Arab Television: We Are What We Watch

By Louay Khraish

Imagining Lebanon

Daily headlines from around the world are reporting on the wave of fundamentalism sweeping across the Arab world.  Some even compare it to a tsunami.   Graeme Bannerman in his opinion piece, “The Key to Understanding the Arab Spring,” writes that the popular uprisings have replaced “the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.”  Some might argue that this is a gross generalization; others might agree, but what’s certain is that Bannerman’s statement does not reflect what the majority of Arabs still see on their television sets.

One of the outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt is the liberalization of the media sector that Mubarak’s regime once tightly controlled.  A plethora of broadcast television channels have emerged in Egypt, including Islamic channels, which worry many liberal and moderate Egyptians.  Islamic channels, like the hardline Salafist Al Nas, often feature self-appointed Islamic experts who use broadcast television to promote bigotry and intolerance and disseminate fundamentalist ideas, not only to Egypt’s conservative, often illiterate, population but also to the entire Arab world.

Despite the advent of Islamic channels, especially in Egypt, the Arab airwaves are still crowded with regional adaptation of international reality shows, Turkish and Mexican soap operas, American dramas and comedies, and music videos, featuring Lebanese “bombshells” like Haifa Wehbe and Myriam Fares.  Television channels like MBC, Egypt’s new Capital Broadcasting Center (CBC), and Lebanon’s numerous television stations, especially MTV and LBC, continue to provide secular content that contrasts sharply with what Islamists television presents.


Singer May Hariri on MTV’s “Dancing with the Stars”

MBC garners high ratings for its version of three international talent show formats,  “Arab Idol,” “Arabs Got Talent,” and especially “The Voice.”  Lebanon’s MTV is currently producing the Arab version of “Dancing with the Stars” while Egypt’s CBC is producing “The X-Factor” with Elissa, the top female selling artist, helming the panel of judges.

Are the Arab airwaves indicative of a cultural dichotomy that is taking place in the Arab world today, on one hand a youth-oriented culture with a modern outlook and on the other a more Medieval Islamist one?  Or, do the airwaves reflect the reality of the Arab world today?

The Ladies of "Kalam Nawaem"

The Ladies of MBC’s “Kalam Nawaem”

What is certain is that programs like the ones on MBC represent a segment of the Arab world that still exists and has not been swept away by the Islamist “tsunami.”   Whether serious programs like MTV’s “The Doctors” or MBC’s  “Kalam Nawaem,” a female-hosted talk show similar to “The View,” or trivial ones like “Arabs Got Talent,” these programs present a viewing alternative to the rise of Islamist television, such as Maria TV, which features women wearing the niqab that leaves only their eyes exposed.

Graeme Bannerman claims that an Islamic identity has been gradually gaining ground in the Arab world “over the last half-century.”  While this may be true, watching the numerous female participants on “The Voice,” clad in the latest fashions and cheered on by their veiled mothers, reminds us of a more familiar Islam, a more tolerant one than the Wahhabi Islam imported from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf to the Mediterranean cultures of North Africa and the Levant.

Sherine, one of the judges of MBC's "The Voice"

Sherine, one of the judges of MBC’s “The Voice”

According to Steven J. Kirsh in his book Media and Youth: A Development Perspective, “television genres influence body image.”  If this is true, then one has to wonder how does Maria TV with its masked, female presenters influence women’s self-image and self-representation.  Similarly Brown, Steele, and Walsh-Childers in their book, Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent, assert that while “characters on screen can influence both teens and adults…characters may have a bigger impact on adolescents who are still forming their worldviews.” Therefore, talent shows, like “The Voice,” no matter how silly or superficial one might find them, have social significance.  At the least, they provide Arab youth and women an alternative to the incantational rigmaroles of Islamic channels.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Islam Abdallah, the chief executive of Maria TV, said that his channel is a platform “to combat the influence of Christianity in the Muslim-majority region.”  It seems Arabs are not interested in Mr. Abdallah’s battle as is evident in the high ratings MBC and other secular channels reap.

Islamists can combat with media modern influences on Arabs as much as they want.  In the United States, Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network have tried for decades but to no avail.  Arabs, like Americans and others around the world, want to be entertained not preached at, and the entertainment they seek, to the chagrin of most Islamists, is not that different from what entertains the rest of the world.

About Dr. Khraish

Pacifist, writer and media specialist
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