'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.
Arab pop music is bold and brash. Its sensibilities straddle Cairo's middle class propriety and Hollywood's freewheeling hip-shaking.
Turn the TV dial to one of a dozen music video channels and you find a rare sea of exposed shoulders and bare midriffs in a town where most women are veiled.
Into this swirl of light and music steps Ahmed Abu Haiba, a self-described "media man" with a zabiba, or prayer bruise, on his forehead. He is the founder and managing director of 4Shbab TV, billed as "Islam's own MTV," a satellite network with worldwide ambitions that launched Feb. 1.
The idea behind 4Shbab is simple, he says. Mainstream music videos are "lewd" and do not represent the Arab world's cultural values. He says they are haram, or forbidden and sinful in Islam.
4Shbab TV is Abu Haiba's attempt to put young people back on the right path, he says, in a way that is fun and entertaining. Music videos from around the world – not just "Islamic videos," but anything that's positive, he says – air alongside call-in shows and contests like "Who wants to be an Islamic pop star?"
"Ask people in the street and they will tell you that these channels are something strange in our culture," he says. "They smash our identity and confuse people, especially the younger generation. They give them a misunderstanding about their own lives.
"You see young men today wearing their hair in a ponytail and looking like young men from another culture," he says.
The videos on 4Shbab don't have the backup dancers and beach side sets of their mainstream counterparts. In one, singer Sami Yusuf sits by a baby grand piano. Something of a Cairo heartthrob, Mr. Yusuf's song, "He is there," celebrates the omnipresence of God without being religiously specific.
Mohamed Shawky, a filmmaker documenting 4Shbab's launch, says that despite the disconnect between music videos and real life here, most young people aren't willing to turn the channel.
"I think people do find most music videos to be very sexually suggestive and might think they are against their religion, but the irony is that they are also extremely popular," he says.
"It's possible that a lot of people agree with Abu Haiba's views, but that doesn't mean they will stop watching mainstream videos and start watching his channel."
Drinking orange juice at a cafe along the Nile, Ismail Mohamed, a local university student, says he's open to the idea of watching an Islamic video channel. But for him, it would just be another network on the dial.
"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."
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."