Despite being influenced by both global and local conditions, there are noticeable phenomena characterizing the landscape of Muslim media in the Arab region – and especially Egypt – post-Arab Spring. Within the global context, there is a tendentious and prevalent Islamophobia. For example, a recent survey from the PEW Research Center found that the Majority of Americans are witnessing religious discrimination, especially against Muslims, while a report found that the majority of news coverage of Muslims in the UK is negative (with television being a little more constrained in negativity than the press, especially ones on the right). There is also a tidal rise of authoritarian populism, including in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which is choking established democracies and is constantly attacking ‘fake media’ and other journalistic and academic factuality-producers. Third, whether in those democracies or elsewhere, there is a wave of hatred against immigrants, forced and otherwise, especially forced immigration from the Arab world. In addition, there is now documented manipulation of media and information, as in the documented discoveries of companies harvesting and manipulating data and research results for political hires, as in the Trump campaign of Brexit. This brings to mind the blockage of websites and satellite channels that are taking place in the Arab region (according to Netblocks, 34,000 webdomains are blocked in Egypt).
“There is no better way to understand the media landscape in the Arab and Egyptian contexts than by engaging with demographics. This is especially important since, as I will show below, demographics demonstrate the centrality of the media to contemporary religiosity and religious education.”
There is no better way to understand the media landscape in the Arab and Egyptian contexts than by engaging with demographics. This is especially important since, as I will show below, demographics demonstrate the centrality of the media to contemporary religiosity and religious education. According to a poll on Muslim Millennial Attitudes on Religion and Religious Leadership conducted by the Arab American Institute, Islam continues to be a central source of self-identification for millennials. However:
“When asked who has the right to interpret religion, the most frequently given responses provided by millennials are their country’s Grand Mufti and Shaykhs; a clear indication of the role of ‘official Islam’, which is different from Muslim religiosity in the premodern world. If only that were all! When asked ‘what is their most important source of guidance and direction?’ majorities of Muslim millennials say religious TV shows.”
Certainly websites and social media today play a major role in religious culturalization and education. This is a significant shift from how Islam was practiced historically, with the mosque being the main site for guidance and teaching. Another important finding of this report is that the majority of Muslim millennials claim “corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments” are a key reason why young people join extremist groups.
This shift is especially important since, despite the intersections between religion and the media, and despite their shared interests in truth-seeking and the dissemination of knowledge, modern media works according to its own calculations and logic. This includes striving to attain competitive ratings, focusing on short-term economic gains, and entails the (over-)simplification and fragmentation of information, and sensationalism. One cannot underestimate the impact of this phenomenon on an increasingly media-oriented Islamic discourse: from giving preference to religious actors who are media-savvy over ones with scholarly credentials, associating religious authority with media assets (like the number of followers on social media), the emergence of ‘Muslim celebrity’ culture (and projects like ‘Muslim 500’ which lists the most famous and influential Muslims), and an emphasis on divisive topics, among others. All the above does not allow for a space conducive to deep reflection, cautious scholarship, logical discourses and educated conversations. Rather, this image-culture favors immediacy, as embodied in telegraphic discourse, rash commentary, and trivial matters. This marks a major shift from the text-based, book-culture that has defined Islam historically.
This is not to say that all new technology is bad, however. Muslim religious actors seem to have made much use of this new medium. As recent studies show, mobile apps and social media study groups (like on Telegram and Facebook) have become widespread tools in Islamic education.
The interesting side of the production and dissemination of Muslim content takes place, however, on the margins. There are plenty of spaces on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram where study groups gather, where interesting discussions take place, and where scholars, commentators, and artists produce content. This content includes daily reminders, supplications (yes, the ones with flowery designs we all receive without an invitation), video lessons, and much more. This includes discussion groups on specific topics like Islam and science, for example, in which thoughtful engagements with issues like Darwinism take place. I myself have joined a few on Islamic law and classical religious singing, or inshad.
“The first media phenomenon here, or the elephant in the room, is the dominance of the state. The current landscape is different from the 1990s and early 2000s, when many major religious media, especially more independent satellite channels and websites, began.”
The first media phenomenon here, or the elephant in the room, is the dominance of the state. The current landscape is different from the 1990s and early 2000s, when many major religious media, especially more independent satellite channels and websites, began. The field is now effectively completely state-funded or funded by businessmen closely affiliated with the state. Whether in Saudi, Egypt, or Kuwait, the majority of Islamic TV programs or channels are now either directly funded by the state or by its affiliates (like the Saudi Iqra, or al-Arefe, or the Egyptian formerly Salafi, now Sunni neo-traditionalist, al-Nas). As for websites, it is a similar story. It is not a coincidence that the most popular individual religious websites belong to staunch pro-state individual preachers according to world rankings (Mustafa Hosni, Amr Khaled, and Muhammad Al-Arefe).
But it is not only about who funds. With the emergence of a statist Islam, an Islam that seeks to interpret and validate social and religious life through the omnipresence of the state and its ever-increasing role in people’s private and public lives is key. Under a statist Islam, nationalism and conformity with authority become religious duties. As such it becomes the mission of religious authorities to interpret social and even religious events for their stakeholders in a way favorable to the state. The state along with its religious discourses is not only totalitarian and omnipresent. It is both unconsciously centering and subtly central.
“In Egypt, with an iron-fist clamping down on dissent on the Muslim Brotherhood and the banning of their voices, religious actors have been pushed away from mainstream media. The Brotherhood media and its sympathizers work through satellite channels that broadcast from exile, mainly from Turkey, and are funded by supporting businessmen.”
In Egypt, with an iron-fist clamping down on dissent on the Muslim Brotherhood and the banning of their voices, religious actors have been pushed away from mainstream media. The Brotherhood media and its sympathizers work through satellite channels that broadcast from exile, mainly from Turkey, and are funded by supporting businessmen. This creates a landscape that is different from the ‘Islamic awakening’ of 1970s and 1980s where, according to the latest scholarship by Aaron Rock-Singer in Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival (2019), there was “intellectual cross-pollination between Statist and Islamist visions and a competition to reform society by shaping state institutions” (p.6).
An extreme–almost caricatural–example of this statist religious media is a controversy from 2019 when popular preacher Khaled al-Gindy declared in his show “Laalahom Yafqahoon” (Perhaps They Understand) that, as men of God, he and his scholar guests claimed staunchly and proudly that they are the ‘Shaykhs of the Sultan’ without reservation or even referencing the known conditions related to observing divine commands and ruling justly. Al-Gindy has previously issued a fatwa that sides with the position of the Egyptian president to annul the religious validity of the verbal declaration of divorce. The issue of verbal vs. registered divorce has stirred tension between Shaykh al-Ahzar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, and al-Sisi, who asked the former publicly to annul this practice. The Council of Senior Scholars has concurred with the position of al-Tayyeb in rejecting such a demand.
Second, religious media is a highly polarized field. Specifically, there are the dichotomies of Egypt/UAE/KSA vs. Qatar/Turkey, Sunni vs. Shia, religious vs. secular camps. Within these camps, religious media personalities generally present their religious content, whenever relevant, in light of these divisions. Take the statement of the influential Saudi Mufti, Abdul-Aziz al-Shaykh, who said that the blockade imposed on Qatar in June 2017 by Saudi “is beneficial for the Muslims and for Qataris themselves.” It became commonplace in Egypt, for example, to hear the following categorizing questions about religious figures: “Isn’t he with Qatar?” or “But so-and-so supports Hizb Allah”.
“Second, religious media is a highly polarized field. Specifically, there are the dichotomies of Egypt/UAE/KSA vs. Qatar/Turkey, Sunni vs. Shia, religious vs. secular camps. Within these camps, religious media personalities generally present their religious content, whenever relevant, in light of these divisions.”
Third, the current religious media landscape is increasingly professionalized. Gone are the days of simple ‘confessional’ productions with a religious figure didactically lecturing to a camera with a slow religious melody in the background. Even fatwa television shows, which are in high demand, are produced professionally with a host and a professional talk-show like setting, complete with elaborate graphic designs at the beginning and end, billboard ads, and social media campaigns. Another obvious example here is the massive productions of religious series, a form that is mostly declining in Egypt currently. One example is the popular Turkish historical Netflix series ‘Resurrection: Ertuğrul,’ which depicts the founding of the Ottoman dynasty.
As a demonstration of the cynical intersections of this professionalization and politicization, not only was the show banned by Saudi and UAE by broadcasters, a $40 million counter-narrative is reportedly in the works. In addition, a sub-body of the Egyptian House of Ifta, The General Secretariat for Fatwa Authorities Worldwide, published a damning report warning the public that it is a biased series and that those shows are propaganda tools by President Erdoğan of Turkey.
Fourth, there is a noticeable rise of ‘star Shaykhs’ and a relative decline of Muslim televangelists since after the Arab Spring. In her latest work on religious authority and the media, Preaching Islamic Renewal (2016), which studies the late eminent Shaykh al-Sharawi, a beloved ‘saint’ of modern Egypt and a popular television exegete, Jacquelene Brinton shows how the relationship between religious figures and the media is a two-way process: while the media favors and rewards those who can magnetize the masses, al-Sharawi’s genius is in his reinvigoration of religious discourse and teachings through popularization and marrying official discourses of religion with common practice. This lesson seems to have been captured by several scholars, including Shaykh Ali Gomaa and al-Habib Ali. In comparison, there is a noticeable but relative decline in the presence of televangelists, including Amr Khalid. “Good riddance,” as one expert affirmed in a report on this decline. The reasons behind this decline is their caution about a potential public backlash due to their political flip-flopping, growing irritation with inconsistencies in their messaging, as well as their retreating to other fields like cinema production and marketing.
“Fourth, there is a noticeable rise of ‘star Shaykhs’ and a relative decline of Muslim televangelists since after the Arab Spring. In her latest work on religious authority and the media, Preaching Islamic Renewal (2016), which studies the late eminent Shaykh al-Sharawi, a beloved ‘saint’ of modern Egypt and a popular television exegete, Jacquelene Brinton shows how the relationship between religious figures and the media is a two-way process:…”
With their self-help and productivity-coaching style, the Muslim televangelists and other religious media figures have opened the door to a new form of secularism. It is a type that takes place from within Islam, one that is more concerned with individual salvation, consumerism of favorable religious products and ideas, and freedom to choose one of many Islamic flavors. According to Yahya El Yahyaoui, in his study of religious discourse on satellite channels, this process has completely secularized Islam ‘from within’ by making Islam a purely media product governed by the needs of the market and the power and fame of media producers. No wonder then, for example, that the Palestinian issue does not occupy the collective religious space it used to previously. Also the near silence on the atrocities facing Muslim minorities in China, India, and Myanmar speaks clearly about this process of secularization from within and the marginalization of the global concerns of the umma.
Fifth, the media landscape has witnessed the emergence and promotion of liberal progressive voices, like the late deconstructionist Muhammad Shahrur, the controversial preacher Adnan Ibrahim in the UAE, and the resurfacing of Islam al-Behairi in Egypt. In previous decades, no figures with such orientation – one that incites deep criticism from the traditional ulema – were given such platforms. Of course, there are supporters demanding such a discourse, but its promotion can also be understood as part of the current attempts to empty the field from Muslim Brotherhood voices, including through the empowerment of both traditional voices and ‘progressive’ ones that are pro-state.
The current Muslim media landscape is complex and responds to fluid changes and shifts. The difficulties it faces has made it shy away from the duties of the here and now to instead either focus on a ‘golden past’, a fatalistic eschatology, or a selective, self-serving fragmented present. It is avoiding the pressing concerns that face its stakeholders, including: existential crises (like the global environmental threats to mankind, mass forced migration); spiritual crises under capitalism (including passive individualism and egotism); unavoidable political questions (i.e. the role of religious authority in the nation-state, the question of obedience to unjust and failed rulers, and the many other questions that remain unanswered in the aftermath of the Arab-Spring); and cultural shifts like the ones detailed above. Modern media has altered Muslim epistemology. With that in mind, we have a religiously-inspired media that does not or cannot question itself. Therefore, if it is statist, polarized, professionalized for consumerist and individualistic reasons, celebrity-obsessed, and secularized in a mutated way, so will be the Islamic ‘message’ it reinvents and provides.
Tarek Ghanem is an MA candidate at the American University in Cairo’s Arab and Islamic Civilizations Department, writing a thesis on Theory of Iftāʾ and Social Institutions in the late Madhhab-Law Tradition. He manages MetalingualTranslations.com, an Arabic-English translation company that specializes in academic and cultural translations.