By Yasmin Moll, University of Michigan

*This memo was originally drafted 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.

Within a few hours of the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from Egypt’s presidency, security forces shut down Misr25, the Islamist organization’s newly founded satellite television channel, as well as established Islamic satellite channels openly partisan to Brotherhood rule. With unabashed glee, the domestic press framed these media closures as not only the first step in the crackdown on the Muslim Brothers and their sympathizers, but also as the beginning of the end of a phenomenon that had been derisively dubbed al-tijara bil din, literally “trading with religion.” This phrase neatly brought together two long-standing accusations against Islamic television channels and the preachers who appear on them: 1) that they are “exploiting religion” to make money, and 2) that they are “playing politics” in the guise of promoting piety. As the Arab Islamic satellite sector grew exponentially after the new millennium, so did the attributions of covert pecuniary-cum-political purposes to religious channels. The criticisms reached a crescendo following the 2011 revolution as the temporary opening of the political space led to widespread anxieties about the Islamic television viewer as voter.

The familiar storyline of illiberal “liberal” secularists irrationally fearing public religion and religious publicity would be easy to adopt in tracing the incitement to discourse around Islamic television. Here, however, I want to complicate this conventional account, with its predictable villains and victims, by foregrounding other kinds of panics over Islamic television. Overall, our scholarly accounts of religious broadcasting in the Middle East have omitted internal critiques of Islamic television by both Islamic television producers themselves and their viewers. This omission, I argue, is in part due to the recasting of normative accounts of the political economy of Islamic television as descriptive or, worse, theoretical. The peril of ignoring how producers of Islamic television themselves interrogate its moral economy is an empirical obfuscation of how moral value is made and remade through changing intersections of capital, labor, and religion. My comments will focus on Egypt, where, since 2010, I have been researching the production of Islamic television through fieldwork with the New Preacher Mustafa Hosny’s media team at Iqraa, one of the region’s oldest Islamic satellite channel.[1]

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In the late 1990s, changes in political economies and media regulations made possible for the first time the private ownership of television channels in the satellite sector. Since then, extreme unease about transnational satellite television has been a consistent feature of Egyptian public discourses on media. Editorials and “investigative” journalism have described in deeply pessimistic, if not dystopic terms, the steady growth of privately-owned satellite channels and the ostensible effect they are having on Egyptian society: satellite channels are a tsunami or a typhoon engulfing hapless Egyptians with a surfeit of content, leading to familial dysfunction, social breakdown, national disunity, political paralysis, class warfare, depression, and even psychosis. Religious channels (al-qanawat al-diniya) are at the fore of this criticism despite being – numerically, financially, and viewership-wise – minor players in the transnational Arab satellite sector.

Between 2010 and 2012, I clipped hundreds of editorials and articles from a variety of newspapers condemning Islamic television preachers as insincere, money-grubbing charlatans who might also be treasonous collaborators working for sinister foreign agendas. In these accounts, Islamic television preachers are scorned as tujjar din, merchants of religion, who promote at best a “surface-level” religiosity where what matters most is not piety but power. Such negative depictions of the figure of the Islamic television preacher are also vividly dramatized on the small screen, as Walter Armbrust discusses in this volume.

Islamic television channels as sites of revenue and waged labor implicate religion in different regimes of value, including economic value. For critics this implication destabilizes, in some fundamental way, what religion is “really” about. Daʿwa should not be for dollars.[2] Adding insult to injury from this vantage point, dollars are being used to promote political agendas and partisan interests in the idiom of religious truth. This instrumentalized corruption of both the political and the religious is possible, critics argue, precisely because of both a regulatory environment that allows private interests and non-state organizations to own instruments of mass broadcast and an economic arrangement that makes it financially feasible to do so. The moral panics around private Islamic television channels thus pivot on two interrelated fears: that religion is being commodified and that religion is being politicized.

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These moral panics around the political economy of Islamic television, whether expressed in mass media or in casual conversation, tell us a great deal about indigenous concerns about the marketization of religious authority. These concerns should, of course, be objects of academic scrutiny in their own right. Remarkably, however, these social discourses are recast as analytical tools in scholarly accounts of Islamic television preachers. In this scholarship, popular Islamic television preachers such as Amr Khaled are lambasted for promoting an “air-conditioned Islam,” an ersatz religiosity reflecting yet another iteration of nefarious neo-liberal logics at work. Academic observers express almost fervent anxieties about religion being “diluted” and “desacralized” – made “lite” or “wish-washy” or made akin to consumer goods such as “laundry detergent, cars, and cell phones” – through enmeshment in the transnational media circuits and globalized cultural imaginaries enabled by economic liberalization. [3]

Also echoing Egyptian social discourses on Islamic television, other scholars focus more on the covert politics behind the religious satellite sector. Islamic channels are alternatively framed as instruments of political hegemony in the region by the Saudi state and its allied Wahhabi theologians,[4] or of American empire working through Saudi capital to “reform Islam” along secular-liberal lines and thus actually undermine the appeal of Wahhabi theologies, [5] or of authoritarian states allying with neoliberal business elites to create an apolitical religious counterbalance to their Islamist opposition.[6] The point of these accounts is to unmask Islamic media projects as instrumentalist and insincere. Religious satellite channels are, we are told, up to “dirty tricks.”[7]

All of these characterizations use a normative stance – religion and the market and politics should not mix – to understand what happens when they do. While we can certainly oppose television preaching as unduly commercialized or improperly politicized in our own media consumption choices, in our scholarship a better question to ask is in what ways and on what bases do religious practitioners themselves celebrate or condemn television preaching as x, y or z? This would then get at questions that matter for the social analysis of religious media, including how the mass mediation of religious discourse and its relation to politics is shaped by the different flows of capital that make private-sector television possible in the Arab region and what the uneven positioning of different media players in relation to these flows tells us about the efforts of contemporary Muslims to create religious publics.

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To be clear, I am not arguing that ownership structures have no effect or investment in shaping media content, whether in the Islamic broadcasting sector or elsewhere, but rather that these effects and investments are invariably negotiated and sometimes subverted by the actual producers of content, whose day-to-day work involves operationalizing allocated capital. I was always amazed during my fieldwork at the extent to which a preacher’s control over “his” program effectively ceased the moment he stopped recording it as the program entered a post-production process with multiple and consequential “authors,” each with their own interests and views.

I am also not arguing that money does not matter to Islamic television producers or preachers – in fact, the single biggest complaint I heard from professionals in this sector across ideological and theological spectrums is that there is not enough money to work with, that they have to make their programs on shoe-string budgets compared to colleagues in the mainstream media industry, including colleagues working for the “racy” entertainment channels owned by the same investors who own theirs. The producers I met were frustrated that their channels’ respective owners spend more money setting up the channel – renting or buying its physical infrastructure and creating an often quite bureaucratic and costly administrative structure that can take up as much as 70 percent of the total budget – than they subsequently spend on creating what mattered most for their employees: new programs. They were also bitterly amused by analyses positing Islamic channels as get-rich-quick schemes. Such accounts belie their experiences of having to constantly cancel programs, rethink ambitious ideas, broadcast old content in lieu of producing new, rely on volunteer labor, make do with outdated technology, and even pay for office supplies out of their own pockets.

Nor am I suggesting that politics is not salient to Islamic television, whether as content or the framework for content. The Islamic media producers I worked with saw their role as deeply political, and understood how regnant political arrangements both offered them opportunities and imposed constraints. The 2011 revolution, and the extraordinary period of optimism and possibility that it briefly enabled, motivated the producers I worked with on Hosny’s team to reorient the role of Islamic media around building a “New Egypt.” This task necessarily involved rethinking the political within a deeply polarized social field.

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Rather, I am arguing that no singular, totalizing vision of religion, politics, or capital holds sway within a single Islamic channel, let alone the entire Arab Islamic satellite scene with all its theological and ideological diversity. And to understand these diverse regimes of religious media – their conditions of possibility, the actions and sensibilities they authorize, their horizon of aspiration – we need fieldwork. An account of Islamic television based solely on broadcast content is a partial one; this content must be situated within its sites of production and spaces of circulation. A close viewing of programs is not enough if only because what happens off screen greatly matters for what appears on it, and knowledge of both troubles the apparent fixity of either.

The contributions to this volume by James Hoesterey, Hikmet Kocamancer and Thomas MacGuire are all excellent examples of the qualitative difference ethnographic engagement makes in understanding the complex social life of Islamic television and religious publicity across diverse contexts and questions. My own ethnographic work frames Islamic television channels as prominent sites of internal critique and contestation within the Egyptian Islamic Revival. There is a deeply entrenched misconception that Islamic television preachers are mainly concerned with countering secular media and its attendant sensibilities. What quickly became apparent during my fieldwork is that Islamic Revivalists, including television preachers, spend much more time and effort debunking each other than they do secular Egyptians. At stake in these mediated debates, none of which consider secularism religiously permissible or morally desirable, are competing forms, practices and visions of what it means to be a pious Muslim and to lead an Islamic-correctly life.

And this brings me to the most important point I want to make: taking seriously Islamic television entails paying attention to the moral panics it engenders on the part of Islamic television producers themselves. Islamic media producers are as critical and suspicious of religious channels as their own secular detractors and frequently discuss among themselves the same anxious questions animating the nation’s opinion pages and mainstream cultural productions: What new types of false religiosity are such channels creating? Who is funding them? What is their real motive? What is the best way to counteract or mitigate their negative effects? Embedded in these questions about who is funding which channel and to what (usually nefarious) ends are deep-seated assumptions about who should be able to speak publically for Islam, on behalf of other Muslims, and on what bases.

Indeed, the producers I worked with at Iqraa’s Cairo branch made careful distinctions among different kinds of Islamic channels, distinctions that were rarely if ever made by those outside the Islamic satellite sector. Unlike the latter, for Hosny’s media team the “problem” was not Islamic television channels in general, but specifically Salafi television channels. One line of distinction they drew between themselves and Salafi television producers was their “professionalism” and care for high production values. The problem with Salafi television channels, they lamented, was that they were the equivalent of mom-and-pop shops: small, haphazardly run operations with no “five-year plans” or “strategic visions” beyond the promotion of a “narrow” and “rigid” interpretation of Islam. This narrowness, Hosny’s team opined, was reflected in the very quality of the programs these channels broadcast – this content confirmed, rather than subverted, secular stereotypes of religious media (and by extension of religiosity itself) as intolerant, irrelevant, and – perhaps most damningly for these media professionals – boring.

Another important line of distinction Iqraa media producers drew between themselves and Salafi channels was their “moderation.” For them, a central index of Iqraa’s moderation was it willingness to broadcast the entire spectrum of contemporary revivalist theological and political orientations, while Salafi channels only broadcast Salafi preachers. There is an asymmetry of recognition here, Iqraa producers complained – Iqraa gave air-time to what its producers called “moderate Salafi” positions, even if they disagreed with them, but Salafi channels did not as a matter of policy reciprocate. In this way, Salafi revivalists were seen not as participants in the tradition of debate and disagreement constituting the Islamic daʿwa movement, but as militants against that very tradition.

To conclude, concerns about the articulation of religious discourse with transnational capital, the security state, and increasingly fraught geopolitics index the wider struggles within the Islamic Revival over the constitution of the category of the “Islamic,” where participants mark certain media constellations as indicative of “real religion” and others as fraudulent, inauthentic or deviant. Our analytical frameworks should thus be attuned to both media and religion as contested social practices that render a wide variety of relations, institutions, and ideas both legible as Islamic and constitutive of Islam for some religious actors but not for others. Over the past three decades, scholars across disciplines have made important strides in understanding Islamism as a complex, internally-differentiated movement that both shapes and is responsive to wide-ranging socio-economic processes while not being reducible or epiphenomenal to them. These hard-won insights, the result of careful empirical research and increasingly sophisticated conceptual frameworks, need to be applied, not cast aside, to the study of the mass mediation of Islamic social imaginaries through television. Doing so enables a more sensitive – and thus more accurate – understanding of its stakes for the Muslims who both make and view it as well as the implications of these stakes for those outside the social world of Islamic television. This means not reproducing moral panics but analyzing them.


[1] Egypt’s “New Preachers,” or al-duʿah al-gudud, are so named because their styles of televisual Islamic daʿwa – which draw on globalized media genres such as dramatic serials, music videos and reality television – are unprecedented within the country’s Islamic Revival. Amr Khaled is undoubtedly the most famous of these television preachers.

[2] Zaid, Al-Sayed. 2008. “Daʿwa for Dollars: A New Wave of Muslim Televangelists,” Arab Insight, Vol. 2, No. 1

[3]See, for example, Haenni, Patrick and Hussam Tamam. 2003, “Chat Shows, Nashid Groups and Lite Preaching: Egypt’s Airconditoned Islam,” Le Monde diplomatique September, and, most recently, Kenney, Jeffrey. 2015, “Selling Success, Nurturing the Self: Self-Help Literature, Capitalist Values and the Sacralization of Subjective Life in Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47.

[4] Yamani, Mai. 2008. “Saudi Arabia’s Media Mask,” Kingdom without Borders: Saudi Political, Religious and Media Frontiers, ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed, New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] Ismail, Salwa. 2008. “Producing “reformed Islam”: A Saudi contribution to the US projects of global governance,” Kingdom without Borders: Saudi Political, Religious and Media Frontiers, ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Tantawi, Olfa. 2012. “’Modern’ Preachers: Strategies and Mixed Discourses,” in Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East, ed. Khaled Hroub, London: Hurst and Company

[7] Hroub, Khaled. “Introduction: Religious Broadcasting – Beyond the innocence of political indifference,” in in Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East, ed. Khaled Hroub, London: Hurst and Company, p. 11

 

The Moral Economy of Islamic Television: Panic and its Perils