Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Popularizing Islam through TV
Egyptian Ahmed abu Haiba symbolizes a struggle in the Middle East with the influx of Western culture. He aims to give a voice to moderate Islam.

It was a boyhood of miniskirts and stern-faced imams. As Ahmed abu Haiba grew into a man, he felt a kinship with the clerics who recited the Koran in badly lighted television studios, but he feared they didn't stand a chance against the new Western temptations of pop divas pouting about carnal pleasures and broken hearts.

The screen beyond Abu Haiba's clicker was changing; the iconic images that defined Islam were being challenged in the 1990s from the Internet and Hollywood fantasy absorbed by tens of millions of satellite dishes humming on rooftops across the Middle East. It was an alluring cacophony that Abu Haiba, a playwright and TV producer, warned would tug the Arab world further from its culture.

"The Islamic media was so poor, so traditional," he said.
"It wasn't television. It was televised radio, a man in front of a camera speaking for hours and hours about obscure religious texts with no appeal. . . . Words with nothing connected to life."

Abu Haiba rejected the West's secular message, but he sought the power of its style and marketing. His creation, the latest in the struggle of faith, globalization and identity between East and West, is a music video channel that features Muslim piety through a slickly produced prism of Arabic rhythms to counter the thug pathos on MTV.

"I want a new Islamic media," said Abu Haiba, a 39-year-old father of three.
"My point is not to condemn the West, but to build my culture with its own seeds, its own matrix. . . . I am more worried about Western culture than politics. It affects our thinking and ideals. It's a major danger we're facing on our beliefs, role models, habits. If I lose my culture, I become a stranger in my own country."

It is difficult to escape the West's imprint on Muslim society: Plastic surgeons are re-creating pop stars in Lebanon; independent women are appearing in Tunisian and Moroccan films; blogs are chiding political regimes from Cairo to Amman; Facebook and text messaging are circumventing religion-based dating rules; and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, unveiled blond women peddle shampoo in commercials.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war hardened the lines between Washington and the Arab world, accentuating what many scholars and diplomats say is a clash of civilizations. Muslims rallied against the U.S. invasion of Iraq; terrorism flared across the Middle East and into Europe. But something else was happening. Despite President Bush's rhetoric against Islamic militants and Osama bin Laden's screeds on infidels, Western culture was flourishing from Mecca to Tripoli.

A cultural schizophrenia

A crude, yet telling, sign of this was glimpsed in an Internet cafe in northern Iraq days before U.S. cruise missiles would strike Baghdad in 2003. An bearded militant visited two websites during his 30 minutes of surfing -- one sponsored by the terrorist group Ansar al Islam, the other featuring English-language porn.

The anecdote is an extreme illustration of the cultural schizophrenia Muslims in the Middle East say they face, caught on an uneasy plane between fundamentalist preachers and Western-inspired seductions.


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Popularizing Islam through TV

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