By Walter Armbrust, University of Oxford

*This memo is an extract from a longer paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (82, no. 3: 841-856) and was presented in this format as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

Over the past two decades, a steady trickle of Egyptian films and television serials has addressed Islamism. Al-Da‘iya (The Preacher) was a Ramadan musalsal broadcast in the summer of 2013 that attempted to outline a nominally positive argument for what religion should be (humanist, tolerant of difference and apolitical), rather than simply a negative argument about what it should not be (violent, misogynist, intolerant of difference, obsessed with the afterlife rather than with this world). The first maneuver in building this particular construct was to make the preacher both beautiful and repulsive (at least to non-Islamist audiences) at the same time. In the first scene of the series, we see an audience of men at a sermon in a large mosque. We hear the preacher’s voice before we see his face:

If they ask you about music, say that it is Satan’s flute. It is forbidden! Forbidden! And it’s not just me saying that. That is what the correct religion says, as was explained by scholars over many generations, may God be content with them. Let us pray for the Prophet. What did our shaykh Ibn Hanbal say about the matter? ‘Singing sprouts hypocrisy in the heart’. More than that, he said anyone who sees a musical instrument should break it. He said, ‘there was a group of men (“orphans,” yatama) who inherited a singing slave girl. She had been sold while singing for a price of 20,000 dinars. If she didn’t sing she would bring only 2,000. [Ibn Hanbal] said ‘no, sell her for 2,000. Because if singing was lawful God wouldn’t have caused such money to not be given to orphans.’ Do you understand my brothers? You understand? [the crowd answers approvingly; closeups on the faces of a grizzled man saying ‘May God strengthen you; God bless you’] I don’t agree with the ‘good brother’ who tells me that that ‘the lady’ Nancy ‘Agram is singing a patriotic song when she says ‘a son of Egypt, may God be with him.’

The latter reference is from a patriotic music video Ana Masry (I am an Egyptian) made by the sometimes provocative and always sexy Lebanese singer Nancy ‘Ajram (2009).[1] It is at this point that the camera swings from panning over the all-male and generally scruffy mosque congregation (lingering on the faces of individuals who would eventually be revealed as part of the narrative) onto a close-up of the preacher’s face. He is young and startlingly handsome, wears designer glasses, an expensive gold-trimmed abaya, and sports a neatly trimmed beard rather than the deliberately unruly facial hair cultivated by many television shaykhs. And so we are introduced to Shaykh Yusuf. The contrast between his conservative rant against music and the preacher’s handsome and stylish appearance is striking.[2]

Shaykh Yusuf’s proximate real-life models are the du‘a al-gudad – the so-called “new preachers” who have emerged since the early 2000s. Amr Khaled, a young dynamic da‘iya with a business degree, started the trend, and since his first appearance in the mediascape numerous imitators have emerged. Initially he gave private lessons in religion to well-off audiences, particularly women, but then broke into public consciousness in 2000 with an innovative program called Kalam min al-Qalb (words from the heart), broadcast during Ramadan on the private satellite channel Dream TV. In the previous decade the tenor of Islamist discourse circulating outside state control had tended to be rather grim and death-obsessed, focusing, for example, on the ‘Adhab al-Qabr (“tortures of the crypt” as the title of one much-discussed 1990s-vintage book title put it; ‘Ashur 1979) that would be suffered by anyone who practiced religion incorrectly, which is to say in contravention to a harsh Islamist ethos.[3] The general tenor of ‘Amr Khaled’s program, in contrast, was love: God’s love of man and man’s love of God. Moreover, the form of Words from the Heart deliberately followed populist American evangelical television, in which preachers were humanized and made as approachable as possible (Wise 2004; Moll 2010). On Words from the Heart Khaled appeared in a natty Western business suit. His audience was gender mixed and prosperous looking. The format looked like that of a game show, or The Oprah Winfrey Show, with a live audience in the frame. It was interactive rather than structured by the delivery of a sermon to passive listeners. Words from the Heart was an earthquake in the sphere of mass mediated da‘wa. Hence The Preacher’s Amr Kaled-like Shaykh Yusuf was a contradictory character: a “modern liberal” in appearance, but a fanatic in tone.[4]

In the serial, the paradoxical quality of Youssef strikes women with particular intensity. Immediately after his anti-music sermon Youssef goes to a studio of the (fictional) al-Qahira channel to record a television show. Dual cameras point at the stage, each operated by a chic woman in higab. “He’s so beautiful,” murmurs one to the other. “What a shame that he’s so harsh.” “Fear God!” says the other, slightly shocked. “What, he’s not beautiful?” replies the first woman. “Yes, he is, but see to your work.” The topic of the television show is love. The only kind appropriate to “the true Islam” is love of God. Again, music comes into his discourse: “Love based on songs and separation from the beloved – this is unsuitable for true religion.”

But Shaykh Yusuf’s al-Qaeda-in-Amr-Khaled-clothing persona was only the serial’s starting point. Over the course of its thirty episodes, The Preacher evolved into a non-Islamist’s ideal vision of what a Muslim preacher should be: essentially a moral resource to be tapped into when necessary and not an omnipresent moral censor. The cause of this transformation is that the handsome young fanatic falls in love with his next-door neighbor, Nesma. In the beginning of the series, she has nothing but disdain for Youssef’s ultra-conservative message, and his appearance means nothing to her. Nesma happens to be the principal violinist of the National Orchestra. She enters the story in her own home, practicing a difficult musical passage with a colleague, which is interrupted by the sound of Youssef’s program playing on a television in the next room. It is Nesma’s mother listening to his show. She is a fan of Shaykh Youssef, captivated by his appearance and barely hearing the harshly conservative message. Nesma lashes out at her mother. “How can you listen to that retarded stuff? The whole world knows my opinion of that man. He’s reactionary!” “Quiet,” hisses her mother, “I want to hear the rest of it. Stick to music, you know about that. You shouldn’t talk about other things. ” Nesma responds indignantly: “How can a cultured medical doctor who understands the world sit in front of that guy while he tells you stuff he gets from God knows where? What’s going on Mama? Isn’t it enough that he’s against the revolution?”

The contours of the plot emerge. Nesma’s reference to Youssef’s position on “the revolution” fixes the time frame (the post-January 25th present, which means during the year of Mohamed Morsi’s rule, who is never mentioned by name, but is alluded to frequently in scenes of righteous demonstrations against a tyrannical Islamic regime). Her initial loathing for Youssef establishes the emotional distance between them that has to be overcome in order for the plot to advance. The love story of course develops gradually over the next few episodes and then gathers steam. A thirty-episode series allows scope for many sub-plots. A few of them bear mentioning in a short summary of the story.

First, much of the story takes place against a backdrop of the religious broadcasting industry.[5] The industry is shown as mostly corrupt and cynical, though the main representative of the business (the owner of the al-Qahira channel) ultimately achieves some ethical redemption. Another strand of the serial is the complexity of Youssef’s family: an estranged lower-class drunkard father; a jealous would-be-preacher brother-in-law who marries the daughter of Youssef’s television producer (depicted as strictly a businessman with no religious agendas) after Youssef rejects her advances; Youssef’s sister married to the would-be-preacher who demands and is granted a divorce when her husband marries the daughter of Youssef’s television producer (she eventually rejects a marriage proposal from the television producer himself); a younger sister bristling at the harsh discipline that Youssef metes out to her in his earlier (pre-falling-in-love) persona; an epileptic younger brother whose life is saved by Nesma’s medical doctor mother, thereby forming a less hostile link between the two families that ultimate leads to the love story between Nesma and Youssef.

The Islamists in the serial, aside from Youssef, who ultimately transcends the category of “Islamist,” are more straightforward. All are unethical, hypocritical, prone to violence, and conniving to use Youssef for their own dark ends. The Muslim Brotherhood is never named as such. This has less to do with the fact that the serial was made during the Morsi era than with the conventions of mass mediated narratives on Islamism. Specific groups are rarely named, which means that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis (all variants, some of which are jihadist and others politically quietest) are conflated. This convention is consistent with attitudes of the non-Islamist intelligentsia: for many, all men in beards are distrusted. Indeed, one of the bitterest grievances against the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power was that they only seemed to be seeking political alliances with Salafis, never attempting to seriously reach out to non-Islamist political forces.[6]

The state, unlike the intelligentsia, does make distinctions between men with beards. Ultimately when the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by the military in the summer of 2013 it was only the Brotherhood that was singled out by the security forces and the judiciary; Salafis were largely ignored. Accusations are often made that many of the prominent Salafi shaykhs were in fact in the pay of Amn al-Daula (the state security service) during the Mubarak era. The swift reversal of their support for Morsi once the military moved against his government and the relatively light attention given to them in the post-Morsi era seems consistent with these suspicions of earlier collusion between Salafis and the regime.

In The Preacher, bearded men in western suits try to co-opt Youssef. Eventually one of the Islamists, Shaykh ‘Ali, emerges as crazier and more violent than the others. After Youssef goes public on-air about collaboration between Shaykh ‘Ali and State Security, Shaykh ‘Ali retaliates by taking Youssef hostage and threatening to kill him. The most senior of the radical shaykhs in the end forces Shaykh ‘Ali to release Youssef, not so much from an ethical obligation to save the preacher’s life as from a sense of self-preservation tempered by outrage at the revelation of Shaykh ‘Ali’s betrayal. The senior shaykh refrains from having Shaykh ‘Ali killed, but banishes him forever from his Islamist brethren.

Shaykh ‘Ali’s expulsion from the radical Islamist organization leads to a finale that ties the serial to precisely the same State Security service for which Shaykh ‘Ali had spied on his own organization. As the serial nears its end Shaykh Youssef, through the magical transformative power of Nesma’s love, becomes a proper human being. There is no other way to put it. On air he renounces his condemnation of music and art. He declares his love for Nesma openly and they become engaged. He joins Nesma in demonstrations against the ruling Islamist regime. And most importantly, he begins preaching a form of liberal Islamic feminism totally at odds with the harsh quasi-Qutubist opinions he had formerly propagated. Once Shaykh ‘Ali’s desperate revenge plans are frustrated by the reluctantly repentant radical shaykh, and Youssef is freed, he makes plans to attend the final performance of Nesma’s endlessly rehearsed solo – the very device that had captured his heart and led to his conversion from harsh Islamism to tolerant humanity.

Youssef sits in a private box seat to watch Nesma’s performance. The disgraced Shaykh ‘Ali, now shaved to blend in with non-Islamist society, takes a box seat opposite Youssef. As Nesma’s solo nears its climax Shaykh ‘Ali produces a silenced pistol from a concealed holster, draws a bead on Youssef, and shoots him in the heart. Youssef slumps over, dead. Nobody notices. The concert ends, and the crowd files out with Youssef still slumped over in his seat, blood slowly seeping over his white shirt. It appears to be the ultimate revenge of radical Islamism.

At this point the image freezes, and a solemn voice intones in ponderous formal Arabic, “This is one possible ending of our story, in which bitter darkness is victorious and rigidity and backwardness defeats the nation. But there could be another ending…” Then the camera goes into reverse, back to the beginning of the violin solo. Youssef again sits transfixed by the music. Shaykh ‘Ali again pulls his pistol and draws a bead on Youssef … and just before he pulls the trigger two uniformed policemen appear from behind. They grab Shaykh ‘Ali, prevent his shot at Youssef, and hustle him out of the orchestra box without ever disturbing the concert or the crowd.

This incredibly contrived endorsement of the State Security service was broadcast on August 7, 2013 one week before state security forces cleared the pro-Morsi sit-in at Midan Rab‘aa al-‘Adawiyya, resulting in 924 civilian deaths and 8 members of the security forces (“Taqrir Shamil…” 2013). Of course the serial had been in production during the Morsi era. I remember seeing an article in The New Yorker of all places claiming that the Morsi regime was going to ban the serial, but that after his overthrow, just before the beginning of Ramadan, the censorship office had heroically reviewed all thirty episodes in one sitting so that it could be approved and aired (Chang 2013). Or maybe not. Another article conveys thanks by The Preacher’s writer to the Amn al-Watani (national security)[7] for “refusing the request by the director of the office of the President, who was responsible for coordinating between the presidency and the security agencies, to stop the broadcast of The Preacher on grounds that it defamed preachers” (Ghoneim 2013). The article was published on June 25th, before the tamarrud demonstration that set the stage for the army’s removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from government.


 

[1] Nancy ‘Ajram recorded a number of songs in Egyptian dialect as a means of marketing herself to the largest Arabic-speaking audience. This song, accompanied by a highly patriotic video montage, is an excellent sample of the mainstream convention of refusing to include Islamically marked bodies in a representation of the nation.

[2] The “sama‘ polemic” about the status of music (forbidden or permitted) dates from early Islamic history (Nelson 2001, 32-51). The aggressively anti-music position expressed in the sermon is plausibly drawn from the debate (and the story about the jurist Ibn Hanbal and the slave girl inherited by the orphans is commonly told to support the anti-music opinion). But to the extent that modern Egyptians care about legal debates on music, there are other less negative opinions that can be cited.

[3] The doctrinal basis of such Islamist trends is broadly Qutbist. Sayyid Qutb was a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Council in the 1950s, arrested after an attempted assassination of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir in 1954, and executed after a show trial in 1966. His principle works, Milestones (1989) and In the Shade of the Quran (1979), have been major inspirations for radical Islamist groups over the past five decades. Qutb’s application of the term jahiliyya (age of pre-Islamic ignorance) to contemporary governments, including governments of Arab states such as Egypt, underpinned a strategy of some groups, such as Takfir wal-Hijra (excommunication and exodus) in the 1970s and 1980s, and more contemporary offshoots such as al-Qaeda, to withdraw from a modern society that they saw as hopelessly corrupt. Kepel (1984) details the history and politics of Egyptian Islamist radicals in the 1980s. Those groups—extremists withdrawn to the spatial margins of the modern Egyptian state—have been central to many Egyptian televised and cinematic representations of the whole phenomenon of Islamism.

[4] This is not to say that Amr Khaled’s “liberal” credentials were necessarily a given. He quickly became a social sensation with many followers, but he was controversial, and sometimes the object of conspiracy theories (e.g. “‘Amru Khalid …” 2014). Some dismissed him as a “yuppie preacher”; others suspected him of hiding dark motives or Muslim Brotherhood affiliations in his relatively milquetoast Islamic discourse (and note that Shaykh Youssef’s discourse at the beginning of the serial was not milquetoast). In the early 2000s Khaled was said to have been banned from preaching in Egypt by the Mubarak regime, though some suspected him of having invented the banning story in order to gain greater “street credibility.” For a while he was based in Birmingham in the United Kingdom. At about the same time he became affiliated with the Saudi-funded Iqra’ religious channel, which produced programs in Beirut. Moll (2010) discusses Khaled’s relationship with Iqra’. Shortly before the January 25th Revolution he returned to Egypt amid much speculation about whether or not he had political ambitions (‘Ajam 2010).

[5] Moll (2010) analyses the broad contours of this kind of religious broadcasting in Egypt prior to the Revolution. The Preacher was undoubtedly inspired to some degree by Maulana (our master), a novel by journalist and media personality Ibrahim ‘Isa (2012). Maulana was published about a year before the broadcast of The Preacher. Events in the novel are structured by the ever-expanding satellite broadcasting religion industry, and its relation to business and politics. The credits of The Preacher do not mention Maulana, but the resemblance of the two narratives is nonetheless striking.

[6] For a sample of the non-Islamist activists’ stance at about the half-way point of Morsy’s year in office see Soueif (2012). Hamid (2013) comments specifically on the tendency of the Muslim Brotherhood in power to court only Salafi coalition partners. Brown (2013) provides a more methodical overview of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi political parties over the long term.

[7] Al-Amn al-Watani (national security) is the post-Revolution name for Amn al-Daula (state security), the forces of which had been humiliated during the Revolution)


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The Preacher: A Backstage Islamic Media Drama