Examining Religious Television Channels in the Middle East

Examining Religious Television Channels in the Middle East

Program Date: 
February 11, 2016

The past decade has seen the proliferation of largely extremist and sectarian 24-hour religious television channels throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Now exceeding 120 in number, they reach a collective viewership estimated in the tens of millions, and play an outsize role in stoking violent conflict region-wide. Most efforts to counter the broadcasts, including the production of alternative religious programming, are still in a fledgling stage. 

To help draw attention to this phenomenon and its implications for international efforts to combat extremism, AAM is launching a new initiative that will examine 24-hour religious television channels from the Middle East and issue reports on their activities. We begin the initiative with a proponent of coexistence and civil discourse, and will follow by examining a channel that has stoked sectarian warfare. Managing the research effort is AAM strategic advisor Joseph Braude, author of a forthcoming book on Arabic media.

The Moroccan Response: Al-Sadisa

Our first feature profiles Al-Sadisa, a Moroccan Islamic television channel, which has managed to compete with its extremist rivals and win 85% of the Moroccan audience for religious television broadcasts. Conveying a message of civility and tolerance through faith, Al Sadisa is widely credited inside the country for reviving and building on indigenous Moroccan religious traditions that extremists, for two generations, worked to undermine.

Lessons Learned from Al-Sadisa

The power of an independent narrative: The network does not fall into the trap of defining itself explicitly in opposition to a militant ideology, whether ISIS or any other. Instead, Al-Sadisa lays out a rich, independent narrative of Islamic practice on its own terms.
 
The power of localization: After decades in which Gulf petro-endowments sought to homogenize Islamic tenets and cultural norms, Al-Sadisa promotes Morocco’s own religious heritage instead — such as its centuries-old legal and spiritual traditions and unique style of Qur’an recitation, all conveyed through the country’s distinctive Arabic dialect. “Localization” attracts viewers away from the regional channels and strengthens the bond between Islam and Moroccan nationalism — a bulwark against trans-state jihadism.
 
The power of “state Islam”:  Most extremist channels propagate not only a hardline ideology but also the cult of personality of a given cleric who espouses it. By contrast, Al-Sadisa's programming and hosts are embedded within a larger framework of “state Islam” – built around an Islamic affairs ministry – that includes its own mosques, seminaries, and university faculties. Because these religious and lay leaders share a unified positive message that is well grounded in Islamic law and Moroccan tradition, the channel presents a compelling vision for the viewer that makes alternative Islamic programming seem weak, almost fly-by-night by comparison. While the extent of government involvement in religious affairs differs from the American experience, in many Arab countries, state Islam may offer the only mechanism for religious inculcation of sufficient size and scope to sustain an organized challenge to the well-oiled networks of trans-state jihadism.

Managing the research effort for this initiative is AAM strategic advisor Joseph Braude, author of a forthcoming book on Arabic media.