Hammam, Executive Manager of Iqra Satellite Channel, Talks to
As one of the fastest
growing religions in the world, Islam has become both a media
focus and a media victim in recent years.
According to 30-year-old Muhammad Hammam, executive manager
of Iqra, the Arab world's longest-established Islamic satellite
channel, a considerable part of the Western media has managed
to "attach a negative sense to such a fact -- or rather
hypothesis -- unjustly and even dangerously, mistreating and
misrepresenting Islam and Muslims."
Launched 1996 as part of the ART media organization owned by
Saudi Sheikh Saleh Kamel, Iqra attempts to counteract such misrepresentations
of Islam by "striving to project the real image of true,
tolerant Islam," Hammam says. The channel also endeavors
"to eliminate misunderstandings common not only among non-Muslims,
but ironically among Muslims themselves, in addition to safeguarding
Islamic cultural values and forms," he adds.
In an age when
globalization is supposedly drawing humanity together, Iqra
attempts to answer the charge that Islam abets the clash of
"Terrorism has become synonymous with Islam," Hammam
says, "and such misinterpretation is supported by some
Western media networks." He maintains the belief that "the
gap separating Islam and the West must be bridged, and that
the media have a moral obligation to attempt to provide that
much-needed bridge, avoiding generalizations and stereotypes,
which is not the actual state of things."
But if the media are part of the problem, it may also be part
of the solution. If an inattentive, shallow, or ill-intentioned
media can accelerate a clash of civilizations, then a more perceptive,
profound, and objective media can reverse the action. Instead
of distorting or discrediting old cultures, media can be used
to re-validate them, and help explain and represent them to
the world, Hammam believes.
"Iqra, conveniently, chose to edge away gradually from
tackling strictly doctrinal issues, setting out to deal more
with worldly and contemporary issues and providing people with
a lifestyle rather than mere preaching and orders telling them
what to do and what to avoid," he says.
"In addition to the theological experts from established
religious institutions such as Al-Azhar, Iqra now frequently
hosts specialists and religious scholars from all parts of the
globe," he explains. "Hand in hand with the usual
programs on the Qur'an and Hadith, Iqra features talk-shows
and interviews on religious, social, and cultural issues, with
live audience participation. For in the Islamic tradition there
is no sharp division between the spiritual and the material
worlds. For Muslims, the concepts of din (religion) and
dunya (the world) are interwoven."
Hammam also is well aware of the double challenge posed to Iqra
by the abundance of entertainment satellite channels, well-backed
by extensive resources and funded by commercials and advertisements.
However, he remains confident of Iqra's ability to attract audiences
satellite channels, like MBC, LBC, and others are hard to compete
with, mainly because of the lack of funding, an area where such
channels excel," he says. "Because Iqra is a channel
with a declared Islamic approach, most advertisers avoid it.
We know for example that multinational companies and organizations
have a policy of avoiding getting into politics and religion.
However, with programs like (popular Islamic preacher) Amr Khaled's
and the like, and as we introduce the balanced, moderate face
of Islam without compromising any of its basic doctrines, we
are starting to attract both more commercials and more viewership.
Competition may be countered by concentrating on the quality
rather than quantity of programs, as well as developing the
techniques and the 'look' of our channel -- hence, the hosting
of once glamorous and now retired actresses who have given up
their professions, as well as introducing interactive programs
that make the audience more involved.
"Of course it is a long process and it takes time. Islamic
media is still in its infancy and five to seven years are not
enough to change long-lasting attitudes. But we have got started
and we are moving slowly but surely, so as to avoid falling
victims to intimidation or compromise. We are not trying to
defend Islam. Islam does not need anyone to defend it, for God
has vowed to preserve it. What we aim at is to well represent
it in the way it really is."
In an age of globalization and rapid communications, Iqra faces
a challenge in stressing the cultural particularism of Islamic
civilization, Hammam says.
"The idea that the globe is getting smaller due to revolution
in communications is a commonplace one," he says. "Yet
that idea has recently taken a new turn, not merely geographic
in essence, especially with cultures expanding against one another
and sometimes creating struggles. New methods in the world of
communication and media can draw cultures nearer now so that
they interrelate with growing familiarity. Not only can people
travel around the globe in a few hours, but they can also transmit
words, values, and aspects of their culture. Yet even as globalization
moves to encompass the world so powerfully, another profound
and forceful counter-trend keeps growing all over the world:
a revival of cultural particularism, with mounting stress on
ethnic and religious identity.
"Such a 'tribal' attitude represents an impulsive desire
to take shelter in the face of the sweeping threats of globalization;
hence the tendency to protect the 'traditional' as a means of
counter-balancing the overwhelming 'universal,'" says Hammam.
"The cultural environment of Muslims -- and we are talking
about over one billion, almost one quarter of the world's population
-- is not really understood in other parts of the world. This
is partly so because of the superficial and misleading way that
world media has dealt with Islam and Muslim tradition. Therefore,
we have a double mission here: to correct the superficial and
misrepresented image of Islam for world audiences, as well as
to mend Muslims' own misunderstanding of their religion."
Is media then expected to become a tool for "educating"
people, instead of offering information to people and letting
them shape their own minds?
"Media is in part a tool to 'direct' and enlighten people,"
Hammam asserts. "But ultimately, audiences grow out of
control, at least partly. However, I believe that even the most
supposedly objective media -- the US media, that is -- is used
as a tool to shape people's minds and public opinion. So there
is nothing wrong with 'directing' people, especially when our
message is the sublime values of Islam."
Working out of four
production centers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Dubai, and Lebanon,
Iqra sees itself as combating the far-reaching effects of September
11, says Hammam.
"Before 9-11, Arab media were only talking among themselves,"
he explains. "Now we realize it is important to start addressing
the world. That is why we plan to launch an English-speaking
While waiting for the necessary funding, Iqra has produced several
English programs and talk-shows. The channel is also expanding
its offerings to include dramas and comedies.
"On the other hand, we realize that it is quite hard to
compete with entertainment channels, because they address the
senses, while we address the mind, but still by working on developing
the quality of our programs we have achieved a large part of
our aims and dreams," states Hammam. "Last Ramadan
we came second only to MBC in Arab world viewership. And we
know development is a never-ending process. Last year we introduced
our first drama show. It was a comedy produced to entertain
but without compromising the principles of Islam, and it proved
a success. We have the Iranian experiment in film-making to
draw on, for example, and it is a very rich and successful model.
And, of course, there is Amr Khaled, our great asset, whose
simple, candid, casual, and cordial preaching has never failed
to attract more audiences over the years."
Maha Shahba is a journalist with Al-Hayat's
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