Interview with Tareq Alsuwaidan, General Manager of Al Resalah Channel

A new Islamic television channel Al Resalah (The Message) launched in March 2006 amid a buzz of speculation about whether the station, billed as the first-ever moderate Islamic entertainment channel, would be able to offer a sufficiently appealing product (Islam-friendly comedies, talk shows, reality TV, music videos and game shows) to attract secular viewers from hip networks like MBC and LBC without offending the sensibilities of religious viewers used to the stricter programming on more traditional religious channels like Iqra and Al Magd. Funded by Saudi billionaire Walid bin Talal, the man behind Rotana, the popular music video channel, Al Resalah has spared no expense in an effort to bring the production of Islamic TV programs to a new level of sophistication and cool. TBS managing editor Lindsay Wise interviewed the station’s general manager Tareq Alsuwaidan, a popular Islamic motivational speaker and TV preacher who was hired by bin Talal to spearhead the new channel. Wise quizzes the 43-year-old Kuwaiti about his goals for Al Resalah and how he hopes the channel will both fight terrorism and “change the meaning of religion.”

TBS: My first question is about yourself. Could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be involved with Resalah?

TS: Born in Kuwait in 1963. Married. I have three boys, three girls. I’m a grandfather already! Graduated from the University of Oklahoma in the United States in petroleum engineering with a minor in management. I went to high school in the US too.

TBS: So you lived in the States for many years. How old were you when you went to America?

TS: Seventeen. And then I stayed for 17 years. So I’m very American! (Laughs.) I learned a lot there. Anyway, I’ve always been involved in Islamic work since I was a young man. I’ve used my management expertise to establish 68 companies and organizations in my life. This is probably what attracted the prince (Walid bin Talal), besides my liberal Islamic thinking.

TBS: How would you define that?

TS: Very committed to Islam, very committed to the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH), but not more. I’m not committed to any human being after that, whether it’s a big scholar or whoever. Nobody binds my thinking. Many people consider me very liberal in the sense that I believe that Islam is a way of life, in all parts of life. I believe in total freedom of speech with no limitations except politeness. So I believe that all religions have the right to exist, form their parties, express their beliefs, get involved in media, get into government positions, etc., etc. I believe in the political rights of women with no conditions, all the way to being the president of a country. I believe in media and art and the involvement of women in media. I have no problem with that.

TBS: I noticed that a lot of the women who had veiled and retired from the media in recent years are coming back on Resella.

TS: They are experts in what they do and they should continue doing what they are good at, but do it without breaking the rules of religion. As long as it’s allowed in Islam, they should do it. I have no problem with music, with drama, and everything that they do should be creative and balanced. So this is me.

TBS: How were you affected by living in the US or growing up in the US for so many years?

TS: I was so much affected. There is a saying in the Arab world, that if you live 40 days among any people, you become part of them and I spent far more than 40 days in the US. Seventeen years is a very long time. And then I went when I was very young so let me say something that may be surprising: I truly understood Islam not in the East, but when I lived in the West. I was forced there to distinguish what is Islamic and what is not. What is tradition and what is Islam? What do we agree with the West and what don’t we agree with the West? And I was living within that, not watching from outside. I found that many of the things that we do in the Islamic world are not Islamic and many of the things that are done in the West are Islamic. When it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of press, political freedom, etc., I have no hesitation in saying that the West is more Islamic than the Arab world. Also I went very early in the Islamic work in the West, by force not by choice, I was one of the leaders of the Islamic work in the West. So I had to make decisions, I had to choose, I had to take stands, and all of that forced me to understand Islam in its pure form, not affected by tradition at all.

TBS: So what happened when tensions between Muslims and America became heightened after 9-11? How did you react to that?

TS: On September 11 I already was in Kuwait, but in the beginning I was very outspoken against these terrorists and when I’m outspoken, I’m very outspoken, in the sense that a few days after September 11 I was interviewed in Al Watan magazine, one of the most famous newspapers in the Arab world and I said at that time and I will say it also now, that we should always take a very harsh stand against these terrorists. They are very dangerous. I’ve studied history, and these people are very dangerous to themselves, to the Arab world, to the Islamic world itself, and to Islam itself. So I am an advocate of no mercy with these people. Dialogue and discussion should be with those who don’t carry arms, but for those who have crossed this red line, they should be crushed. So that’s my stand on this. But at the same time, I’m very annoyed about what has happened to America. America has lost its sight, lost its values, lost its friends and is continually losing its friends because they have taken a very harsh stand against moderate Islamists, and I’m one of them. I was in Washington a month before September 11 with my family. It was a family vacation, but I wouldn’t visit the States after that.

TBS: You just feel too uncomfortable?

TS: I’ve seen what happened to my friends. Again, somebody like me with these moderate ideas, with being a chairman of the AWARE center to advocate our relations with the West, why would they lose somebody like me? I talked to the consul in the embassy in Kuwait and said “What happened to you?” America is so good at losing its friends right now. So this is my stand on this issue.

TBS: So you left the States after 17 years and you went to Kuwait and you started to do TV programs then?

TS: I taught at the university there and during that time also I started the American Creativity Academy, a school from pre-kindergarten to high school—an American Islamic school. A very nice combination. (Laughs.) Very successful, thank God. I started
I started a leadership center for boys and another one for girls. I’m currently also the Chairman of AWARE, which is Advocates for Western-Arab Relations and Exchange, which is a non-profit organization committed to improving relations between Arabs and the West. I’m also a writer. I have 30 published books. I’ve done about 500 episodes of TV shows. So many different shows! Each show has about 30 episodes.

TBS: What channels are you on?

TS: I’m on ten channels, MBC, Kuwait, Dubai, Qatar, Baharain, Abu Dhabi, Iqra. The most important one is MBC.

TBS: Because you’re reaching a certain secular audience?

TS: So I do my TV shows, I do my books, I am editor in chief of Creativity Magazine, an Arabic publication about management and creativity. Also I’m one of the top Arab management trainers in the Arab world and I have 50 albums with 10 million tapes distribution—motivational speaking.

TBS: All of this brought you to the attention of the Emir?

TS: I’ve been on Al Jazeera twice and the Emir saw one of the interviews, and I was talking in that interview about my liberal thinking about Islam and I was talking about how I’ve written two books on the making of leaders. So all of that probably attracted the Emir.

TBS: So he contacted you with this idea for a moderate Islamic channel?

TS: It was his idea.

TBS: I know that you have a moderate Islamic philosophy for the channel. Could you tell me how you actually see that philosophy played out in the programs? For example, what’s allowed and what’s not allowed? Where the line that you draw about how people should be dressed or issues presented? What makes this channel a channel produced along Islamic values rather than just a regular station?

TS: Many people have a shortsighted idea that to be Islamic somebody has to sit and talk about Islam and dress and talk in a certain way and have a certain décor behind them. To me, this is not how I understand it. You can have a talk show, a game show, a drama, a comedy—it’s all so Islamic. It is two things, in short, that would determine whether it’s Islamic or not: the content and the performance. The content has to be Islamic in the sense that—Islamic to me means that it’s not against Islam, that’s all. If it’s not against Islam, it’s Islamic. Now, the performance itself should have a message in it. The way they dress, the way they talk—these anchors and stars are role models to the youth, and the question is are they a good role model and are they showing that in this program from the way they dress and the way they talk? We don’t want them to dress in a certain way, or behave in a certain way, but be a role model. If they talk in a way that arouses desire, if they dress in a way that arouses desire, that is not Islamic. So that’s what we’re after. We do not specify uniform. Somebody like you, with this dress, is fine on our programs. We don’t have a problem with that because you’re dressing modestly. But some clothes are not modest, so we would avoid that. So we do not impose the hijab.

TBS: That makes you different from Iqra, for example. So how would you say you’re different from channels like Al Magd or Iqra, or MBC or LBC for that matter?

TS: Let me summarize it for you: We are an Islamic MBC.

TBS: So Resella is for people who are interested in the kinds of entertainment programs on MBC, but want a more modest look?

TS: I’m not happy with everything I see on these channels. I would like for my family and my children and grandchildren to sit and watch TV without me being worried if I have to switch the channel because there is something said or seen that is not appropriate. But I would like them to be entertained. See, we took a stand. What is TV? TV is entertainment first, educational second. So number one, it has to be entertaining. Many channels that they call Islamic, they think that it must be educational, that we must teach people the view of Islam, but it’s not like that. I would like to entertain you, I would like you to have this channel on all the time without being worried that your children will see something that you would not like them to see. I would like viewers also to feel that not only will they be entertained, but they will become better humans when they see this channel. So when you ask what is the goal of the channel, it is one word: humans. Humans. That’s the goal. We would like to have better humans. That’s all. Now, better humans could be better Christians, better Jews, better Muslims, as long as they are better humans.

TBS: You are targeting the youth especially, is that right? Can you talk about why that’s important? Because I know that other people who preach on TV like Amr Khaled and Moez Massoud and Habib Ali, they all talk about how it’s important to give the youth another model of how to be religious, but not to be extremist or old fashioned. Do you agree with this?

TS: I’ve always been with the youth. I’ve been a leader with the youth since I was 17. I have been chosen as a symbol for Arab youth 2005 on MBC. I was given an award for that. I’ve always been with the youth. This is my life’s work. Why the youth? It’s simple. Our goal is to improve humans, which means they have to change for the positive. It’s very difficult to change older people. It’s much easier to change younger people, and they’re more open to listen and to adapt to new ideas and philosophies and ways of life, plus when they adopt something, they are very enthusiastic to apply it. Plus 60 percent of Arabs are in the youth category.

TBS: There’s this idea that Arab youth are frustrated because they don’t have jobs or hope and that’s why they are susceptible to extremist ideologies. Do you think that’s what’s in the back of your mind, and the Emir’s mind, when you decided to found this channel?

TS: Definitely, definitely, that’s the first thing we talked about, as a matter of fact. I asked him, “Why do you want this channel?” And he said, “To serve Islam and to change the ideas of the youth about terrorism.” The idea is to be positive here. Instead of attacking terrorism, we would like to make the youth understand Islam and understand their role in life, when they do, these students, they will not go to terrorism.

TBS: And I know some of the programs, your program in particular, are trying offer the youth actual alternatives, right?

TS: Sure. One of the goals is to change humans, as I mentioned. How do you do that? You change their ideologies, you change their interests, their skills, relations, and role models. My program is directed towards changing the skills. Everything has a program for it. How do we change skills, and also ideologies? Many of the youth, they are very enthusiastic. They want to do something, they want to produce and be part of life, but they don’t know how. They don’t have the skills. They don’t have the direction, etc. So in my program, Making Leaders, I talk about these things. I’m talking here about how to be creative, to become a leader, organize your life and your time, improve your communication skills, learn public speaking, decision making, running meetings and so on—management and leadership skills. But I do it in a very interesting way. It’s not a lecture. Usually it’s done through an exercise, and usually it’s a challenging exercise that they are surprised with.

TBS: Sort of like reality TV?

TS: It is. They are not prepared for this exercise at all and then I surprise them on the program with this exercise and they have to try to solve it. It’s a problem they have to solve or something they have to achieve. For example, in the first episode I’ll ask them to build a tower using a newspaper, and only a newspaper, nothing else, and the highest tower will win. Now, to do that, you must have communication skills, you must have a leader, you must be creative and so on. So I let them work, and I watch. Then after they are done, I tell them where they went wrong and what they did well. From that, they learn and the viewers learn teamwork and leadership skills.

TBS: And is there a prize?

TS: No, there’s not a prize. The prize is learning. It’s very valuable. We charge $2,000 to attend our seminars, each person. So the participants and viewers get 17 planning programs for free.

TBS: That’s different from most Western reality shows. Even on MBC they have The Apprentice, where there’s a goal or a prize at the end and people get voted off.

TS: It’s a unique program. It’s not an imitation of anything. You see, many of the Arab programs follow a Western platform. We try not to do that. Well, we’re creative too, we can come up with ideas that are original and very attractive and I’m sure, inshallah, that this program will attract more viewers in the Arab world than The Apprentice. See, in The Apprentice and the others maybe you don’t learn anything except you watch what people do, but here the viewer is learning too and that’s the idea.

TBS: Where does the funding for the channel come from?

TS: The funding right now comes from the prince 100 percent. But it is my agreement with him that that will gradually fade away over five years and the channel should be able to fund itself, if it is successful.

TBS: And do you have a goal for the audience, in terms of audience share?

TS: Yes, the first year 40-50 million viewers, to be among the 10 favorite channels that people watch and within three years our goal is to be among the top five channels to attract ads. And within five years, we should compete for the number one or number two position.

TBS: You said during your press conference that Resella will not deal with politics except with respect to Palestine. You also said you wanted to change the meaning of religion. What do you mean? And how do you avoid politics?

TS: We don’t have any politics on the channel, but we would like to reeducate our viewers to look at life in a positive way, instead of complaining about what the West is doing to us, let’s do something to help ourselves and improve our status. Instead of complaining that there are no jobs and living in a miserable way, learn a skill, be good at what you do, try to find niches in life, be productive. That’s what Islam teaches, and that’s how I understand it. Islam is not only a relation between us and God. It is how we deal with life, and how we deal with others and how do we deal in a positive way. I’ve learned in life that I do not complain. When there is something wrong, I talk to those who are in charge. If they don’t do anything about it, I’ll do something about it.

TBS: So it’s a self-actualization philosophy.

TS: Exactly. “Do whatever I can.”

TBS: I know you’re walking a very fine line in some ways between the religious and the secular. Do you think you’re going to get criticism from both sides? From people saying you aren’t religious enough or people saying you aren’t entertaining enough?

TS: I already got this attack. It’s already on the Net. People are already attacking me. It’s a free advertisement, that’s how I see it. I’m serious. The moment I please everyone then I know I’m done, so I’m not worried about it. Truly, truly, I’ve asked my secretary to collect everything that’s written about us as a channel and see what’s in it that we can benefit from.

TBS: You’re not trying to make everybody happy.

TS: I know I will not. I know I will make a lot of people angry, which is fine. This is life.