InsightSeptember October 2005

Raising Awareness Toward Reforming Islamic Programs on Arab Gulf Satellite Services

Ali Al-Hail

INTRODUCTION

Population of Gulf Cooperation Council states (G.C.C.), including non-nationals is reported to reach nearly 25 million. Almost 40% of this figure (round about 10 million) are Gulf citizens which means that non-nationals outnumber nationals by roughly 3-1 (Gulf Council Cooperation’s report, 2004). Approximately, 60% of Gulf Citizens’ ages are between 15 – 40 which means that the Gulf is classified as a young television targeted region. Gulf women outnumber Gulf men by 2-1 (Al Jazeera, ‘For Women Only’, Doha, 2004; Huda Al-Mutawah, 2003). Despite this statistical implications and despite that women are phenomenally, more educated than men in the Gulf region, the Gulf societies are predominated by men on one hand while on the other Gulf women’s achievements particularly in entering business have been neglected by Gulf satellite televisions (Al-Ramahi, 2004; Al-Hail, 2004). Both the latter and the former according to Beirut Conference and Al-Hail’s research are due to factors mostly, related to socio-historical, cultural traditions and conditions of which Islam do not approve (e.g., Al-Qaradawi, TBS, 2004, Farrag, TBS, 2004).

In Arab Gulf societies, where the sources for information and entertainment are relatively severely limited, the importance of television programs as the informational and entertainment source is quite obvious. One evidence of this is the number of television sets which are owned by Gulf people (800 TV sets per every 1000 people). A per capita comparison is made to (e.g., some western countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the (former) USSR., The comparison shows that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries rank first in per person ownership of television sets. Research found that Gulf people, more than others, rely on television’ Islamic broadcasts in obtaining ‘Fatawa’ (religious advises) on one hand while on the other they use television as a substitute for other informational and entertainment sources (Qaradawi, TBS, 2004, Basher, 1984: 19; Al-Hail, 1995: 524). Interestingly enough, observations show that since the first ‘Intifada’ (Palestinian Uprising) in December 1987 and the current Intifada which erupted on September 28, 2000 up to now Arab Gulf audiences have been observed to rely heavily on Islamic programs. A number of legitimate questions arise here, whether Islamic programs involve surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest emotional appeals? More pointedly, do Islamic programs on GCC countries’ satellite channels play a cathartic role in a time of cultural crisis mainly because of 911 (e.g., Wise, TBS, 2004)? Or do they play the role of ‘escapism’ i.e., making the viewers escaping from a harsh reality? The concept of cathartic role refers to the notion that watching fictional tragedy on television is cathartic, i.e. it alleviates the miseries of real life and helps absorbing strong emotions resulted from living reality. This concept ‘Cathartic impact or effect’ was originated by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, whose definition of it was that watching tragedy (Aristotle was referring to the Greek theatre) is cathartic, i.e. it eliminates strong emotions. Whether the focusing of Islamic programs on Israeli violent actions helps absorbing viewers’ strong emotions is, yet to be empirically investigated along with the other asked questions.

Having said that, Islamic programs, on both governmental directly dominated satellite channels (Saudi TV, Kuwait TV, Abudahbi TV, Dubai TV, Sharja TV, Ajman TV {in UAE{, Qatar TV, Bahrain TV and Oman TV) and on presumably, ‘independent’ satellite televisions are more or less, produced and presented almost in the same fashion whether in terms of content or shape. Though in terms of quantity Islamic programs are far much more less on the non – governmentally controlled satellite televisions e.g., Al Jazeera and Al Arabeia. Except for those satellite televisions whose nature is Islamic, e.g., Iqra and Al Majd. However, in the holy month of Ramadan even the satellite channels of Al Jazeera and Al Arabeia follow almost exactly the governmental satellite televisions type of producing and presenting Islamic programs in both content and shape while differ slightly, in terms of quantity. This study believes that almost entirely, all of the satellite televisions in the Arab Gulf region either owned, financed and run by the state or by people with whom the state shares more or less the same interests.

The subject and topic are greatly affecting Arab Gulf societies, and the target of media is people irrespective of the geographical factors. Subsequently, for people live and function within a social structure, it becomes unfair to discuss the role of media in isolation of this factor.

Hence, this paper is not a theoretical review, but a practical elaboration based on academic stand and enriched with practical experience. The subject is vast and stretched over many dimensions in a way that it will be practically, difficult to answer all what could be triggered by mind about this subject. However, this study attempts to explore all of the arguments of the topic aiming at introducing the incentive for which Islamic programs ought to be reformed to match up with the developing technologies and techniques of satellite television. It, therefore is not concerned with proposing the ‘how to reform’. At this stage of this very original research into this aspect of satellite television in the Arab Gulf region, this paper alarms concerned people in the Arab satellite televisions about the very arising necessity to reform the way Islamic programs are produced and presented.

DISCUSSION

In this high-tech era of satellite channels virtually every adult and child in Arab Gulf region has access to satellite television. However, it is believed that some of the channels available such as, those of commercial types, are diverting the consciousness of their viewers from the real challenges of modern life to what can only be described as immoral trash (cf. Aseery, 1992: 43; Al-Hail, Gulf Times, 1997) .

In the view of that, a question arises: what is the role of satellite televisions in Arab Gulf societies? Almost entirely, without exception, all Arab Gulf countries place a special emphasis on the role of satellite television in manifesting Islamic values and beliefs.

This role is consistently, maintained when planning for programs in terms of content and most importantly, in terms of schedules. The reason for this scheduling is that (regardless what is viewed on TV) calling for prayer (to cite one example) and pausing five times a day every day up to ten minutes for each time characterizes, among other Islamic features Arab Gulf satellite televisions.

Additionally, transmitting other Islamic worshipping activities such as Friday’s speech and prayer, Ramadan’s daily night prayer for the whole holy month of Ramadan and the annual Haj (Pilgrimage) activities from Macca (live on the air) are completely taken for granted as far as Islamic programs on Arab Gulf satellite TVs are concerned. In these societies up to an average of 40% – 50% (reaches up to 60% in the case of Saudi Arabia) of daily satellite TV programs are Islamicly oriented. The percentage increases during the holy month of Ramadan, as the Arab Gulf satellite televisions dedicate themselves completely for Islamic programs. This dedication includes live transmission of daily night prayer live from Macca which lasts up to two hours every night. The total percentage reaches an average of 80% altogether with transmitting the local Ramadan night prayer.

As has been shown that, Islamic programming fills a significant gap on GCC countries satellite channels. It has publicized preachers and clerics whose preaching boundaries before TV were confined to mosques and teaching classes. Islamic broadcasts has also set up role models, such as Dr. Yousif Al-Karadawi mainly, on Qatar satellite TV, (QST) and on Al-Jazeera, Dr. Ahmed Al-Kobaisi on Dubai satellite TV and Amr Khalid on Iqra Islamic oriented satellite TV.

Although governments of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concentrated most on Islamic programs during the age of traditional television since the 1970’s the emergence of satellite television in the countries of GCC in the last quarter of the 1990’s had spearheaded governments of the GCC, to use satellite television for presenting even more Islamic programs as a tool of educating and preaching about Islamic values and beliefs for debatably the purposes of reinforcing the status que (Alterman, 2003). This orientation has been accelerated and highlighted by 911 terror as well as the war on terrorism that perceived as directed against Islam.

Having been established, Islamic programs through television proved to have short- comings. Basically, GCC governments founded their conviction on a number of observations and assumptions such as the world-wide spread of television and its popularity among young people in particular could well be a convenient means of producing and presenting Islamic programs rather than basing their belief on empirical research. These Islamic programs however, as Ayesh stated (2002) ‘hastily produced and naively presented’. As a result it is the responsibility of the satellite channel itself to raising clerics-presenters’ standards which involves the building up of a critical response based on an awareness of how television works. And this depends, to begin with, on a willingness to look at satellite television in a much more careful and critical way. To highlight this very important point in more detail: governments followed blindly four main highly hypothetical and misleading premises. First, of all, the power and effectiveness of television to communicate and inform has for decades been taken for granted. Secondly, its presumed wide-range availability. Thirdly, it has been assumed that television is an adequate replacement for the cleric or the preacher.

This assumption has no support, simply for lack of assurances that the supposed targeted audience understands the televised session. For, television is for long associated in peoples’ minds with entertainment, unless this association break down preaching through Islamic programs would not be quite substantial. However, television's ability to convey a wide range of facts to a vast number of people remains valid (Lesser, 1974 in Cullingford, 1984: 99). Finally, the lavish varieties of resources and revenues it enjoys for making beside formats of different Islamic programs films, drama, soaps, sporting programs, documentaries and other materials cannot be ignored. All these observations and assumptions have combined together to convince governments of the potential of televised Islamic broadcasts as an instrument with access to everyone, to use another expression, "open access”.

Unfortunately, television has failed to a large extent to meet these expectations sufficiently at least in the Arab Gulf Region as the observations reveal. Governmental belief in the capability of television’s Islamic programs to educate, preach, and communicate has been based largely on assumptions (Al-Hail, TBS, 2004). Governments have used television as a tool of educating about Islam without sufficient scientific research. This dependence on assumption led to what can be described as disappointment in the possibilities of television’s Islamic programs as a vehicle for teaching about Islam.

Nevertheless, in the light of these statements it could be argued that a traditional Islamic session at a mosque is more beneficial to a group of people than television sets and video machines in almost every household. The educative potential of television appears to be high (e.g., the power of television to combine sound with vision in colorful imagery and the capability of the television to attract attention) providing presenting and producing Islamic programs in a televised and visual not in an audioual and mosque session manner, which predominantly, monopolize Arab Gulf satellite TVs.

For these reasons Islamic programs on Arab Gulf satellite channels have not yet made a global breakthrough in terms of producing a series or films representing the social daily way of life on which Islam is mainly based. It can be argued that this ought to happen and that satellite televisions ought to help it to happen. This is not for the sake of an anachronistic position of protecting Islamic culture from Western corruption but because in the inevitable global village of the world GCC societies are exposed to modern Western satellite televisions transmitted through the increasing numbers of television sets, home video cassette recorders (HVCRs) and satellite transmissions via dish and cable. For a negotiated cultural relationship to be constructed, it will be important to build upon the strengths of Islamic programs while at the same time learning from the technology, the theory and the cultural techniques of Western satellite television industry. This of course requires a degree of cultural awareness of the role of English Language as the main vehicle of the media of mass communication. This entails the civilizational necessity to produce and export Islamic programs to the Western World which is in it self a tremendous form of cultural action.

Having said that, Islamic programs’ production should not be imitative of, for example, 'Dallas' or any other American series, but rather true to Islamic values, reflecting the objective nature of Islam as a religion and a culture which has for a long time been misunderstood by the West.

It has to be born in mind though that, what had ignited Arab Gulf satellite channels for long to focus on Islamic programs is the ‘presumed’ invasion of Western American culture through the Mass media, and the arising question; is it simply, a 'Moral Panic' or it might be a serious concern?

I think it is probably both, and the difficulty is to sort out what is the moral panic from what are the genuine causes of concern. You will be familiar with all the debates about media imperialism.

I think one of the things that happened in that debate is that, there has been a shift in recent years away from the idea that American media exert this extraordinary ideological control over the world.

That view has been criticized now. What we have now is that it tends to underestimate developing countries. It underestimates the intelligence of people in those countries and also their ability to take on and use American media in their own ways and for their own purposes.

Recent cross-cultural audience research – there's a book called “The Export of Meaning” by Liebes and Katz, which is about the international reception of 'Dallas' – there you find that different national or ethnic groups make sense of this quintessentially American ideological product in very, very different ways.

Some groups will be explicitly critical of the program. Other groups will accentuate certain things and ignore other things. They will make sense of it and use it in very different ways, but the idea that the program contains a single ideological position or an ideology which is then imposed on viewers is one that I think has to be abandoned.

What you have to look at is the diversity of ways in which people in different national cultures make sense of American TV or American media.

That is one point. Nevertheless, I do think there are institutional questions to do with Western control (particularly American) over institutions of media, and particularly of news media.

For example, the big international news agencies are by and large going to be controlled by the West, by America and by Europe.

That is significantly going to affect the kind of information that is available to us. That is certainly an issue.

There are also economic questions, which are the case in Europe as well, in that it is much cheaper to buy an American TV products than to produce your own products.

That is one of the big issues around at the moment in children's TV in that it is much cheaper to buy American cartoons than for Arab TV companies to produce their own home-grown drama programs.

That inevitably means that things that are nationally specific or even specific to particular cultural groups within a nation are going to drop out of the picture.

They are not going to be represented. So I think that is an issue as well. There are very definite, genuine reasons for concern, but the answers to them are not simple.

On the one hand, there are inevitably going to be issues which take the form of moral panics, because now that we have satellites, you have material beamed in from other cultures which would never have been available in Arab countries before.

That will have all sorts of effects, probably quite contradictory effects. There is a danger with that, while acknowledging those effects, in a sense blaming the messenger and not looking at the message.

There is a danger of blaming television for importing all sorts of dangerous things from outside which may have already been there in some way.

Television then comes to be the single source of all these ideological and moral evils from outside – sex is an obvious area. That was certainly the case around panics about popular music in the 1950s.

Young people, adolescents, seemed to be corrupted by sex, embodied in Elvis Presley and that kind of popular music, which now looks ridiculous.

What is most ridiculous is the idea that somehow before all this came along they were not sexual. There is a danger there of confusing the bigger moral issues with the issues that are specifically to do with media. That has got to be sorted out.

CONCLUSIONS AND FINDINGS

To reflect, conclude and sum up one could say that, the findings of the observation research for this study are that Islamic programs which are made for both children and adults are observed to be dull and uninteresting on one hand and while on the other underestimates the intellect of people and tend to slow down and inhibit their capability of imagination. Besides, these programs are broadcast like Friday mosque sessions.

There is much of interest in the religion of Islam, based on the moderate nature and flexible way of life of Islamic beliefs appropriately comprehended. Programs could be made entertaining and it is up to the role of satellite television in Arab Gulf countries to educate people to realize that the images they see on television are not always correct.

Many people, blame the West for stereotyping Islam as boring and tedious, but it is found that the biggest offenders are the Islamic programs. For instance, these programs play a negative role regarding the importance of women in these societies. This is against the view of Islam about women because in the early days of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) women were held in the highest respect. In the mid sixth century his wife Khadija was one of his most staunch allies who was involved in his every day life till he became a prophet and then she continued to stand beside him until she passed away. If this is recognized very early in Islam why Islamic programs on Arab Gulf televisions underestimate the importance of women as a reference in relation to religious, business and other life affairs?

One of the points which was found lately, after research is that the role of satellite television in Arab Gulf countries alienates the well educated viewers as the majority of the programs either Islamicly oriented or sport soccer in particular while other types of programs are neglected. One reason for this could be the assumption that the well educated viewers are more independent concerning their sources for information and entertainment.

The observations essential to this research point to the lack of those who produce and present Islamic programs of satellite television technique awareness. As mentioned before both the producers and the presenters do not seem to consider that they perform on TV.

It is assumed, that Arab Gulf satellite televisions implement Islamic programming policy in order to justify presenting other Western typed programs and commercial formats that have profoundly, been accused by certain sections of Arab Gulf societies specifically, Muslim clerics of channeling the perception of Muslim audiences and distancing them from Islam. Though these accusations do not seem totally, groundless Islamic broadcasts nevertheless, have also allegedly, been criticized by some Arab liberals for their ‘fragmented and disruptive rather than integrative’ role in for example conveying only one point of view. Criticisms also vary from performing the role of an opium to turn out viewers’ minds from ‘domestic politically related pressures’ and to playing the role of a ‘caldron’ of anti – Western propaganda which, fuels radical Muslim and secular Middle Eastern movements, as many people in the West argue.

There is observably, huge controversy, regarding the role of satellite television in Arab Gulf countries. Whether it reflects peoples’ interest in Islam and their needs to such programs on one hand while on the other, it attempts to divert people from the external satellite channels which are observed to feed very different ideas into the minds of the television watching in this part of the world (e.g., Al-Qaradawi, TBS, 2004, Farrag, TBS, 2004). These programs are so widespread and so popular that they are assumed by the local programs makers that they carry out a holocaust against the minds of young people in particular. The other side of the controversy deals with the question of Arab Gulf satellite TVs pertinent to whether its role constructs more than it reflects.

If one applies Herzog's theory of the 1940s and 1950s about the uses and gratifications of the Western audiences in their perception of the radio's output, should say that Arab Gulf Televisions “use” this particular role based apparently, on “satisfying the needs and gratifications” of the people in Herzog’s terms. Herzog criticized those theories which implied that an audience is passive. She based her theory on the belief that an audience is selective and actively chooses those aspects of the media which feels might satisfy his her needs.

As a reference, a research on the universities students in the Gulf states regarding the role of media especially, TV concluded that for the girls they watch soap operas as a relief from the cultural crises of the dispute between their own culture and other open societies. As for the boys, the culture leads them to feel loneliness and they find watching television alleviating this feeling of loneliness. This research started in 1984 and up-dated all over till 2002. This indicates that the culture is not subject to the time factor.

Therefore, the role of TV serves their purposes in this respect. Ironically, a western researcher, Howitt (1982) believes that western media help people “alleviate suffering” (p. 4). He refers to media entertainment which enables people to drug their stress whilst people in Arab Gulf countries seek refuge at Islamic programs to eradicate their suffering from the hot climate and other types of strain. It is clear, that the purpose is the same whereas the means are different.

REFERENCES

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