POMEPS Studies 23: New Islamic Media

In years past, Islamist televangelists like Amr Khaled, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Tareq Suwaidan seemed like the future of Arab media. Advancing a form of “soft Islam” focused on personal betterment and religiosity, these preachers were seen by some as a potential counterweight to extremist voices and by others as a sinister leading edge of radicalization. The contretemps between Amr Khaled and Yusuf al-Qaradawi over the Danish Cartoons Crisis of 2006 inspired numerous academic articles (and several of my own blog posts).

Today, such figures have become far more marginalized in both political life and in academic research. But as this new collection of essays published by the Project on Middle East Political Science makes clear, they have not disappeared. Their emergence was rooted in the liberalization of media, the appeal of multimedia celebrity, the multiple social movements keen to promote religiosity, and the demands of the marketplace.

Islamic media has been developing since the 1970s, notes Aaron Rock Singer.  From the cheap Islamic pamphlets, which flooded Egypt’s bookstands to the circulation of cassette sermons, Islamic media has rapidly taken advantage of each new technological development. The general impulse to use available media for proselytization has deep roots in the Islamist project of outreach and persuasion. Contributions by Thomas Maguire, Yasmin Moll, Hikmet Kocamaner and James Hoestery show how the neoliberal privatization of the media market produced a similar boom in religious programming from Egypt to Turkey and from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. The proliferation of special interest television stations, both domestic and transnational, and the unlimited scope for religious activity online ensure that such Islamic programming will continue to expand.

These changes in the political economy of the mass media mattered enormously in shaping these Islamic media preachers. Islamic multimedia personalities gained prominence across many Arab and Muslim countries simultaneously – sometimes with a national focus and sometimes spanning a transnational audience. Al-Jazeera’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi pioneered the genre in the late 1990s from a politicized Muslim Brotherhood-style direction with his popular program “Sharia and Life.” His success sparked a legion of imitators across the hyper-competitive Arab media. Egypt’s Islamist personalities such as Amr Khaled pushed the genre towards personal lifestyles and social issues, while various Salafi television stations emerged in the years leading up to the 2011 revolution. Islamist figures of all varieties took full advantage of the hyper-competitive media markets of the Gulf, with figures such as Ahmad al-Shugairi, Aid al-Qarni, Tareq al-Suwaidan, Mohamed al-Arefe and Nabil al-Awadhy emerging as multimedia megastars.

While there is a clear family resemblance among the different personalities, finding the right term for this group of media personalities proves more difficult than it appears. As Tuve Floden demonstrates, each term is problematic in its own way. “Televangelist” as a term has difficulty escaping its Christian roots. He quotes the Egyptian Moez Massoud: “Televangelists in the States are all about making money in the name of Christianity…. I like to think of myself as a Muslim thinker.” These figures tend to have a presence far beyond television, including huge volumes of books, articles, public speeches, and considerable online presence.

These Islamic multimedia stars have played diverse, and often only indirectly political, roles in their societies,. Many of these figures lack official Islamic religious credentials or traditional religious authority, but excel at speaking to ordinary Muslims in a compelling, non-threatening manner. Some focused on classical Islamic programming, while others offered a light form of religion focused on personal improvement and community building. All sorts of Islamists could be found on the airwaves or online, from Muslim Brotherhood-inspired personalities to hardline Salafists to easygoing lifestyle Muslims. There were family-oriented programs, women’s programs, religious scholarship program and, of course, political programs. Many of the television programs were only the broadcast edge of a much larger media empire. Khaled and Qarni published extremely popular books and hosted popular websites, alongside their influential television shows.

The reception of these Islamic multimedia stars prior to the Arab uprisings was decidedly mixed. Many liberals and secularists simply rolled their eyes at the endless profusion of television preachers. Others viewed them as the face of a broader Islamist project, and viscerally objected to their agenda of inserting religion into all facets of public and private life. Meanwhile, more traditional Islamists and jihadist trends scoffed at the depoliticized and often scripturally diffuse forms of Islam being promoted. That relatively nonpolitical quality in turn attracted those seeking to promote alternatives to radical Islam, with several influential counter-terrorism reports suggesting partnering with Islamic media stars like Amr Khaled to promote “moderate” Islam.

Whatever happened to the Islamic televangelists who seemed so culturally dominant a few years ago? They struggled to navigate the Arab spring.

However, since the Arab spring, these multimedia Islamic preachers have faced several key challenges. Their model of promoting religious observance and personal development through broadcast and online media seemed hopelessly inadequate to many during a revolutionary moment. This eclipse was short lived, as most managed to find their way back to relevance and widespread popularity as the moment faded. Three challenges have been particularly difficult for them to navigate:

  • Polarization: Preachers who had successfully walked a centrist path between political Islamism and secular entrepreneurship now found themselves caught up in the intense polarization on the question of Islamism. Many Egyptians swept up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood moment extended their disdain to all forms of public Islam. Egypt’s military coup and the Rabaa massacre made it difficult for any Islamically-oriented media figure to avoid taking sides. Those aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood suffered severe repression, while other Islamic programming had to steer far clear of politics. The same challenges could be seen in the Gulf, where the Saudi owner of al-Risala station, Walid bin Talal abruptly fired Kuwaiti Tareq al-Suwaydan following his criticism of Rabaa.
  • Sectarianism: Other preachers, especially in the Gulf, became active promoters of a hardline anti-Shi’ite sectarianism. As Alexandra Siegel demonstrates in her study of Gulf Twitter accounts, many of these multimedia Islamic personalities become leading promoters of sectarianism. Their massive campaign of support for the Syrian insurgency evolved from positive appeals to raise charitable funds and moral support into harder edge calls for sectarian jihad. This placed the preachers at the cutting edge of Gulf politics, pushing the mainstream towards sectarian and even jihadist views abroad even while remaining largely politically quiescent at home.
  • Democracy: Few soft Islam preachers ever quite figured out how to bridge their support for popular aspirations to democracy and their need to please regime elites. During the early Arab spring, when revolution seemed possible, many Islamic figures jumped on the democratic bandwagon. Khaled embraced the revolutionary youth, arguing for religious faith as a driver of economic development. However, he remained largely silent during the July 2013 military coup, moving back into the safer space of promoting personal and economic development. As politics bogged down or reversed, many other multimedia preachers retreated back into the safer space of personal lifestyle and anti-politics. Some Egyptian television preachers sought, as Yasmin Moll put it, to recast the revolution as a “narrative of personal redemption.”

This collection brings together more than a dozen leading scholars to discuss the many dimensions of Islamic media. Nathan Brown places these media personalities within broader transformations in the Islamic public sphere. Tuve Floden carefully explores the conceptualization as a category, while Aaron Rock Singer places them within a broader historical arc of Islamic media activism. Walter Armbrust and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen offer close readings of films and television programs about the preachers in question, showing the interpretive struggle to define their social meaning. Yasmin Moll, Thomas Maguire, and James B. Hoesterey look closely at specific programs and personalities across different arenas. Alexandra Siegel looks at the online behavior of Gulf media Islamists, while Mokhtar Awad shows in depth how online and broadcast media platforms have become critical to a repressed and scattered Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Marwan Kraidy examines the media doctrine of the Islamic State. Hikmet Kocamaner and James Hoesterey offer vital comparative perspective from Turkey and Indonesia.

Collectively, POMEPS Studies 23 offers an exceptionally rich, interdisciplinary look at the evolution of Islamic media.

Marc Lynch

POMEPS Director