles and challenges to make it a reality.

It would not be an exaggeration if I say that our mission was a cultural challenge rather than merely setting up a satellite channel. It is enough for those who participated in transforming that cultural challenge into a reality to have had the honor of making an attempt.

The first person who took the initiative was Sheikh Saleh Kamil, who welcomed the idea and provided all the moral and material support needed to make it a success. He really deserves the lion's of the credit for this pioneering project.

We had depended on the following four information sources while planning for the Iqra Channel project:

1) Recommendations of scientific studies on developing religious programs on television.

2) Results of field surveys on the desire of the Arab audience to have an Islamic channel.

3) Indicators of field studies conducted by Pan-Arab Research & Consultancy (PARC) for Iqra.

4) Results of intense discussions conducted by Iqra's working team with a selected group of intellectuals, academics, think tanks, and media experts in three Arab countries.

Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh organized an important seminar on "Developing religious programs on Gulf televisions" in 1987, in association with Gulf Television Agency. A number of academic researchers and professionals in five Gulf countries took part in the seminar to review the present situation of religious TV programs and suggest ways to improve them.

At that time, I was head of the Communication department at the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University and supervisor of the main research paper to be presented at the seminar. It was an analytical study on samples of religious programs presented by television stations in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar from October to December 1986.

The participants discussed 16 research papers, which presented a lot of viewpoints, analyses, and recommendations. The seminar proposed the production and transmission of programs on Islamic Shariah and religious instructions at prime time. It also proposed sound planning for religious programs, an increase in exchange of programs by Gulf television stations, expansion of programs targeting non-Muslim expatriates working in their countries, and improvement in the quality of programs both in content and presentation.

The seminar advised that special Islam-oriented TV programs for be produced for children, women, and youth and for recreation, and that the standard of religious programs be improved. However, it did not openly call for an independent Islamic channel.

But it was quite evident that the participants were not happy with the prevailing situation of religious programs on Gulf television stations. This was proved by the calls to establish an independent Islamic channel when the Arabs first entered the world of satellite channels in early 1990s.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Kuwait conducted a survey in February 1998 on 500 men and women. The survey was conducted to understand the effect of satellite channels on values and behavior of individuals in a society and the interaction of those channels with events in the Arab and Islamic world. The participants were asked to tell the programs they watched on satellite channels and give their ideas to improve the present situation. Fifty-five percent of participants expressed their fear on the negative effect of these channels on morality and behavior. Forty-five percent said satellite channels did not care about Islamic values and traditions. Only 26 percent opined that satellite channels focused on and tackled Islamic issues and causes. So it was not a surprise that 80 percent of participants supported the idea of establishing an independent Islamic channel.

Iqra Channel assigned PARC to conduct a field study to discover the audience's needs and expectations of the new channel. PARC conducted discussions with groups of viewers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Kuwait. The individuals who took part in the survey expressed their unhappiness over obscene and shameful programs and advertisements transmitted by the channels. They said they don't want to see such programs and advertisements in the presence of family members. They praised the programs of Channel One of Saudi Arabia, Sharjah TV, and Egyptian Satellite TV, Kuwait Satellite TV, and Sudan Television, and classified them as Islamic channels.

When PARC told the individuals who took part in the survey the plan to establish Iqra Channel and its programs they welcomed it. They demanded that Iqra Channel's programs should include cultural, recreational, political, and even sports programs in addition to religious programs. They insisted that Iqra should be a balanced, tolerant, and credible channel adorned with modernity.

Iqra's working team conducted four intellectual discourses in Jeddah, Riyadh, Cairo, and Amman to discuss preliminary ideas about the channel. More than fifty intellectuals, university professors, media persons, and experts took part in these discussions. These unanimously pointed out that Iqra should be an Islamic cultural channel with a wide horizon and should not be restricted to a religious channel.

They demanded that Iqra should get out of the traditional style of presenting Islamic and cultural programs and adopt modern methods especially in tackling contemporary Muslim issues, considering all sections of society. According to them, Iqra should have the courage to discuss thorny issues and expand the space for intellectual and religious dialogue. They warned against presenting one-sided opinion and a single school of thought. They also advised that the channel should acquire the best of technology and experienced manpower to make it a resounding success.

Iqra established its identity and set out its policies in light of previous research works, field studies and intellectual discussions. It was then identified that Iqra would be a cultural and objective channel with a supreme message and that its program would be open to all Arabic-speaking viewers.

Presenting excellent television programs and materials that deal with Muslim issues and meet with the Muslim's spiritual, cultural, and social needs was Iqra's main objective. It took "Enjoyment of Objective Media" as its slogan with three main goals: objective in content, enjoyable in presentation, and professional in performance.

Iqra was described as "a comprehensive Islamic Arab channel, which presents a variety of programs covering religious, cultural, social, political, economic and recreational aspects of life."

The channel set out ten general objectives to achieve:

1) To promote the moderate and tolerant line of Islam.

2) To reinforce the significance of the Arabic language and spread the language internationally.

3) To develop the feelings of attachment to the unified cultural identity of the Ummah and protect it from cultural onslaughts.

4) To highlight the noble features of Arab and Islamic culture and shed light on the contributions of Arabs and Muslims in the service of humanity.

5) To project the true picture of Islam and remove the misconceptions and accusations against the religion.

6) To create the spirit of dialogue among individuals of the ummah (Islamic Nation) and open channels of outreach with other cultures and communities.

7) To take care of the Muslim woman and affirm her role in building a sound society, providing special attention to educational issues and bringing up new generations.

8) To help tackle present and future problems and issues facing Arabs and Muslims.

9) To introduce Arab and Islamic countries and peoples and focus on the conditions of Muslim minorities in various parts of the world.

10) To present recreational programs for all members of Arab family, such programs being free from indecency and obscenity.

The Iqra Channel has succeeded with the support of its viewers targeted by its programs. It is now fast expanding to cover all Arab and Muslim viewers within and outside Arab societies. There are certain groups of viewers including women, youth, and children in the Arab world and Arab communities in the West who watch its programs.

The channel's program policies are international in direction, moderate in methodology, comprehensive in objectives, various in content, objective in address, credible in handling issues, and attractive in presentation.

Iqra presents a wide variety of programs including cultural, religious, social, educational, informative, documentary, political, economic and recreational programs.

The character of the channel's screen has nine factors: Iqra's beautiful logo with its attractive name; its slogan of enjoyment of objective media; programs with catchy headlines; strong contents and attractive presentation; simple and classical Arabic language; judiciously selected programs; professional performance. It uses both Hijri and Gregorian calendars, Makkah and GMT time and Arabic numbers.

The channel describes itself as a channel with a mission, which does not intend to make profits. On the other hand, it opens the room for participation and contribution to finance its programs through advertisements, membership fees, sponsorships, and unconditional donations and gifts.

Iqra was launched on October 21 1998 (Rajab 1, 1419AH). It was designed to serve as a nucleus for Islamic channels which address a variety of audience and viewers having different languages other than Arabic, and specialize in areas to cater to the needs of various sections of viewers.

Ever since it went on air, the channel has been drawing applause from the public. It was widely welcomed by viewers in the Arab world and Europe even though it started transmission with a KU-Band system through Arabsat and a digital system through Nilesat and European satellite Hotbird2.

Six months after its launch, Iqra conducted a study of its performance which showed that the channel had achieved most of its objectives, such as presenting a variety of programs adopting modern methods. Its programs were classified as 34 percent religious, 16.5 percent Islamic cultural, 11.5 percent general cultural, 22 percent drama serials (mostly historical), 12.5 percent children's programs, and 3.5 percent political and current events.

The study revealed that a religious nature was dominant in the programs and it was necessary to reduce such programs and focus on documentaries, scientific, women, and family programs as well as current and hot issues in political, economic, and intellectual fields.

It also pointed out that a particular format of presentation dominated the programs. About 43.5 percent of programs were talk shows while program formats such as contests, reportage, and illustrated magazines were rarely presented. Films were restricted to history and did not present contemporary serials and dramas covering human issues and contemporary problems within an Islamic perspective as expected from the channel.

The study helped Iqra not only make changes in its programs but also to introduce new programs. By the end of the first year, the channel decided to translate some of its programs into English, following the subtitle system, for the benefit of non-Arab viewers.

After my departure from Iqra in early 2000, the channel introduced new changes and developments in its programs. It increased programs for women and family, allocated time for programs of youth aged between 12 and 18 after it focusing on children aged between five and 12. Thus the channel established its social, educational, and family nature. It also increased its translated programs in English and produced a number of programs specially for English speakers, a fatawa (Islamic edicts) program in French and an Islamic educational program in Urdu.

It is worth mentioning that the Iqra Channel was missing one basic and vital factor that is part and parcel of television programs, the news. It was a glaring lack. The channel's financial difficulties, as well as material and manpower shortage, obstructed its qualitative growth. They forced the channel to make slow steps in its efforts to cope with developments in the satellite channel world.

This demands a review of its present position vis-à-vis other satellite channels, especially when there are plans to launch new Islamic channels breaking Iqra's monopoly in the field.

Now four years after the start of Iqra, it is the duty of researchers and those who are interested in media to study the channel's intellectual, political, and social impact and make an effort to promote such channels. Iqra and other Islamic channels are expected to have a positive impact on Arab viewers, especially in promoting tolerance and religious dialogue among Arab viewers.

However, we should not underestimate the important role being played by the Iqra Channel and Islamic programs on other channels. They link Arab viewers within and outside the Arab world, strengthen their unity and provide them with a chance to watch programs of prominent Islamic scholars and intellectuals and to interact with them to discuss a variety of Islamic issues clearly and courageously. These things would not have been possible had there been no such channels.

By establishing more Islamic channels and producing more Islamic programs on other satellite channels, we ought to be able to reorient the Muslim mind and behavior in accordance with the teachings of Islam.

There is a pressing need to expand these types of channels to address other nations in their languages and with their way of thinking to open the door of cultural dialogue and correct our distorted picture. Such channels are essential to block the road of extremists, who want to drive a wedge between Muslims and other nations, and light the fire of the clash of civilizations in an age which demands close cooperation among nations to achieve peace and prosperity for all peoples.

About Dr. Abdul Qader Tash

The late Dr. Abdul Qader Tash was executive president of the Media Research & Consultancy House and founder and sometime director general of Iqra Channel.

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