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EGYPT Egypt’s Al Azhar TV to counter extremism

New channel to be trialled in Ramadan will feature social, cultural and historical programmes

By Ayman Sharaf, Special to Gulf News
June 2, 2013

Cairo: Al Azhar, Egypt’s leading seat of Islamic learning, is planning to promote a moderate version of Islam as counterweight to proliferation of extremist satellite channels.

“Al Azhar will launch its own television channel. The channel will promote moderate teachings and tolerance of Islam,” Grand Imam Ahmad Al Tayyeb has said.

It will go on trial in July to coincide with Ramadan and will feature social, cultural and historical programmes alongside its main religious content, Al Tayyeb said.

The state-run Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) will provide technical assistance to help launch the channel, he added.

There have been mounting calls for a channel monitored by the 1000-year-old Islamic authority to combat the growing number of Islamic channels spouting extremist rhetoric.

Religious channels are a widely used source of information for social and personal issues. Their content was strictly religious, with few exceptions.

But after January Revolution 2011, a number of religious channels with an aggressive content arose on the scene in Egypt. The biggest names include Al Nas, Al Hafez (The Protector), Al Rahma (Mercy), Al Majd (Glory), and Al Hekmah (Wisdom).

The Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University conducted a study entitled “The effect of fatwas presented on Arab satellite TV channels on the knowledge and behaviours of the Egyptian public” last January and found that 70 per cent of Egyptians frequently watch religious programmes and 30 per cent watch them sometimes.

It showed that Egyptians seek knowledge about religion and solutions through fatwa (a juristic ruling related to Sharia) for personal and social issues.

Many of such channels have also been accused of broadcasting political agendas, inciting sectarianism, and spreading hate speech.

Secular media outlets criticise religious channels for causing a myriad of problems. For instance, Akher Al Nahar talk show presenter Mahmoud Sa’ad criticised the shaikhs of religious channels for using offensive language, in contravention of Islamic principles.

Some other accusations, like spreading hate speech and inciting sectarian strife, have been around since long before the revolution.

Al Azhar Grand Shaikh Ahmad Al Tayyeb rejected the sectarian rhetoric these channels use against Shiites and released a statement in 2010 condemning it.

Other criticism surfaced after the revolution, including claims that the channels push the public towards certain political choices, heavily criticise revolutionary groups, and unconditionally support the ruling party and the presidency.

Infamous for their derogatory language, such channels are accused of delivering politically motivated fatwas and promoting extremist interpretations of Islam. They are also accused of launching smear campaigns against liberal and opposition figures.

Controversial preachers on Al Nas and Al Hafez religious channels have been convicted of defamation. For instance, Shaikh Khaled Abdullah, the presenter of the Masr Al Gadeeda show aired on Al Nas, has used defamatory speech against opposition leaders and Bassem Yousuf, presenter of satirical TV show Al Bernameg.

On Wednesday, Abdullah, was slapped with a suspended fine of LE10,000 (Dh5,200) for slandering and defaming Egyptian actress Hala Fakher.

Abdullah Badr, another acid-tongued preacher, was handed a one-year sentence in December 2012 for insulting popular Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen on the Al Hafez network.

Al Hafez has been sued after hosting two shaikhs whose language and opinions were offensive: Salafi Shaikh Mahmoud Shaba’an, who issued a fatwa on air calling for the assassination of opposition leaders, alongside with Badr.

Amid the plethora of religious TV channels and the controversy over their broadcasts, Al Azhar’s voice is missing.

Many people and politicians are calling for Al Azhar to exert some kind of control over the religious TV channels. But Mohammad Emara, an Islamic thinker and a member of Al Azhar’s Association of Senior Scholars doesn’t support the idea that Al Azhar should oversee the contents of these channels.

Efforts to impose regulation on these and other channels have so far included closing down the TV stations, cancelling talk shows or suspending licences. However, none of these methods have proved effective in combating examples of religious intolerance and extreme political positions.

“Secular channels have also become less ethical since the revolution, but they tend to attract less criticism from the public,” said Mohsin Kamal, a consultant for the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, admitting that the media is biased in its coverage of religious channels.

“Nowadays, these channels discuss politics a lot and this will cause fitna [chaos] in our society. These channels should be following Al Azhar’s footsteps and doctrine,” says Ahmad, a 26-year-old worker.

So in a deeply polarised media climate, where Egyptians have only two choices, secular or religious satellite TV channels, Al Azhar could be an attempt to solve the problem, according to Ali Afifi, a producer of “Minbar Al Azhar” (The Tribune of Al Azhar) programme in the state owned TV.

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