When Mullahs Ride the Airwaves: Muslim Televangelists and the Saudi Connection

Dishes and Mosque

Dishes and Mosque


“Soccer is not an illicit form of entertainment, but when practiced in violation of shariah, then it is as abhorrent as any other sin…. When we fanatically love non-Muslim players who perform the sign of the cross upon entering or leaving the field…or when Muslim players imitate the pagan dance of famous infidel players when they score, or put forbidden things on their chests, that’s not acceptable.” The author of this soccer fatwa is Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid on a set of Islam’s powerful spokeschannel, Iqra’ TV.

Until recently sheikhs like Al-Munajid were only able to reach their audience through audio and video recordings sold on Arab black street markets. Those who preached a rigorous interpretation of Islam had a minimal impact among fringe groups of Arab populations, but as satellite technology becomes greatly appealing to the religious and the secular alike, television channels with a strict religious message as Iqra’ are quickly setting shop. Inaugurated in 1998, Iqra’ is Saudi Arabia’s most recent and probably most effective campaign of spreading its Wahhabi doctrine, which the channel’s producers temper by saying on their website that their mission is to bring “the teachings of Islam into the homes and hearts of Arabs worldwide.” The Saudis take issue with the Wahhabi label because it makes them look less as the real Islam and more like a sect that is highly disputed in some respectable religious circles. But the systematic indoctrination of imams and financing of religious schools and mosques around the world reveal a rigid reading of Islam which forbids close interaction with non-Muslims and calls for the literal application of shariah laws across the region, including hand amputation for theft, sword beheading for capital crimes, and denying women any role in public life.

For years, Saudi Arabia had to flaunt its generosity towards poor Muslim countries by building hospitals, schools, universities and mosques even in Western Europe and the United States. According to Saudi officials, between 1975 and 2002, the Riyadh government spent more than $70 billion on Islamic projects around the world, excluding the millions of dollars volunteered by Saudi charity foundations and unidentified philanthropists. An estimated 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are funded by Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. While the funding of mosques and the ideological direction of those who frequent them do not necessarily correlate, the influence of the Saudis over the content of the sermons, the training of imams, and the substance of Islamic schools’ curricula is undeniable.

Religious spending per se is not the problem here, but it is the extremist ideology promoted thanks to this cash availability that is disturbing. The voices of intransigent Islam are featured frequently on the airwaves of Iqra’, and their edicts are often consistent with the Wahhabi attempt to purge Islam of what is perceived as foreign threat disguised as societal change. In fact, some of the messages on the channel can be extreme like Saudi cleric Aed Al-Qarni’s recent on-the-air endorsement of suicide bombing. “Houses and young men must be sacrificed,” he says, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the road to victory and to shahada (sacrifice). Oh brothers, the idolatrous Vietnamese, Cambodians, and South Africans….Nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices–sacrificing people, blood, and souls. All the more so should we, the nation of Islam.” And some show moderators often appear as enlightened by their guests’ revelations as when Egyptian historian, Zaynab Abdel Aziz tells a show host that the “Vatican delegated the US to carry out 9/11.”

While religious platforms such as Iqra’ do not call for jihad bluntly, theycontribute to an increasingly radicalized religious culture in the Arab world, making every facet of social, cultural, and economic life a religious issue in need of a fatwa. Fatwas range from Muslim women needing to comply with their husbands’ desire in bed even if they don’t want to, to why hands of stealers should be chopped, to whether Muslims should shake hands with Jews. Iqra’ (literally: “recite” or “read in an
intelligent way”), has found a fertile ground in a region still lacking basic political reforms and jaded with repetitious autocratic and corrupt regimes. For years, religious groups–mostly underground–in the Arab world have become the only viable alternative: when the health
system fails customarily in these countries, Islamic groups with disposable cash can intervene with their own doctors for free; when schools educate poorly, the same groups offer their own teachers for free. In the wake of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, religious groups often respond quickly and more efficiently than governments to help the victims and alleviate their losses, as was the case in the earthquakes of Algeria and last year’s floods of northeastern Morocco. The failure of secular regimes to provide minimum social welfare and secure political freedom in the region has steadily nurtured a new perception whereby the state benefits the elite while religion benefits the masses.

This is why the world of Arab media seems swamped with religious messages, but by now, Arabs have evolved since the state-owned, everything-is-fine, and dull television channels. So, in order to appeal to a more media saturated audience, the producers of Iqra’ are taunting their skills by making religious preaching less shabby and threatening. The on-screen graphics and studio sets are comparable to entertainment television, but nothing is more alluring than the new look of Islamic scholars and sheikhs who do not always conform to the conventional image of a preacher in a mosque. In fact, many of these preachers and scholars wear suits and use softer tones than usual. Some of them are young and do not claim to be a religious authority like the channel’s superstar preacher, Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old who hosts one of the most popular programs on Arab television, Sunaa al Hayat (Life Makers).

Khaled, who has become a household name across the Arab world, is seemingly an anomaly in the Saudi quest to popularize Wahhabism: he is young, a business accountant not a religious scholar, and with a somewhat liberal and tolerant approach to Islamic preaching. Khaled’s fame at Iqra’ was preceded by a long showdown with Egyptian authorities who expelled him from Egypt after his religious lectures had become spiritual revelations for thousands of well-to-do women and youth in the country. His age, modern look (wearing jeans or a suit and clean-shaven), and the use of colloquial Arabic make him accessible to a young Arab audience extremely tired of the staid, disconnected sheikhs of Islam. But what made Khaled’s message appealing to the Saudi channel Iqra’; is that it is liberal only in style and quite conservative in substance. During his lectures and discussions on the hijab, Khaled is rarely original in citing the reasons why Muslim women should be veiled. Women are the pillars of Islamic education and wearing the veil, he says, is a selfless gesture to protect the sanctity of the faith itself: “I think that the primary purpose of legislating hijab, other than preservation of virtue, is…to remind people in the street about Islam; there will be no way better than hijab.” Islam’s integrity, he says on his show, depends on the virtue of its women and since their responsibility in the temptation of men is inevitable, veiling is a must, even if you don’t understand. While Khaled’s message lacks in originality and critical quality, his highly emotional, talk-show style provides an innovative and soothing statement that you can be pious and still remain modern and cool. And the Amr Khaled phenomenon has just begun despite some already unprecedented television ratings for his show: five million viewers tune in to his weekly show and his web site records millions of hits daily.

By putting Khaled next to the old and conventional sheikhs, Iqra’s producers are hoping to change the moral path of young Arabs who are still deeply influenced by Western popular culture. Major Internet chat rooms in the region are teeming with testimonies, particularly of young women thanking Khaled for convincing them to put on the veil. Programming this year included not only talk shows and lectures, but dramas and cartoons. It is hard to quantify the impact of Khaled’s hip preaching and Iqra’s religious broadcasting, but religion has never been this popular from Cairo to Casablanca. At a time when political regimes in the region continuously fail their constituency and Islam is the subject of humiliating headlines, Khaled and a wave of young preachers seem not only innovative, but also vengeful in a let’s-go-back-to-the-roots fashion. It is therefore not a surprise to find Saudi Arabia at the helm of this religious survival in disguise. Though Wahhabism may never become a preferred doctrine of Muslim Arabs, its signature of uncritical, exclusionary spirituality is quickly infiltrating Arab living rooms and delaying badly needed reforms both in religious interpretations and political rule.

The 30-year-old executive manager of Iqra’, Mohammad Hammam, likes to think of his channel as serving a double mission: counter the post-September 11 image of Islam and guide Muslims to understand better their own religion. Many of the ideas propagated from the sets of the channel, however, belie the core of this mission. If there is one, it seems to be to flood the airwaves with a fatigued interpretation of religion simply refurbished with funky jingles and beardless preachers.

Iqra’ TV

Image Credits

1. Dishes and Mosque

Please feel free to comment.

What the Arab World Should be Watching

by: Nabil Echchaibi / Indiana University

I still cherish the memory of my old shortwave radio tucked underneath my bed when I was in Morocco. I rejoiced over the crackling sound of the Big Ben announcing the latest news bulletin of the BBC in Arabic and relished every news report on Radio France Internationale. If you want foreign news, tune in to Moroccan media; if you want news on Morocco, tune in to foreign media, Moroccans often joked.

These were the pre-Al-Jazeera times when the only international broadcasters had a welcome base in major Western media institutions. Today, the popularity of these once vital news sources is receding dramatically as more regional news operations in the Arab world are reclaiming their own audiences with vengeance. The BBC’s commanding influence in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s has plummeted to a meager 10 percent so much so that the Foreign Office of the British Parliament has asked the BBC to start a news channel in Arabic based in the Middle East. It is still early to determine how such a venture will fare, but one thing is certain: the international news broadcasting war is underway in the Arab world, and it does not bode well for the sanctity of news balance.

This news saga began when Al-Jazeera, a satellite news network in Qatar, best known in the West for airing the controversial tapes of Osama bin Laden, became isolated as an example of dangerous and inflammatory reporting in the aftermath of September 11. The tiny news operation, however, has been hailed in the Arab world since its inception in 1996 for its critical and innovative reporting on social, economic and cultural issues, which other Arab national and satellite media working under tight state control had never dared to cover.

Here is yet another example, so we are told, of a transparent clash of cultures that only reinforces the widely propagated idea that cultural differences between the West and the East are primordial and irreconcilable. Journalistic cultures and differing perspectives of what constitutes news are used symptomatically to draw our attention to a much bigger problem. Consider these sporadic headlines on Al-Jazeera before September 11: “Glasnost In the Gulf”; “Al-Jazeera: CNN Of the Arab World”; “Al-Jazeera TV Leads the New Arab Free Press.” Now compare those with these recent headlines: “Bush’s New War Room”; “News or Propaganda? Courting Controversy”; “What the Muslim world is Watching.”

When Al-Jazeera became international headline news, its popularity was restricted to post September 11 coverage in which the station was pitted against American media and the ideals of Western objective journalism. The controversy about Al-Jazeera should be examined as a result of differing political perspectives and not as an extension of an essentialist conflict of cultures as many critics have so readily concluded. Fouad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a frequently consulted source on Arab affairs on American media, is convinced Al-Jazeera has a political and religious agenda that is far from being innocuous. The station’s reporters, he complains, are “a fiercely opinionated group, most are pan-Arabists-nationalists of a leftist bend committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world–or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” In a 6,000-word article in the New York Times titled: “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” the longest article to have appeared in the newspaper on Al-Jazeera and the most frequently cited as well, Ajami seems to be sounding the drums of doom, granting Al-Jazeera more credit than what it really deserves and using a sensational headline to compound the impact of the station that is limited to only Arabic-speaking viewers. The world Muslim population today is about 1 billion, 200 million, of which Arabs account only for 250 million.

While Al-Jazeera is not a perfect news channel–it is not clear whether such a thing exists or might exist–it has provided a much needed alternative to bland political reporting by state-controlled channels that are notorious among Arabs for their government twaddle and their detached and staid reporting style. Even a channel such as MBC, a satellite network owned by the brother-in-law of the king of Saudi Arabia and on the air since 1989, has failed to offer quality news programming critical of political regimes and popular culture. MBC has recently started a 24-news network to compete with Al-Jazeera, but its ownership already undermines the editorial independence of its reporters. In 1996, Al-Jazeera sprung up out of an aborted deal between the Saudi-owned channel Orbit and the Arabic service of the BBC. Most of Al-Jazeera’s reporters were working for the BBC, and many of them have been trained in England or the United States.

In fact, Al-Jazeera’s news style resembles that of any U.S. news network, including CNN and Fox News. One of its most popular news talk shows, Opposite Direction, is modeled after CNN’s Crossfire where guests with extremely opposite views engage in a heated and sometimes deafening discussion on such issues as religious extremism, polygamy, freedom of expression, women’s rights, Arab politics, Palestinian-Israeli conflict: all taboos on regular Arab television. Critics of Al-Jazeera charge that such programs are used by the station to inflame passions and galvanize anti-American and anti-semitic sentiments, already manifest in the “Arab Street.” While the charge is highly questionable as Al-Jazeera is only reflecting existing realities within the Arab world that are often understood outside of a larger context. The same can be said about some programs on American radio and television that feature guests with disparaging and highly controversial comments, which may or may not reflect the opinions of their audiences. If blame has to be assigned anywhere, then it should be directed at the demented world of 24-hour news networks that feeds on lurid coverage of news and issues to secure profits. Al-Jazeera is just another example of this trend, except that since 1996, the station has been swimming in uncharted waters in the Arab world with no real competition to put pressure on its performance.

Pressure has been coming rather from Arab governments dissatisfied with the station giving voice to political dissidents and digging for social problems. Many of these governments have either closed the Al-Jazeera bureau in their capitals or, as in the case of some Gulf countries, instructed their companies not to use Al-Jazeera for their advertising needs. When the United States joins this list, it puts itself in an incriminating position, which some Arabs might interpret as double standard politics, an already well-established view in the Middle East.

If the Arab world is to modernize and free itself from the social and cultural stagnation it has been mired in, then it needs more channels like, or better than Al-Jazeera. Arabs need to feel there is a public forum for the expression of their views, both extreme and moderate. Demonizing, instead of constructively criticizing, the only attempt to do so, particularly at this important historical juncture, will prove dangerous and counter productive. The recent satellite news explosion in the region is nothing but a deafening cacophony and an all too familiar story. The Saudi Al-Arabiyya and Al-Ekhbariya, the Emirati Abu-Dhabi Television, and the Lebanese Al-Hayat remain constrained by their direct state ownership and editorial control. The U.S. government has joined the melee recently by launching a multi-million dollar news network of which the name, Al-Hurra (‘The Free One’), reveals much about its expected performance in the region.

The old days of shortwave radio, as liberating as they were, are decidedly over, but would the television news alternative from the Arab world prove as vindicating of the old official line which seems to be hiding behind the sleek garb of technology? Al-Jazeera needs a real competitor so it never loses sight of its original mission to expose the other opinion.

Al-Jazeera TV
Al-Jazeera Privatization
More on Al-Jazeera Privatization

Please feel free to comment.