by EHAB GALAL for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JANUARY 19, 2014:
Scholarly interest in Arab media has increased dramatically over the past two decades, especially since the advent of the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera in 1996, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the global conflicts that followed this tragedy.
Arab media are increasingly seen as global players; not only as regional or local tools of communication. There are an ever-increasing number of Arab satellite TV channels that transmit to a large area of the world. Among these are also a number of important religiously oriented TV channels. While research into their history, development, content and circulation is still limited, it is rising. Very little has been published about the Arab audiences and the relationship between these new transnational channels (both religious and secular media) and their viewers worldwide.
I am editor of a new book Arab TV Audiences: Negotiating Religion and Identity (Peter Lang, 2014) that attempts to fill the gap by presenting six case-based studies focusing on how Arab audiences, in the Arab world and Europe, respond to mainly Islamic programming on Arab satellite television across a range of different national contexts: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, and the United States.
The case studies examine audiences from various perspectives offered by scholars with different research interests and theoretical approaches to their analyses of Arab audiences.
Many insights can be gained, in this volume, into different aspects of the Arab media landscape, including the fragmentation of Arab audiences, and the role of religious media in religious identity formation and negotiation.
Knowledge about Arab audiences suffers from a lack of accurate television audience measurement systems. Speaking of a typical or characteristic Arab audience (Muslims and Christians) is extremely difficult, given the fact that Arab audiences are fragmented across a region of approximately 7.5 million square kilometers, a population of more than 250 million people and an extensive number of spoken dialects, as well as major differences, when it comes to literacy, living conditions and generational divides. Market-based studies do, however, give us some general information.
In the Arab world, television is still the most popular media outlet despite the global trend towards other platforms.
In this book, the focus is on how Arab-speaking audiences consume religious media and fiction dramas with religion as a topic — transnationally and globally. Geographically, socially and religiously diverse Arab populations raise the conceptual need for even further critical audience analyses that take into account the heterogeneity and trans-nationality of Arab audiences.
Religious Guidance Finds a Home in Arab Media
The growing liberalisation of Arab media – to the extent it exists – has supported the emergence of new private media, and among these are religious satellite channels. The programming on the most popular Islamic channels, such as Iqraa, al-Resalah, al-Majd group, and al-Nas shows how religious guidance has found a home in media. Some programs even act as conduits for traditional religious practices, such as giving fatwas (proclamations) or explaining fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
There are some religious authorities and symbols that are familiar to most Arab Muslim audiences. The Sunni Egyptian preachers Amr Khaled and Muhammad Hassan have become famous from their appearances on Islamic satellite television; Khaled on Iqraa and Hassan on al-Rahma. Despite the ubiquity of these preachers, attitudes toward them vary not only between different viewers within a country, e.g. Egypt, but also across nations. The interesting aspect is that the preachers themselves have become an element of a global Arab Muslim language, where audiences as diverse as university students in London to a schoolteacher in Egypt share a common point of reference.
All of the above mentioned channels are financed by Saudi businessmen. al-Nas and another popular channel al-Rahma are headed by Egyptian religious scholars. They are all characterised as having Salafi aspirations dominated by a Gulf state outlook and Saudi conservative Salafi tradition. Most Islamic satellite channels do not stem from religious institutions or organisations, but from multiple business interests with a sharp eye for market share. This is reflected in the programming, which can be divided between a) explicitly religious programming, such as fatwa and fiqh programmes that in different ways offer interpretations of Islam and advice by religious authorities, b) more popular genres like debate, competition, music, drama etc. with explicit references to Islam and c) programs without explicit religious references, but that promote knowledge considered relevant to the Muslim audience. Some of the programming is widely distributed on several media platforms, e.g. YouTube.
This trans-mediality strengthens the transnational circulation, as is exemplified in a chapter that I have written for the book entitled “Audience responses to Islamic TV.” This chapter compares audience responses in Egypt, the UK and Denmark with special attention to time and place. By exploring the various practices of watching television, I identify three typical viewers: a) those who organise their day to see specific programmes, typically a preacher programme; b) those who accidentally watch religious programming; and c) those who deliberately search for specific programmes via accessible platforms when they have the time. The Egyptian and British audiences of my study appeared primarily to identify Islamic TV with specific preachers, while the Danish audiences rather referred to specific channels. In all three countries they mainly refer to Gulf State and Egyptian-based preachers and channels.
Ratiba Hadj-Moussa, Associate Professor at York University (Toronto), examines audiences in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco with a specific focus on how viewers use Islamic programming to negotiate gender and Arab identity. Especially younger women watching the Iqraa channel argue that religious programming, such as those with the Egyptian Sunni preacher Amr Khaled, made them become better Muslims. For example some started wearing the hijab (veil). While this is a symbol of gender identity, it is also a symbol of an Arab identity.
Hadj-Moussa also noticed in her research that watching other Arab satellite programming together with Islamic programming has also become a way of identifying as an Arab in opposition to the West. The viewers turn to Arab television and away from French television as a mode of identity negotiation.
Noha Mellor, professor at the University of Bedfordshire (UK), analyses how younger university students in London with an Arab-Muslim background respond to religious programming broadcast by Arab satellite channels. She has found that by-and-large they are renouncing the religious television preachers supported by their parents. For instance they find Khaled boring, and generally reject his programmes as irrelevant because they find that his programmes stem from an other-than-British context.
While Mellor primarily focuses on the local context, Khalil Rinnawi (Assistant Professor in Rishon Letzion) in his research on the Arab diaspora in Germany, focuses on the global context in which the audiences position themselves. They consume Islamic media content via satellite television stations such as Iqraa.
While the findings show a generational gap with a preference for Arab media among the first generation immigrants and German media among the second generation, a ‘back to Islam’ sentiment has emerged in both generations. While the first generation consumes Islamic media for practical reasons (e.g. substituting the mosque), the younger generation to a higher degree find an emotional reason to watch Islamic media; i.e. giving them a greater sense of belonging to the Islamic community, culture and heritage. One explanation for this is their experience of not being fully accepted in the German society.
Vivian Ibrahim, Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi, compares audience responses to an Egyptian television drama (musalsal) serial about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood entitled “al-Gama’a” (The Group), which was broadcast during Ramadan in 2010 in Egypt and the Arab world and by satellite accessible worldwide. The responses by Muslims and Copts (Egyptian Christians) in the US and the UK show that the history and time of immigration make a difference in the interpretation of the serial. They especially disagree about the Egyptian narrative of unity across religious differences, which is one claim put forward by the serial. The immigrants who arrived recently were more critical towards this idea. They referred to their own experiences of immigration and their experiences facing discrimination and inequality back home.
Lise Paulsen Galal, Associate Professor at Roskilde University, Denmark, explores public responses in Egypt to the two Egyptian commercially produced feature films “Baheb el-Cima” (I Love Cinema, 2004) and “Hassan wa Murqus” (Hassan and Marcus, 2008). While both movies portray Egyptian Copts and the role of religion in Egypt, they generated very different responses that led to protests and legal proceedings from Copts and Muslims alike.
Religion as a Consumer Good
It is important to be aware that the presence of religion in media is not only particular to Arab media. Whether appearing on secular or religious channels, media researchers say religion is an increasingly popular topic. However, the ways in which media address religion differ widely across nations and across public and private media.
Despite the trend of the creation of specific religious channels or programs, religion also appears to have become a larger part of general entertainment and consumer culture. Religious programming not only makes an appearance in popular media genres such as lifestyle programmes, but religious themes can be found worldwide in many movies, TV drama series, cartoons, reality TV, and television contests, and increasingly includes religious figures themselves. There are even contests for Koran recitation and “spiritual beauty” contests.
Religion, through TV, has become a consumer good, but is it also cutting into audiences of traditional religious institutions. In an age when religiosity has become the responsibility of the individual, and he/she has a choice of which marketplace to get it, religious channels and programmes offer symbolic resources, and even guidance, to the individual Muslim or Christian in order to help him or her become a true believer. Many of these programmes propagate a modern and individualized approach to being Muslim or a Christian as something one needs to ‘achieve’ through practice. Here audiences are invited to participate in the negotiations of true religion and what it means to be Muslim (or Christian) by choosing from among the many programs, religious authorities and interpretations.
Watching religious TV is not only a way of confirming a particular religious position (for instance Salafi, Sunni, Shia, Christian, etc.). It’s also a way of positioning oneself in opposition to or in accordance with a secular or Western political stance. For others, watching religious TV is a way of finding a personal space for piety or finding answers to a religious question.
The case studies in this book, which mainly cover Arab Muslim media, demonstrate how religious themes intersect with ethnicity, nationality and social characteristics (like gender and age), and impact the viewer. Arab Muslims make use of religious, cultural, and political narratives offered by Arab religious media, and by secular Arab media as well as western media in order to help them construct their ideas about believing and belonging within and across national borders.
CLICK TO WATCH Children’s program on al-Majd TV (video capture courtesy Ehab Galal)
CLICK TO WATCH Iqraa TV — Ramadan (video capture courtesy Ehab Galal)
FOR SLIDESHOW OF ARAB TV IMAGES CLICK HERE (END OF ARTICLE)
Ehab Galal is an Assistant Professor in Media and Society in the Middle East at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen. He holds a PhD from the University of Copenhagen with the title (translated from Danish): “Identity and Lifestyle on Islamic Satellite-television: a content analysis of selected programmes’ positioning of Muslims”. In his current project he explores media strategies including digital media of Islamist political parties with the overall objective of studying political and cultural changes after the Arab Spring. Galal published several articles on Arab media in both English and Danish. The above essay is based on his new book Arab TV-Audiences: Negotiating Religion and Identity (ed. Ehab Galal, Peter Lang (publisher), 2014).
This article was originally published in ISLAMiCommentary, which is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
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