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

By Ursula LindseyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2006


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.

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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.

"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.