The Proposed Satellite Television Channel of the Organization of the Islamic Conference:
A Response to Moral Panic?
By Ali Al-Hail

I. INTRODUCTION


Ali Al-Hail

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held its ninth conference in Doha, the Qatari capital, during November 2001. Members decided to establish an Islamic English-language satellite television channel. The main aim of such an initiative is apparently to educate the West about "real Islam," in light of the events of September 11, 2001. The TV channel is scheduled to go on air by 2004.

This decision would not have been made if 9/11 had never occurred. The researcher believes that the decision was fuelled by moral panic rather than by objective perspectives, particularly with regard to the presumed role played by Muslims in the atrocities. This article argues that a single rationale should not be the sole source for defining the Islamic world to a Western-targeted TV audience.

Since its inauguration in 1969 the OIC has had a reputation for bureaucracy, complacency, and negative performance in dealing with Islamic issues. Given this legacy, many argue that the proposal to establish an Islamic English-language satellite television system will face added difficulties in meeting the deadline for the channel to go on air in 2004.

This study is nonetheless mainly concerned with one particular mechanism proposed by the OIC, i.e., the English-language broadcasts aimed specifically at American and other Western audiences. The stated goal: raising audience awareness about "real Islam" through globally-televised programming. The long-term goal behind such an initiative presumably is to distance Islam from the horrific images of 9/11. There has been what I call a "moral panic" in which Muslims feel on the defensive and are seeking new forms of outreach because of continuing misunderstanding of the Islamic world in the United States and other key countries.

II. THE QUESTION OF "REAL ISLAM"

Among these notions, the definition of "real Islam" is problematic and controversial because there are so many differences amongst Muslims. Additionally, a legitimate question has to arise in this context as to whether or not the West is willing to learn about Islam, given the fact that the OIC has never carried out a survey in the West to find out.
There are also some generic arguments about which genres this new channel should use to "educate" its targeted Western audience: news, actualities, programs designed to portray how Islam deals with topics such as adultery and theft, plus fictional entertainment offerings and other features (Muhammed 2001, 2-4). For example, all moral viewpoints could be reviewed, analyzed, and critically dealt with in uncensored talk show programs.

III. THE QUESTION OF MORALITY

The author believes though that such a contentious long-term goal is typically based on very inadequate evidence fuelled by moral panic, especially judgments and stereotypes held by certain clerics within the OIC, whose perception of the West is extremely poor. Having said that, there are Muslims and Westerners alike who tend to reject the moral judgment on which some people base their views in regard to the relationship between Islam and the West. When properly understood, Islam is a religion but also a comprehensive way of life.

Undoubtedly, maintaining fixed moral judgments of each other's culture is bound to lead to a complexity of moral decisions and would consequently barricade any possible compromise that may appear on the horizon. Hence, it is extremely urgent for both Muslims and Westerners to realize that international relationships with each other in terms of economics, politics, security, and culture cannot be based only on moral considerations, but must also take into account common interests. For Muslims to be liked by the West (to cite one example) is completely irrelevant, because it is not a prerequisite condition in dealing with the West. One should not just reject another nation's products based on moral conclusions. There is no point in rejecting, for instance, American goods simply because they are American and you do not like certain American values and certain ways in which Americans might behave.

On the other hand, morality within the Arabic-Islamic contexts is an absolutely central issue to approaching the West and the converse almost equally true. Moral issues cannot be disentangled from political and philosophical questions which have their roots deeply ingrained in the days of Al-Andalus or medieval times. Every culture needs its own indigenous cultural production to fulfill the needs of its people for stories about themselves. It is important to maintain indigenous production to ensure that domestic cohesiveness does not disappear as a prevention of foreign products over-dominating markets. Much the same argument is made in Arab countries in the film industry in particular and increasingly in television. Unfortunately, the Muslim regimes that already fund Islamic satellite television services (either directly or indirectly through people with whom they share the same interests) have undoubtedly failed Muslims miserably, most notably in regard to the concept of "social justice" (e.g., Amer, 2002; Abdulhaleem, 2002; Rushdi, 2002).

One great concern, especially based on observations of Muslims living in the West, indicates that even after 9/11, how one is viewed does not seem to be based on whether or not one has intimate Western friends. Pro-American Muslims feel as threatened and suspected as do Islamicist radicals, even though there is no rational reason to lump them together ideologically. The failure by both cultures to nurture and protect a positive relationship between Muslims and Westerners outside the boundary of moral stereotypes is the equivalent of a human cultural holocaust. A key challenge for Arab and Muslim societies (among others) is how to find a negotiated cultural balance between, and synthesis of, Western social and media values and Islamic history and culture (Al-Hail, 1995, 425-429). The OIC, by proposing the creation of an Islamic satellite TV channel, in effect not only challenges the West, but (should it wish to) the dominance of authoritarian notions put forward by today's dominant Arabic Islamic oligarchies and dictatorships.

IV. QUESTIONS OF FUNDING

Fundamental and critical questions are bound to arise in due course as to who is actually going to finance such a global satellite television operation. Will the 57 members equally fund the project given, the high cost of setting up and running such a scheme and the harsh economic conditions through which the whole world is going?

Will the State of Qatar, the country which hosted the last summit of the OIC and whose Emir proposed the television station and set a dead line for it to go on air in 2004, be willing to harbor the channel and pay for its operating and running costs? It sounded and looked this way during the conference. None of the rich members of the OIC was apparently enthusiastic about embarking on such a huge project. Since its establishment in 1969, the OIC has a record of implementing specific media and educational projects in theory but failing in practice. There are a number of other concerns and problematic queries behind such reservations.

For example, which kind of Islam should be represented through television? Should it be the Sunni, the Wahhabi, the Shiite or another of the various divisions within Islam such as the Ahmadis, the Ibadis, the Sufis, the Zeidis, the Alawis, or the Druze, and so on? Islamic countries differ dramatically in terms of ideology and interests vis-à-vis the West. Hence, finding a form of content balance, which seems very difficult, surely will arise as a difficult dilemma.

Some conservative countries, certainly Saudi Arabia among them, would see such a television station as a tool for further division amongst Muslims. The possible split comes not just through education and information forums, but more importantly, when it comes to dialogue and communication with the West through live call-in programs. Governmental funding would unquestionably weaken the channel's autonomy and independence, and consequently threaten its continuity.

Generally speaking, viewers world-wide take these satellite channels for granted. There are so many of choices that many are not taken seriously most of the time. Moreover, even if available in the US or Europe via satellite or cable, there is no guarantee anyone would watch.

V. DISCUSSION

Despite these difficulties, one can accept that people do acquire guidance from television on many issues, including how to deal with each other in personal relationships. When viewers see someone behaving in a way they think is attractive and effective in reconciling a couple or dealing with a child, that is probably more influential in their lives than something bizarre or cruel or unpleasant, unless they are already disturbed people. Despite the huge number of murders depicted on television, most people do not turn into killers.

The researcher does, however, also accept Halloran, Brown, and Chaney's (1970) notion that television makes us more fearful because people have such wide access now to stories about the awful things that happen in the world. Even though such bad events have always happened, knowing about them tends to make viewers more fearful to go out in the streets, frightened of traveling, of letting their kids go out, etc. Perception is worse than reality because the reality of media is more concentrated in terms of negativity. From this short discussion of the role of television in the lives of people, a fundamental question arises: "What kind of advice would the proposed Islamic satellite television give to its Western audience?" Despite the efforts of vested interests to conceal, deny and confuse, everyday occurrences since September 11 seem to give a clear picture of at least a "presumed" growing hostility against Islam.

It was relatively easy to make "moral panic" statements to justify the financing of such a TV channel targeting Western audiences. However, more research is necessary into the genuine causes of concern that predate the destruction of the World Trade Center. It remains to be seen whether OIC's possession of a new satellite service would narrow the psychological gap between two cultures whose relationship has historically always been subjected to emotions and moral judgments.

VI. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

Great stress must be placed on the necessity to carry out further research into comparative cultural areas of study between Islamic culture and Western culture. Although there are many forms of materialistic co-operation between Islamic and Western countries, there are too few attempts on both sides to understand each other's culture. Further research by Ph.D. students seconded to Western Universities from Islamic countries should emphasize the need for conducting cultural comparative research between their countries and the West by the use of qualitative methodologies, especially interviewing. This is an appropriate strategy of social science research for obtaining first hand knowledge in the area under examination. From experience, this approach helps to narrow the cultural gap between the Muslim researcher and his/her interviewees and vice versa.

Rather than giving into rhetoric and assertion (Buckingham, 1990), further research, backed by concrete evidence, is needed into the role of mass media. Islamic countries' own media should carry out frequent audience research to make sure that its programs cover all sections of society. This procedure would lead, among other things, to minimizing the phenomenon of alienation faced by certain groups such as the well-educated and women. Islamic media should also promote the role of women in Islamic-oriented programs as well as other types of shows. In addition, the media should stop portraying women as merely domesticated and highlight their successes working as professionals, civil servants, and so on.

The media's institutions in Islamic countries should adopt practical methods to content-analyze exported media's products not so much for the sake of protection as for the sake of being aware of the contents of these products. They should subsidize, support, and sponsor the ideas of Muslim actors and actresses to produce indigenous productions of media that reflect the Islamic and Arabic culture and make these forms of production exportable to the West. Foreign-targeted Islamic programs should be produced and presented on TV according to the best techniques of television. For example, to reach children, cartoon personalities such as Tom & Jerry could be used for teaching about Islam today.

Islamic educational policy makers should also consider introducing media education into schools. Regardless of the high cost which training teachers of media studies could entail, the long term outcomes of such an investment are worth it. In fact, the principles of media education are similar to those grounded in the Holy Qur'an and the revelation to motivate people to become conscious and critical of what they watch, read, and listen to. Doing so domestically will inevitably narrow gender inequalities and raise the level of cultural awareness. Ultimately, this will also help lessen points of contention in both Islamic and Western cultures that have been maintained only because of cultural misunderstanding and stereotyping on both sides.

VII. REFERENCES

Abdulhaleem, M. "The Islamic Satellite Television: Who Will Fund It?" in Islamweb (Doha, Qatar), August, 20, 2002, 2-3.

Al-Hail, A. . Unpublished Ph.D., University of Durham (United Kingdom), 1995.The Teaching of Media Studies: A Study in Theory and Practice

Amer, Ghanim. "The Islamic Satellite Television" in Islamweb (Doha, Qatar), July 4, 2002, 1-2.

Buckingham, David. Watching Media Learning. London and New York: Falmer Press, 1990.

Halloran, J. D., Brown R. L.; and Chaney, D. C. Television and Delinquency. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1970.

Muhammed, Ayish I. "American-Style Journalism and Arab World Television: An Exploratory Study of News Selection at Six Arab World Satellite Television Channels" in
Transnational Broadcasting Studies (Cairo, Egypt), No. 6 (Spring-Summer 2001), 3-5 (tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com).

Rushdi, Jehan. "The Future of Islamic Satellite Television" in Islamweb (Doha, Qatar), July 5, 2002, 3-5.

Ali Al-Hail has taught Mass Communications at Qatar University and elsewhere in the United States, Europe, and the Arab World. He is a consultant to Qatar Radio & TV Corporation.

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