TELEVISION AND TV PROGRAMS IN THE ARAB WORLD

TELEVISION IN THE ARAB WORLD


Little Mosque DVD

Televisions started becoming a fixture of homes with electricity in the Arab world in the 1960s. People without televisions often had access to them at a local tea shop or friend’s house. Today, televisions are often going all day long in family homes and tea houses.

Television programing in the Middle East has traditionally been government propaganda broken up by Egyptian and American soap operas and dramas. Ramadan has traditionally been a time when people watch a lot of television. Some of the most popular shows of the year run during that time. In most Arab and Muslim countries televisions stations are state run. Most state-controlled Arab television stations are dull. They show the heads of state opening hospitals, meeting diplomats and bland or escapist programs

Many Arabs, particularly Arab men, are news junkies. They like to sit around and watch the news on television and get stirred up by what they see. Many men watch television at tea houses, cafes and restaurants. There is coterie of journalists, professors, religious leaders, intellectuals and analyst that regularly appear on the news shows.

Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the two most viewed news stations in the Arab world, are funded respectively by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They have been called the "incitement" channels or "death" channels because of their stance on terrorist-related issues and anti-government insurgencies. Other all-news Arab TV news channels, include BBC News Arabic and Sky News Arabia. [Source: Zeina Karam, Associated Press, June 11, 2012]

Arab television stations almost universally take an anti-Israel and anti-Western slant. Images of Israeli aggression and American bombing are shown along with references to The Crusades and the great martyrs of Islamic history. For their part, many Arabs complain that BBC and CNN and other Western televison stations are biased in favor of the West.

See Separate Article on Al-Jazeera

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

Satellite Television

Satellite television helped a lot to open up the Middle East to the outside world and what was going on within its own borders. Satellite dishes have been ubiquitous in many Arab and Muslim countries since the 1990s. The governments of some countries prohibited their use. By one account about 10 percent of Arabs had satellite dishes in the 1990s. At that time satellite dishes could bee seen in poorest neighborhoods and even popping out of Bedouin tents in the desert. Men that didn’t have their own satellite dishes watched televison at cafes at tea houses that had them. By 2005, there were more than 100 million satellite dishes in the Middle East.


Egyptian station

Satellite television, the Internet and social media have dramatically changed the Middle East. They have been regarded as powerful forces for democracy in the region. They have freed ordinary citizens from the state-controlled media of repressive governments and provided ordinary citizens with access to all kinds of information and news that had been closed to them before. Satellite television, the Internet and social media have been able to circumvent state media. Efforts to stop them have largely been unsuccessful.

In 1991, there were only two satellite stations in the Middle East. In 2005 there were more than 240. In 2007 there were 370. Satellite networks include Arab Radio and Television and Egypt-based Dream TV, which plays music videos. Among the movie channels and news network are several channels devoted to Islamic religious programming, Lebanese channels are known for having the raciest shows.

The main Arabic-language television stations are: Qatar-based Al-Jazeera (launched 1996), London-based, Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), Lebanon’s Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC), al Mustaqbal, Egyptian Satellite Television, Dubai-based al-Arabiya (launched 2003), Abu Dhabi TV and the Rome-based Orbit station.

The Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) is billed as the “Family entertainment” channel of the Middle East. It broadcast from London for 11 years before moving to Dubai. The network’s first big success was the Arabic-language version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” Abu Dhabi is a news channel that rivals Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. It was fired on by American forces in Iraq. Al-Sumariya is based in Lebanon. Advertising on al-Sumariya costs about $1,250 per minute in the mid 2000s.

Iqta (meaning Recite) is Saudi-owned satellite channel, started in 1998 by Sheik Salah Kaaml, owner of the of the media conglomerate Arab Radio and Television Network. The channel was started to offer a proper forum for religious programming with respected scholars, staid shows and prayer times between shows. Many of the programs are lead by a Wahhabi cleric who expresses anti-American and anti-Israel opinions and condemns idolatry. No one expected it make money. But all that changed when the channel began showing Amr Khaled’s “Word from the Heart”. (See Below)

Islamic MTV

Reporting from Cairo on the Arab world's first Islamic pop music video channel, Hadeel Al-Shalchi of Associated Press wrote: “The satellite station, 4shbab — Arabic for "For the Youth" — is the brainchild of an Egyptian media worker, Ahmed Abu Heiba, who says his mission is to spread the message that observant Muslims can also be modern and in touch with today's world. "We have failed to deliver this message," Abu Heiba said in an interview on the sidelines of the contest, aired in late April. "What I am trying to do is to use the universal language of music to show what Islam looks like." [Source: Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Associated Press, May 18, 2009 ><]


“The channel, which was launched in February and can be seen across the Arab world, is a bid to capitalize on a generation of young Muslims who have become more observant but are also raised on Western pop influences. But it's hard to hit the right balance between conservative and liberal. The channel shows no female singers — or any other women — adhering to the mainstream view that women performers are taboo in Islam. Still, some conservatives are wary about mixing pop culture and religion. ><

“So what does Islam look like on 4shbab? There's rock and hip-hop from American and British Muslim bands, singing about the struggles of keeping up with daily prayers or dressing modestly. The Arab singers tend toward a more romantic pop style – young men with smouldering eyes and flowing shirts sing in the rain about leading a virtuous life, going to mosque and supporting their families. ><

“Abu Heiba said he wants to include women singers on the station, but "I believe that our societies are not ready to accept it." The Arab world is full of female singers, but only on the numerous secular pop music channels. The videos often feature scantily clad women singing or dancing, with suggestive lyrics. Many tut-tut that such videos are offensive and against Arab and Muslim culture, but viewers still flock to the wildly popular video TV stations.Abu Heiba said 4shbab is an antidote to the "lewd" music videos mainstream channels show. "We give our kids the shadow of holiness because this is basic in our culture and religion," he said. Hagar Hossam, 16, said she watches 4shbab "every day." Dressed in a head scarf and a long robe, the high school student giggled with her friends in the women's section of the competition. "Islam isn't just about praying and religious rituals," she said. "We're allowed to have fun, be happy and be young. We just try to balance it with our religion and with what makes God happy." ><

“Her 22-year-old friend, Shahy Samir, is not so sure, saying she's uncomfortable with many of the videos on 4shbab, particularly those in a hip-hop style, with their rap moves. 'I know that in their culture it's normal to do all that dancing and those movements while singing,' said Samir. 'But I don't think it's very Islamic and even though the lyrics are good, the movements take away from the weight of the meaning.' ><

“Some hard-line clerics say Islam forbids music, allowing only percussion to accompany religious chants. But others don't see a strict prohibition. 'Islam is not against music or singing as long as it doesn't stir desires and it adheres to the values of Islam,' said Sheik Youssef el-Badri, an Egyptian cleric who has sought to prosecute in court many Egyptian artists and writers for alleged insults to Islam. 'This channel would be a good thing if it tries to attract people to clean, Islamic values.' ><

“Habib Battah, an American journalist who analyses Arab media, is skeptical about the channel's chances for success. Numerous satellite stations have been launched by wealthy businessmen aiming to spread a particular message, but end up failing to find an audience and disappearing, he said. 'I don't want to say there isn't a place for religious music videos in the market,' said Battah. 'But there isn't a lot of research and it's very hard to stick out in an industry where there is no agreed upon rating system.’” ><

Television Programs in the Middle East


drama series "The Last Cavalier"

Standard fare on Arab televison includes soccer games, soap operas, movies, religious programming and musical variety shows. The news shows feature stone-faced announcers that offer news that sticks to the government’s line. Shows with a studio audience often have the audience divided by sex, in some case men sit close to stage on velvet carpets while women, many of them covered, sit behind on folding chairs.

Egyptian and Lebanese soap operas and Egyptian situation comedies are popular through out the Middle East and Arab world. In some of these shows, peasants and farmers are mocked and ridiculed as primitive and ignorant while urbanites in fancy cars and big apartments are glorified.

The Arab version of Pop Idol is a game show where the prize is your weigh in gold bars. In the early 2000s, a weather girl named Carla was famous for her low-cut outfits. On the Saudi show “The Universe Around Us” viewers were told by a viewer host: “Weather forecasts may be useful to us but we should bear in mind that only God can predict the future.” Some people watched soft porn on Turkish channels. “Wins the Million?” was an Arabic adaption of the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.”

Ramadan Television Programs

During Ramadan — the Muslim month of fasting — a lot of Muslims sit around and watch television because they can't work, they have a lot of time on their hands and there are special Ramadan shows . Often the whole family gathers around the television and watching TV becomes a popualr social activity.


Special television soap operas are released just for Ramadan. The most watched one are produced in Egypt. These are mostly miniseries called musalsalat “similar to Latin America telenovelas. They are relatively high budget projects with big name stars, belly dancers, lavish sets, lots of extras and complicated and often racy plots with in-for-face moral messages.

Popular musalsalat include historical costume dramas about famous Islamic figures like The Women of Islam , set in the 13th century, and sexy melodramas like Tales of a Modern Husband , full of class conflict and intrigue. We Dream of Tomorrow was about a wealthy man who kills a man in a car accident and then pays for an operation to cure his mother of blindness. Bab el-Hara, set in France-controlled Syria, was about Arab freedom fighters trying to free imprisoned comrades while trying to evade French soldiers.

In Egypt, the iftar meal to break the fast is followed by everyone gathering around the television to watch the featured musalsalat . Men go out to watch the same miniseries at the local tea house with their friends. Some musah run through daybreak and are not over until after the break meal. Some conservative Muslims don't like the musalsalat , saying the passion for soap operas demeans Ramadan.

Million’s Poet: Popular Arab Poetry Television Show

One of the most popular television shows in the late 2000s was “Million’s Poet”, a program broadcast on Abu Dhabi television that featured poets competing in an American-Idol-style format with the winner taking home about $1.4 million. More than that 20 million viewers watched the final which featured poets performing Nabati, a kind of poetry performed in Bedouin dialect that is much loved by Persian Gulf Arabs, with the winner determined by the endorsement of a panel (60 percent) and the vote of the audience (40 percent), which voted using text messages.

The show was created Nasha alRuwaini, an Egyptian-born television producer who was asked in 2006 the Crown Prince of Abut Dhabi to revive Nabati poetry on television. The show was part of the $60 billion effort to transform Abu Dhabi into the cultural capital of the Middle East. Although the show is immensely popular, it does have critics, who among other things accuse it of encouraging tribalism and broaching controversial topics, such as the war in Iraq (" America comes and wages war on my neighbours and I forgive, I see my brothers in Abu Ghraib naked and killed and I forgive") and low wages in Saudi Arabia ("We need more money, We can't drink oil."). [Source: Sonia Verma, The Times, March 1, 2008]

The hostess of the show appears in a glamorous abaya. The panel of judges takes their job seriously, in the words of Hugh Tomilinson of the Times of London, eschewing “high-waisted trousers and catty put-downs for traditional Arab dress and rigorous analysis of their language, passion and use of rhyme. Contestants have been known to faint on receiving poor reviews.”

In 2010, more than 10,000 entrants were whittled down to five finalists. The winner was a Kuwaiti Nasser al-Ajami, who also too the title “Prince of Poets, 2010.” In second was another Kuwaiti Falah al-Mourki. Perhaps the most remarkable finalist was Saudi housewife Hissal Hilal who, draped in a black abaya and face-covering niqab, won $817,000 for coming in third with vitriolic piece called “the Chaos of the Fatwas” that lashed out at Muslim fundamentalists, comparing suicide bombers to “monsters wearing belts,” and accusing them of “preying like a wolf” on those who seek progress and peace.

Hilal told the Times of London, “I entered the competition because I felt that this was my chance to speak to a lot of people to express my feelings about life, love and the situation we are in today. I felt I had to say that across the Arab world we are afraid of extremism and the effect it has had. What sort of society do they offer us? They offer nothing but fear, I hate it so much.”



Million’s Poet in 2008

Describing “Million’s Poet” in 2008, Sonia Verma wrote in The Times, “The Crown Prince is sitting in the front row. So are several of his wives. It is Tuesday night and in a large theatre on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi the recording of Million's Poet, the most popular prime-time show in the Middle East, is about to begin. With its catchy theme song, coloured lights and giant video screens, the show bears a striking resemblance to Pop Idol. But in the deeply conservative United Arab Emirates, the studio audience is segregated according to sex, the judges hold doctorates and the hostess wears a hot-pink abaya. [Source: Sonia Verma, The Times, March 1, 2008 ><]

“Most of the contestants in Million's Poet come from poor Beduin villages, where the ancient art of Nabati poetry is dying. Similar to an ode and recited in colloquial Arabic, the form dates back to 4th-century Arabia, where poets were revered as messengers, inspired by God, who elevated their tribe's sense of pride. Tonight they perform for a live television audience and 70 million viewers across the Arab world, competing for a cash prize of one million dirhams (about $250,000). "I thought nobody cared about poetry, but this show changed everything. It made people think about poets more than football," said Mahdi al-Wayli, a 33-year-old electrician who won a place in the final reciting poems inspired by a double divorce. ><

“This season nearly 7,000 hopefuls from across the Arab world - including a few women - were auditioned for a place among the 48 contestants, with the television audience choosing the ultimate winner by text message. A five-judge panel scores each contestant according to set criteria, such as use of novel language, difficulty in rhyme, and passion. The show is divided into two parts. In the first half, contestants recite free verse. In the second segment, judges give them a subject for inspiration. Recent topics have included camels, coffee and respect for one's parents. ><

“Criticism is rare, and always punctuated with "God bless you". Still, last season a poet fainted after the panel gave him a lukewarm review. The producers say the show is uncensored. Hadi al-Mansouri, one of the presenters, expressed it in verse: "The people who ask about me, please try not to hear me, because political poetry has today become forbidden. I know that I am a poet where nothing stops me, sometimes I feel I am about to crack and become crazy." On this night, Mr al-Wayli advances to the next round with a poem about the ironies of tolerance in a region ravaged by war. "Islam, you order us to forgive, America comes and wages war on my neighbours and I forgive," he recited.”

Million’s Poet Draws 100 Million Viewers in 2014

In 2014, “Million’s Poet” drew over 100 million viewers from around the globe. Samuel Spencer wrote in theculturetrip.com: “It has reached its sixth series now, and attracts audiences not just in the UAE but all over the world. Their third series had worldwide viewing figures of over 110 million, and the series has gone from strength to strength in the two years since then. As these figures suggest, what seems a fairly unglamorous and niche activity — poetry recitation — is actually big business. This is most clear when you consider the prize money for the show. For this year’s competition, which ended in May, the prize money was five million UAE Dirhams, or approximately $1.3 million dollars. Prizes are also given up to fifth place, who receives 1 million Dirhams. [Source: Samuel Spencer, theculturetrip.com |=|]


Million Poets contestants


“The selection process in rigorous. Not only do they have to perform their unique compositions to the audition judging panel of respected academics and poets, but are tested on their metre, rhyme and diction on a far more academic level than can be found in the wannabe Whitney vocal gymnastics of the average contestant on, say, The Voice. This is also reflected in the judging itself during the live shows, which is on a similar level to the auditions and far removed from the pithy put-downs and staged petty squabbling of the average talent show.|=|

“Despite the differences in levels of superficiality, Million’s Poet actually has a lot in common with the format of these programmes, which is arguably what makes the whole experience so strangely compelling. On the one hand, the process is about the celebration of tradition. Contestants wear traditional costume, and poems are in the Nabati form, a form that originated in the 16th century. On the other, however, the whole process has all the glitz of any other talent show. The studio in which the finals take place has all of the grandiose trappings of America’s Got Talent. Large video screens announce each contestant as they take to the stage, introduced by the glamorous female host, with the performer then reciting in front of a substantial live studio audience. To the uninitiated, used to seeing contestants who have been given extensive styling, this at first seems incredibly jarring, with the program focusing heavily on substance, but taking place in the stylish studio. |=|

“To misunderstand this, however, is to forget the importance of Nabati poetry throughout the Middle East. Just as singing and performance are integral to the American culture as the founding nation of the blues, soul, or rock and roll, so too is this poetry crucial to Middle Eastern culture. Nabati is known as ‘the poetry of the people’, and has been for nearly half a millennium. In fact, it is not totally ridiculous to compare the form to the rock and roll song; both are popular for their directness, seeming spontaneity and rousing nature. Both are populist alternatives to the more formal modes of classical music or poetry. Its popularity as a form can be seen by the geographical spread of the contestants, with poets from all over the Middle East taking part every year. |=|

“One argument for this program’s success is exactly this. By replicating the Western format, but with the addition of a cultural form so central to the Middle Eastern consciousness, they have avoided the faults of previous attempts at Western-style programming such as an Arabic Big Brother, which was cancelled before the program was even finished. The production values are Western, but the content is distinctly Middle Eastern, and it is this cultural marriage that makes the program so compelling. |=|

“But it is also clear that there is more to this program’s success than just its glitzy rehash of old ideas. Firstly, there is the involvement of Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, General Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The program is the cornerstone of his project to promote the culture of the UAE, and he is not only a major funder for the program, but also its regular guest, allowing both its lavish setting and cultural legitimacy. Secondly, and crucially, it is in its essence a modern updating of the tradition of oral performance. Whereas previously the oral poet would be simply able to share his work with his tribe, village, or local area, Million’s Poet recreates this on a grand scale, with the charismatic, expressive poet able to broadcast to 100 million people.” |=|

Watching ‘Arab Idol’ in Gaza


“Arab Idol”, the Arab version of “American Idol” is a big hit in the Middle East and watched with particularly interest in the Palestinian territories when a Gaza teenager named Assaf was one of the show’s finalists. William Booth wrote in the Washington Post, “With its glitzy dresses, exposed skin and Western-style commercialism, it is probably not a Hamas favorite, but there has been no official word on the show from the group. Still, the streets of Gaza empty out during the two hours when families and friends huddle to watch the song contest on Friday nights, when the singers perform, and on Saturdays, when votes from viewers are tallied. [Source: William Booth, Washington Post, May 27, 2013 *^*]

““Arab Idol” mimics its British and American forerunners, with high production values and plucky young contestants — from Morocco to Iraq — singing their hearts out in front of a panel of celebrity pop stars, who alternately heap praise on the starlets or yawn during their performances. It’s as melodramatic and addictive as the American version, but a bit more politically loaded — a Syrian contestant from the ravaged city of Aleppo sang of his country’s “spring of pain,” and young Parwas Hussein was lectured by one judge not to say she was from Kurdistan, but simply Iraq. (Members of the Kurdish minority in Iraq have long considered themselves a separate enclave, distinct from the country’s Arab majority.) *^*

“Serving as judge, the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama (who made the first music video in Arabic, back in the day) dubbed Assaf “the Rocket,” and the name has stuck, as a kind of honorific for his soaring voice, but with a double meaning for a kid from Khan Younis, which has been the source and recipient of deadly fire during Gaza’s many years of hostilities with Israel.

“On Friday night, the judges gushed all over Assaf again. “I feel when you are singing, I am the guest in a big concert and you are the star,” said Ahlam, the judge and diva from the United Arab Emirates who goes by one name and is famous for her lavish lifestyle, fabulous gowns, Qatari race car driver husband and struggles with weight. Judge Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese songstress (and goodwill ambassador for UNICEF), teared up and said she had no word to describe the beauty of Assaf’s voice. “You are a true singer,” she sighed. Here in Khan Younis, posters of Assaf that line the streets urge citizens to call the “Arab Idol” hotline and punch “3” on their cellphones to vote for the native son, the first singer from Gaza to make the show’s top 10 contestants.

“The winner will get a recording contract from the music company that is part of MBC, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based satellite broadcaster of the show, as well as a Chevrolet Corvette, which would be an unusual sight in the streets of Gaza. The United States might not be the most popular country in the Middle East these days, but in addition to Chevrolet, the show’s sponsors include Pepsi, Twix and Kentucky Fried Chicken; until last week, KFC food was being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through underground tunnels.” *^*

Islamic Idol


Gaza singer wins Arab Idol

“Islamic Idol” is the same idea as “Arab Idol” except the music is more religious. Reporting from Cairo, Hadeel Al-Shalchi of Associated Press wrote: “Flames burst from the stage for a grand entrance, and fake fog swirls around a young man in a white robe. He clutches the microphone, gazes seriously into the camera and then, accompanied only by drums, he sings. "I accept Allah as my God, His religion as my religion, and His Messenger as my Messenger," he intones, as the audience, divided into men's and women's sections, claps along with the rhythm. [Source: Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Associated Press, May 18, 2009 ><]

“The singer is a contestant on a new Islamic version of "American Idol," launched to find and promote talent for the Arab world's first Islamic pop music video channel...In the Arab world, there are few 'Islamic singers.' Thus the contest, through which Abu Heiba hopes to drum up new talent. 'I don't have singers, the field is empty,' he said. 'So I need a star-making process from the beginning to get my own stars to deliver my own message by my own way.' The contest was called 'Soutak Wasel,' Arabic for 'Your Voice is Heard,' though Abu Heiba nicknamed it 'Islamic Idol' — perhaps not the most appropriate nickname given Islam's strong prohibition against idolatry. ><

“For the past two months, listeners called in to 4shbab to sing a song on the air, and a panel of experts judged them. The 12 best, from around the Arab world, won the chance to compete in the finals in front of a live audience of about 300 people in an open air theater at Cairo's historic Citadel. During the April 17 show, viewers voted by text message and chose three winners.

American Almost Wins "Arabs Got Talent"

In 2013 an American came close to winning "Arabs Got Talent", produced in Zouk Mosbeh area, north of Beirut. Reuters reported: “An American singer with no Arab heritage nearly took the top prize in the “Arabs Got Talent” television show... breaking into the top three alongside a Palestinian artist and a Syrian dance troupe. Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts, fell just short in the end, but her renditions of classical Arabic songs had stunned some audiences - especially given that she only speaks a little Arabic. [Source: Reuters, December 8, 2013 /=/]


“Grout vied with an eclectic set of contestants for the show’s third season finale, including a Moroccan juggler, Kuwaiti comedians, an Egyptian “popper,” a Lebanese drummer, and an acrobatics squad dressed as Pharaohs. Dressed in a flowing white gown, Grout sang “Wahashtini” (I’ve Missed You), a classic by Lebanese-Egyptian singer Souad Mohamed. The judges praised her voice and her enthusiasm for classic Arabic music - much of it relatively unknown outside the Middle East - at a time when many commentators lament that Western cultural hegemony has eroded the region’s distinct identity. /=/

“Grout lives in Morocco and organizers said it was not necessary to be an Arab to compete. “I believe Jennifer is a phenomenon we should celebrate,” Saudi Arabian comedian Nasser al-Qasaibi said. Egyptian actor Ahmed Helmy played on the idiosyncrasies of his country’s dialect - the Arabic alphabet’s “J” is pronounced as a “G” in Egyptian - to commend Grout’s talents. “From today, you’re no longer ‘Jennifer,’ you’re ‘Gennifer’,” he said. /=/

“Umm Kalthoum, Grout’s favorite Arabic singer, was also Egyptian, and has a near-mythic status in the Arab world. Grout was joined in the top three by Mohamed al-Deiri, a Palestinian artist who drew enthusiastic applause by swiftly burning a portrait of Yasser Arafat onto a large white canvas with two gas torches, and Syrian dance team Sima. /=/

“In the end it was Sima’s performance - an interpretative dance that incorporated themes of power and conflict - that took the top prize. The number opened with a group of dancers dressed in black and white fighting over a throne, an image that could be seen as symbolic of Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people. In the finals, we wanted to do something related to the reality we’re living, to present it as it is, how brutal it is and how violent,” said Lana Fehmi, one of Sima’s dancers. “I think it reflects reality but, at the same time, I think sometimes it can give hope.”“

Television Imam in the Middle East


Youssef al-Qaradawi

Youssef al-Qaradawi, a popular Islamist preacher on the satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was still going strong in his 80s. Trained at Egypt’s famed al-Azhar seminary, he is widely respected by Muslim clerics and scholars and widely regarded as a liberal even though he is considered the spokesman for the Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood and is a supporter of imposing Sharia law. His show on Al-Jazeera was called “Sharia and Life”. Qaradawi is also behind a popular Islamic website called Islamoline.

Traditionally, television preaching in the Middle East has been done by elderly scholars in robes. turbans and long beards that sat behind decks. They often emphasize the afterlife more than present life and sometimes preach jihad and violence towards non-Muslims. But as television market has opened up with the plethora of satellite channels, less gloomy and more personable preachers have appeared.

Contemporary Muslim preachers that combine Islam with a feel-good message include Abdullah Gymnastiar of Indonesia and the Turkish Sufi master Fethullah Gulen. Moez Masoud is a Muslim televangelist like Amr Khaled (See Below) but younger and hipper. He dresses in more causal matters talks openly about movies, music and sex and preaches tolerances towards homosexuals. His shows is also aired on Iqta. In “The Right Way” he travels to places like Cairo, Istanbul, London and Jeddah and asks people on the streets what they think about topis like marijuana, alcohol, veiled women and terrorism. When he is London the legs of women in short skirts in the background are blurred out.

On one show Masoud said, “A lot of Muslims act as if we can’t enjoy this life, we can only enjoy the afterlife. That is not right, we should enjoy life, enjoy music, and art. This life is ours and we should enjoy it,” but adds, “If you really, truly love God and feel that all your pleasure comes from God, anything else who pale in comparison.’ Before he became a television preacher he worked as an advertising executive and directed a few commercials.

Amr Khaled

Amr Khaled is a well known television personality in the Muslim world. An Egyptian born in 1968, he hosts a popular show on Iqra, is a Saudi-owned religious satellite television channel, and has one of the Arab world’s most popular websites, receiving tens of millions of hits annually. Described as a Muslim Joel Osteen or Dr. Phil, he espouses a “purpose-driven life” philosophy that encourages Muslims to take charge of their lives and be a positive member of society using Islam. He advocates friendly relations with the West and hosted an Interfaith conference in Copenhagen after the controversies over the Danish cartoons that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. [Source: New York Times magazine, April 30, 2006]


Amr Khaled

Khaled was ranked 62nd in Time magazines list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2006. He has been called a televangelist who has revolutionized the way Islam is delivered to audiences. Wearing Western suits or jeans and sporting a mustache but no beard, he conveys the Prophet’s message using folksy stories and slangy Arabic and comes across as almost the opposite of the grim-face, bearded Muslim clerics in a robe and turbans. Khaled is involved in a number of social outreach programs ans charities. Women find him Khaled sexy. He used to give out his phone number to almost anyone and often engaged in long conversations with complete strangers on his cell phone.

At a lecture in Washington D.C. area, Khaled began. “My goal is that you leave happy. My goal is to fulfill the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, that says ‘Whoever puts joy in the ears of the believers, his reward is not less than Paradise...I implore you to be active in society, don’t isolate yourself.” Robin Wright wrote in the Washington Post, “the crowd ate it up. Fo r the next 90 minutes, they laughed at has witticisms, smiled at his stories, nodded at his exhortations and clapped again—spontaneously and often. But most of all, they listened intently.”

Wright wrote, “Khaled, a tall man with piecing eyes and an impish laugh, usually begins his lectures slowly and swiftly, the cadence and emphasis steadily building. As he gets worked up, he gets more animated, pinching his fingers together or spreading his arms.” At some of his appearances an Islamic hip-hop group performs. His stories include ones about Muhammad and his companions spitting watermelon seeds at one another.

When he speaks Khaled is surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards. Islamist don’t like him because of his Western style and outspokenness on women’s rights. Cleric criticize him for his lack of training and his upbeat message. Reformists criticize him for maintaining the status quo and encouraging young women to wear veils.

Amr Khaled’s Life


Moez Masoud at Davos

The son of a doctor, Khaled worked with clients like Pepsi and Colgate at Egypt’s largest accounting firm before pursing his current avocation. Khaled’s career as an inspiration speaker began in 1997 when a friend asked him to substitute for a local preacher who couldn’t make it to an engagement at the Egyptian shooting club. People liked his comfortable folksy style and he got invited to other events. At first they were often at people’s houses. Khaled received no fees and the event often ended with dinner and an informal soccer game. As time went on he attracted larger and larger crowds and more and more attention from Egyptian authorities, who eventually limited his speaking engagements to one day a week at a run-down mosque on the outskirts of Cairo, where thousands came to see him.

Not long after that Khaled launched his own television show, “Word from the Heart”, which features images of women praying in the opening credits, audience members giving spirited testimonials and Khaled spending part of show talking behind a crescent-shaped desk and part of show standing up with a mike, with the show climaxing with an emotional prayer led by Khaled. Khaled doesn’t solicit donations like American televangelists. He his says most of his money comes from Iqta.

Khaled turned 44 in 2010. He is married and has two children. At that time lived in Birmingham, England. To address accusations that he lacked training he was working on his doctorate in Islamic studies at the University of Wales. As his popularity grew in Egypt, authorities there began monitoring his speaking engagements and then pressured him not to speak in public. After being visited by members of the Egypt intelligence service he decided to abruptly leave Egypt with only a gym-bag worth of belongings. He then moved to Lebanon, stayed there for two years, before moving to England, where he began focusing his lectures on the concerns of European Muslims.

Amr Khaled’s Message

Khaled told the Washington Post, “My message is: Please be rightful representatives of your religion. Please show people here your good manners, your attitude of hard work, how you can succeed in this society, what you can add, your positive integration while maintaining pride—so people know how great this religion is.” He tells women they should not cover their entire faces because it make it hard for them to communicate with non-Muslims and advises Muslims in the West to postpone prayer time to avoid splashing water all over public restrooms to complete the ablutions.


Alireza Khanjari, Iranian TV's Science Cook

In his lectures “he advocates hard work at school, in exercise and with charity” and “presses for practice of good deed, and self-help in the Arab world, as, from teaching the illiterate to fixing potholes.” He has called Muhammad “a manger: who held “press conferences;” compared women’s bodies to pearls that need a thick shell to protect; tells his audience to enjoy material wealth. Islam doesn’t have to be, he says, just about studying the Qur’an, attending lectures and waking up early to do prayers it can also be about having fun.”

One unusual aspect of his message is that sharia law is not something that should be imposed on someone but rather should be something that one discovers for themselves on a journey of personal growth and awareness. Olivier Roy, a leading French Islamic scholar, told the New York Times magazine Khaled “has recast the idea of living according to Shariah for a new generation; he presents it as a ixture of values, laws and norms, something much closer to evangelical Christianity in America. It’s not a matter of getting your hands cut off if you steal; it’s about spiritual achievement.”

Many of his biggest fans are women who before Khaled came along took little interest in Islam but have become more religious after being spiritually turned on by him A Muslim American admirer told the Washington Post, “His spirituality is very raw. It’s fresh. You don’t feel like it’s artificial or old. When he prays, he gets emotional and his voice changes. Sometimes he cries...My mother also watches him all the time. He’s her favorite speaker. He even attracted females who wear jeans, tank tops, don’t cover their hair—and don’t normally go to a mosque... The content of his talks is geared for day-to-day practical advise.”

Western Television and the Arab World

For a while the Arabic version of “Who Want to be a Millionaire”, shown on MBC and local stations, was the most popular show in the Middle East. Produced by Saudi-owned MBC, it was shot in Cairo and hosted by a former journalist from Lebanon who greeted viewers by saying, “Greeting to our steadfast friends in Palestine.” “Falcon Crest”, “Dallas” and “Dynasty” were also watched by scores of people. Muslim fundamentalist censors, who cut nudity and sexually-explicit material from television shows, reportedly have no problems with “Baywatch”. “Oprah” was popular for a while. “Desperate Housewives” was popular in Egypt and other places that cursed how Western culture poisoned Islamic values and local traditions.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Muslim world have been the primary source of villains and bad guys. American television shows like “24,” “Lost,” “JAG,” Criminal Minds”, “Home;and” and “NCIS” have often featured plots that revolved around characterized Arabs and Muslims as terrorists or some negative stereotype.

“Sleeper Cell” was an acclaimed drama broadcast on Showtime that was credited for having Muslim characters that were both good guys and bad guys, with th main good guy being a black FBI agent that infiltrates a terrorist sleeper cell.

Jack G. Shahee, a professor of communications at Southern Illinois University and author of the book “Reel Bad Arabs” estimated that 99 percent of the Muslims portrayed in television are Arabs even though the faith includes citizens of many countries, including Indonesia and India, the countries with the largest Muslim populations.


Arabs and Muslims have never really been presented in a very positive light in Western film and television. In the old days it was lecherous Bedouin bandits praying on submissive maidens. At best the Muslim world provides an exotic backdrop for Europeans and Americans to find themselves or seek adventure. Even in “Lawrence of Arabia” Arabs need a blue-eyed Briton to show them how to seek their own independence.

In the late 2000s a couple of television shows appeared in the United States that characterized Muslims as multi-dimensional humans human beings rather than terrorists or veiled women. “Aliens in America” was a comedy on the CW Network centered around an exchange student from Pakistan. “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was about a multiethnic congregation at a rural mosque in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. Among the topics of episodes were whether it was possible to have a Halal-o-ween and is a gay swimming instructor the “burkini” solution for an all-female swimming class.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, music video picture, Linked In; Ramadan TV, Reuters; Million Poet, Al Arabiya; Gaza sinnger, Arab News

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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