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'Islamic MTV' takes on brash world of Arab pop videos

Cairo's 4Shbab TV offers a music video alternative – with content that its founder says isn't 'haram,' forbidden in Islam.

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"Sure I would watch 4Shbab, I like to watch a lot of different things," he says. "Music videos, American movies, I watch whatever looks cool."

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Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamism at the Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank, says that the idea of Islamic music videos is "not a new phenomenon.

"This is the expansion of a phenomenon in which Islamists and people close to their ideas try to [carry] their model of life into art, clothes, music and culture," he says.

"It is part of a bigger trend: In Egypt over the last few years you have seen Coptic singers, and movies produced and performed by Coptic singers, actors, and actresses," he says. "It is a way for people to distinguish themselves from the society as a whole and to say 'we have our own way of life.'"

Abu Haiba has been down this road before. Early in his TV career he worked as a producer for the popular Islamic televangelist Amr Khaled, an affable non-preacher who rose to fame in the Arab world by talking about faith in an accessible and fun way.

Later, he helped start an Islamic variety channel called "Al Resala," or "The Message." It was criticized by Islamists for not taking religion seriously enough.

Now, he has convinced investors from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that 4Shbab could be both an ethical and a lucrative investment.

Religious channels typically get a small share of the viewing audience, but video channels bring a much higher return. Experts say Abu Haiba is the first to combine the two.

Many Islamists aren't convinced by the numbers. They remain unhappy with the very idea of Islamic music videos. Abu Haiba admits the station has received "severe attacks."

"They think what we are doing is haram," he says.

Some women have criticized the network as well, for everything from its lack of female performers and presenters to its logo, the silhouette of a muscular young man walking toward the viewer.

He says that women need to be eased on to the network because their portrayal as gyrating dancers on other channels has given them a bad name. 4Shbab aims to change that, "but that change is coming gradually."

William Ward, the managing editor of Arab Media and Society, a online journal, says that 4Shbab may appeal to both viewers and investors not because of Islam, but because it is family-friendly. "It's not necessarily about the Islamic nature of the channel," he says, "it's just a more wholesome alternative."