The new Muslim TV: media-savvy, modern, and moderate

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The Egyptian actress Sabreen was at the peak of her fame when, in 2001, she underwent a religious "awakening," retired from acting, and donned the veil.

Now she's back on television, hosting a talk show on a new Islamic satellite channel called Al Risala ("The Message"). Sabreen, who is still a household name thanks to the popular films and TV shows she used to appear in, says she chose to make her come-back on Al Risala because the channel "talks about Islam in an enlightened, moderate way ... a very honest and frank way."

She's a far cry from the bearded men in white robes who dominate traditional religious programming here. With her smiling face framed by a stylish, sequined veil, Sabreen has become the spokesperson for a new sort of Islam: media-savvy, modern, and moderate. Her producers say they hope she will be the Muslim world's Oprah.

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"For a very long time all religious programs were just isolated, artificial, old, obsolete," says Al Risala executive Ahmed Abu Haiba.

Al Risala, by contrast, has splashy graphics and state-of-the-art sets. The channel does air some traditional religious programming, but many of the shows have nothing overtly religious about them.

The set of Sabreen's show looks like a colorful living room, and the backdrop is a night-time view of the skyscrapers of Dubai. In the audience, young men and women sit next to each other, and some of the women are unveiled.

On the show, guests discuss social issues such as Muslim immigration to the West, domestic abuse, and polygamy.

Introducing an episode about non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East, Sabreen asks her audience: "Have you ever felt distinctions being made between you and a neighbor or a co-worker because of religion? Have you ever had trouble practicing the rites of your religion?"

Towards the end of the show, she tells her listeners that "Islam does not discriminate on the basis of religion or nationality or color, as long as we return to learning true Islam."

"I'm not a mufti," says Sabreen, referring to a religious scholar. "My show is not for conservative Muslims," she explains. "It's for Muslims who don't know right from wrong, because of the [other] media that targets them."

According to Al Risala's executives, that media can be both secular shows that undermine family values and religious programs that foment extremism.

"Islam has been changed throughout time," says Al Risala's general manager, Sheikh Tarek Swidan. "If we go back to the roots then we see Islam being very peaceful, very open. Respect of all humans, respect of all religions, respect of all races - that is the original message of Islam."

"We are directing the channel to be in clash with ... terrorist ideas," adds Mr. Swidan. "We are going head to head."

Swidan is from Kuwait, but lived 17 years in the US. The smiling sheikh speaks fluent English and - unlike many religious figures - shakes women's hands. He's an engineer, a business management specialist, and a popular motivational speaker.

"In our understanding, Islamic media is any clean media," he says. "So any program that is clean and has a message to improve a human being - improve them religiously, ethically, socially; push them towards being productive and effective, having ambitions."

A new Islamic media revolution

Mr. Abu Haiba, the station's Cairo bureau manager, says the station espouses the values of tolerance, peace, and progress, while being critical of some modern developments. Abu Haiba rails against cellphones and fast food, and says people should "be honest, be punctual, not raise their voices."

According to Abu Haiba, Al Risala is just the latest step in a "new Islamic media" revolution. This movement includes everything from Islamic "televangelists," who strut the stage in business suits, calling on the audience to tell personal stories, to Islamic pop stars, who sell catchy tunes about the prophet Muhammad.

It's a phenomenon that Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni calls "market Islam."

"When we speak of Islamic revival, we always focus on political organized groups aiming at gaining power," says Mr. Haenni. But just as important a phenomenon, he says, are "private religious entrepreneurs."

These entrepreneurs target the upper middle class, and focus on personal enlightenment rather than political engagement. They're socially conservative and opposed to what they see as the decadence of much of Western culture. But they want to benefit from Western science, education, and progress, and they condemn violence and extremism.

And, says Haenni, they use "fully all the means of mass culture ... chats on the Net, chat shows on TV, Islamic rap in the West. Mass culture is not the enemy anymore."

"It's a more worldly view of Islam," says sociologist Madiha al Safty. "They are trying to reconcile modernity with Islam."

Reality TV and quiz shows

Al Risala's programming includes a quiz show called "House of Dignity," in which families can win household appliances by answering general knowledge questions such as "What is the organ that cleans blood in the body?" The kidney; "What is the fastest land animal?" The cheetah; and "Who was the first Islamic caliph?" Abu Bakr al Sadiq.

Swidan hosts a program called "The Making of a Leader," in which the sheikh puts aspiring young businessmen through various tests. The station also airs music videos, although it eschews the hits of scantily clad Lebanese pop stars in favor of songs about religion and family. There is even a reality TV show, in which three young men travel through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, following the path of early Islam's expansion.

Al Risala is financed by Saudi billionaire Prince al Walid bin Talal. Mr. bin Talal, who recently donated $40 million dollars to Harvard and Georgetown universities, is one of the more liberal members of the Saudi royal family.

The Kuwait-based channel started broadcasting at the beginning of March on two satellite carriers that reach millions across the Middle East and in Europe.

Al Risala executives say data isn't available yet on the size of the station's audience. But they note that viewers are sending thousands of daily messages of support from their mobile phones.

Yet some viewers say they've been put off by what they see as Al Risala's "commercialism." Amir El Meligi is a 21-year-old Web designer. He says Al Risala is "Iqraa TV with a Rotana flavor"- referring on the one hand to a well-known conservative religious channel, and on the other to a popular music video station. Al Risalah "has a new way of introducing stuff," says al Meligi, but "it's very showy, not very spiritual."

Others are more enthusiastic. Al Risala "is really good," says Radwa Atia, a 20-year-old art student. "It discusses a lot of things, in a more free way. It discusses real life issues."

The only fault Atia finds with the station is its cast of celebrity presenters. "All the announcers are famous actors," she says. "That annoyed me. When talking about religious matters, you should have someone who has done religious studies, someone with experience. Not just anybody."

Muslim Brotherhood approves

Some members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - the banned but tolerated Islamist group that recently won 88 seats in Egypt's parliament - have expressed enthusiasm for the station.

Al Risala also has the support of some members of the religious establishment, such as Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, one of the country's highest religious authorities and the host of his own show on the channel. The mufti, who is generally considered a moderate figure, issues fatwas, or religious rulings, on his program. One recent fatwa was that it is acceptable for Muslims in non-Muslims countries to engage in haram (forbidden) activities when necessary, such as serving or selling alcohol.

But the station has come under attack on conservative Islamist websites. "The only Islamic thing about this station is its name," wrote one critic. The channel has received hate mail calling Swidan "an agent of the West" and accusing the station of "misguiding people."

Al Risala has also been criticized by liberal and secular voices. "They're only changing the words, the language," says Amin al Mahdi, a critic of Islamism who writes for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. "Peacefulness and tolerance come from development and democracy, not from religion - any religion."

Profiting on religion?

The other accusation leveled against Al Risala and other Islamic TV channels, is that they use religion for profit.

"It is a business for many people," says Mr. al Safty. "People are really making good money out of that. You say the word Islam, and people will rush to that."

Of course, says Al Risala executive Abu Haiba, the channel hopes to "promote our ideas without losing money. If I lose money, that means I'm not appealing, that means I don't have my viewership, that means I'm not promoting my ideas."

But, Abu Haiba says, there's a higher goal. "I'm promoting ideas in the first places," he explains. "But I'm trying to make the difficult equation. That these values should be put in an attractive shape."

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