The majority of Egyptians watch religious satellite TV channels: at home, online, in shops, in supermarkets, even in cabs and tuk tuks while out driving.
In January, Zainab Hamed of the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University conducted a study entitled “The effect of fatwas presented on Arab satellite TV channels on the knowledge and behaviours of the Egyptian public”. She found that 70% of Egyptians frequently watch religious programs and 30% watch them sometimes. The study showed that Egyptians seek knowledge about religion and solutions through fatwa (a juristic ruling related to Sharia) for personal and social issues.
“When these sheikhs discuss politics from a religious perspective, it is not wrong because they speak the truth and examine when Sharia should be implemented. They are scholars who are known for their religiosity and knowledge, yet they are picked on by the other TV channels [secular ones] and showed in a bad light,” says Rana, a 19-year old student.
“No,” objects Laila, Rana’s friend. “I think they shouldn’t mix politics and religion, these channels were established to discuss religious matters. Speaking about politics messes up the religious nature of the channels, because politics is corrupt and dirty while religion is perfect.”
“Nowadays, these channels discuss politics a lot and this will cause fitna (chaos) in our society. They [these channels] should be following Al-Azhar’s footsteps and doctrine,” says Ahmed, a 26-year-old worker.
“I’m Muslim, but I refuse to watch any of those channels because they interpret religion in the way they want and 99% of Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, are not well-aware of their religion, so they’d buy anything they hear. The channels have to abide by Al-Azhar doctrine,” says Khaled, an Egyptian in his 50s.
“Amidst what’s going on in our country, they have to discuss politics; they just need to be careful not to incite violence. That’s why our church oversees our channels. Al-Azhar should do the same with Islamic channels,” say mother and daughter Marian and Christina.
The number of viewers and the number of religious channels have been rising recently, and while the anecdotes printed here may not be representative of all opinions on religious channels, they reflect the themes and trends seen frequently in discussions in Egypt. They also raise questions about the nature of religious channels and their controversial contents.
Secular media outlets criticise religious channels for causing a myriad of problems. For instance, Akher Al Nahar talk show presenter Mahmoud Saad criticised the sheikhs of religious channels for using offensive language, in contravention of Islamic principles. Some other accusations, like spreading hate speech and inciting sectarian strife, have been around since long before the revolution. Al Azhar Grand sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb rejected the sectarian rhetoric these channels use against Shi’as and released a statement in 2010 condemning it. Others criticism surfaced after the revolution, including claims that the channels push the public towards certain political choices, heavily criticise revolutionary groups, and unconditionally support the ruling party and the presidency.
Backed up by sheikhs and Islamist politicians, religious channels stridently defend themselves against these accusations. They say that they are advocates for Islam, accusing secular channels of destabilising the country and attacking the legitimate president.
The rise of religious TV in Egypt
The late 1990s saw the beginnings of the religious TV trend in Egypt with the launch of Saudi-owned Iqraa (Read). Iqraa’s success prompted the creation of new channels throughout the 2000s, including Al-Resala and Al-Nas.
Although Al-Nas (The People) was first broadcast as an Arab music channel, it later became a religious channel. Commentators largely attribute its huge success to appearances on the channel by popular sheikhs, including Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Yacoub.
Today there are a number of religious channels on the scene in Egypt. The biggest names include Al-Nas, Al-Hafez (The Protector), Al-Rahma (Mercy), Al-Majd (Glory), and Al-Hekmah (Wisdom). Before the revolution, the content of these channels was strictly religious, with few exceptions.
Under the Mubarak regime, religious channels on Nilesat attracted criticism for broadcasting what some saw as hate speech. In October 2010 the broadcast licenses of 12 religious TV channels were suspended and 20 others were issued with warnings for “inciting religious hatred”. International satellite providers such as French Eutelsat reported the Al-Rahma channel for its anti-Semitic content.
Other channels were reported for radical rhetoric calling for the excommunication and murder of Shia Muslims. They were also criticised for offering medical services and advice from unlicensed doctors, promoting herbal medications and treatments without the authorisation of the Ministry of Health. For this reason, Anas al-Fiqi, then Minister of Information, justified the measure as way to safeguard public well-being.
In the post-revolutionary era, these restrictions on the content and tone of broadcast have disappeared leading to renewed accusations of spreading hate speech.
Mohsen Kamal is a consultant for the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. According to Kamal, in human rights law the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of speech is absolute. It excludes only two types of speech: hate speech, and incitement to violence. Hate speech, Kamal explains, is the process of communicating hateful messages that vilify a person or a group and lead to discriminatory or prejudicial actions against this person or group. Hate speech may also lead to incitement to violence.
“We have seen this speech utilised against Bahais. Today we sometimes see this speech deployed against Copts, when you hear about all the conspiracies they are hatching in churches and how they are working to take down the Egyptian state,” says Kamal.
“We’ve also witnessed incitement to violence when sheikhs called on people to go and protect the Presidential Palace from protesters,” he adds.
Offensive and defamatory language on TV
Hate speech is not the only accusation made against religious TV channels in Egypt. Some criticise the offensive and defamatory language they use, slandering politicians, actors, and talk show hosts. A vast repository of evidence can be seen on video-sharing site YouTube.
For instance, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, the presenter of the Masr el-Gadeeda show aired on Al-Nas, has used defamatory speech against opposition leaders and Bassem Youssef, presenter of satirical TV show Al Bernameg.
Al-Hafez channel has been sued after Atef Abel Rasheed, the presenter of Fee el-Mezan, hosted two sheikhs whose language and opinions were offensive: Sheikh Abdallah Badr, who slandered Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen, and Salafi Sheikh Mahmoud Shaaban, who issued a fatwa on air calling for the assassination of opposition leaders.
Secular channels have also become less ethical since the revolution, but they tend to attract less criticism from the public. Kamal admits that the media is biased in its coverage of religious channels. “We tend to focus on Islamic channels alone, forgetting about secular and Christian channels which sometimes communicate hate speech against Muslims,” he says.
Kamal refers to the Coptic channel Al Hayat, which has aired programmes critical of Islamic beliefs in the past.
“However, the limelight falls on Islamic channels for multiple reasons. These channels are platforms for those in power. They appear on Islamic channels presented by sheikhs who are members of Islamist political parties or affiliated with them. So the channels really become an indicator of what we can understand about these political parties and their agenda,” says Kamal.
“If we had a Christian president, I bet you we would have been hammering on about the Christian channels,” he jokes.
From the heavens to the ballot boxes
Since the revolution, channels that were once strictly religious in content have branched out into politics. This has become another prime source of criticism.
During the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, channels such as Al-Nas, Al-Hafez, Al-Rahma and Al-Hekmah were used to campaign for the Salafi Al Nour and Al Fadeela parties.
Similar campaigns took place during the referendum on constitutional amendments in March 2011 and the constitutional referendum in December 2012. Presenters and sheikhs often directed views to vote “Yes” in both referenda.
Abou Youssef is the CEO of Al-Ummah channel. He believes that politics and Islam are intertwined and inseparable, unlike other religions, and says that it is appropriate to talk about politics on religious TV channels.
“Islam is the only religion that determines the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. The ruled are to correct the ruler when he is wrong, and follow him when he is right,” he says.
Abou Youssef says that political discussions on religious shows are important, and adds that the regime is not using religious channels to gain popularity.
“On the contrary, the problem is that the regime does not capitalise enough on religious channels. It does not use our platforms… there is no need really because we Islamists greatly outnumber the liberals and the secularists anyway,” he explains.
He believes that each channel decides what to support and what to oppose and this helps to create diversity in the religious community. This, he says, accounts for the channels’ popularity: people have a wide choice of shows and opinions to support.
Kamal doesn’t oppose discussing politics on religious channels either.
“Any citizen has the right to discuss anything in general,” he says. “The only problem is that these channels evaluate and criticise political decisions on a religious basis. This complicates things and may lead to division and violence because of people’s enthusiasm and commitment to religious matters.”
Kamal says that Egyptian society already struggles with internal unrest and having such discussions adds fuel to the fire. Discussing politics on a religious show, he says, will increase divisions in society.
“These channels are used as tools in the hands of the current regime, and this has been proven by the positions the channels take. They do not criticise the president’s decisions and always oppose the oppositions’ activities,” he notes.
Calls on Al-Azhar to intervene
Amid the plethora of religious TV channels and the controversy over their broadcasts, Al-Azhar’s voice is missing. Lately, Al-Azhar has been preparing to launch its own channel, which the institution hopes will spread its school of thought and its interpretations of religious teachings.
Many people and politicians are calling for Al-Azhar to exert some kind of control over the religious TV channels. Mohamed Emara is an Islamic thinker and a member of Al-Azhar’s Association of Senior Scholars. He says that Al-Azhar has no relationship with any channels currently broadcasting, and doesn’t support the idea that Al-Azhar should oversee the contents of these channels.
“The constitution allows for establishing councils to oversee and organise the operations of newspapers, TV channels and radio,” he says. “Al-Azhar should not get involved in such a hectic process especially given that the number of these channels is on the rise. People working in the media have to reach some sort of a covenant that specifies criteria and guidelines for their work.”
Abou Youssef wholeheartedly supports codes, laws and criteria for media work, but he thinks that “if the laws are not followed by everyone equally then drafting them is pointless”.
He also welcomes the supervision of Al-Azhar, but only on one condition: “If the churches in Egypt are held accountable for mistakes on the Christian channels, then the supervision of Al-Azhar is more than welcome. But I think it is unlikely that they will agree to such condition.”
Kamal, too, believes there should be laws for all media outlets to prevent hate speech and incitement to violence, but he categorically rejects the idea of Al-Azhar organising or overseeing religious channels.
Despite the criticism and several court cases involving religious TV personalities, their popularity continues to grow. Efforts to impose regulation on these and other channels have so far included closing down the TV stations, cancelling talk shows or suspending licences. However none of these methods have proved effective in combating examples of religious intolerance and extreme political positions. It seems inevitable that politicians and society at large will have to contend with the influence of religious satellite channels for some time to come.
Some names have been changed to protect their identity