Grappling with Islam:

Covering Islam in Egypt
by James J. Napoli

How does the news media in the Muslim world cover Islam? Consider, first, a comparison of Al Jazeera, the Arabic news station broadcast globally from Qatar, with the three major TV news networks in the United States after the catastrophe of September 11.

The bulletin that Al Jazeera was not "objective" was brought to readers of the New York Times Magazine just two months after the attacks by the ubiquitous commentator on all matters Middle Eastern, Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami.

Ajami examined Al Jazeera’s broadcasts for evidence of bias in favor of Osama bin Laden, Islamic extremists, and the Arabs (particularly the Palestinians), and against George W. Bush, the U.S. military and the West in general (including the Israelis). There was plenty of bias to be found.

Broadcasts were replete with graphics tending to lionize, even glamorize, bin Laden as the calm and centered, perfect knight of Islam. The editing of interviews, the people interviewed, the juxtaposition of images, the sequence of stories, the fiery rhetoric, the focus on wailing, beleaguered Palestinians and on Afghans angry and terrified by American bombing—everything conspired to build pan-Arab sympathy for the terrorists and resentment of the American response.

"The Hollywoodization of news" on Al Jazeera, writes Ajami, "is indulged in with an abandon that would make the Fox News Channel blush."

That’s hyperbole. Fox is the news channel that hired professional egotist Geraldo Rivera, the Wrong-Way Corrigan of war correspondents, to cover the Afghanistan campaign. Fox isn’t capable of blushing.

Nor were Fox and its peers in the United States immune from reportorial bias. In January, my international journalism students examined coverage of the "war on terror" on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC and found that they used many of the same techniques as Al Jazeera—selection and editing of interviews, juxtaposition of images, sequencing of stories, focusing on selective victims—to build a case for war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

American flags appeared on the sets, anchors dropped the third person pronoun and identified themselves with the patriotic "we," and reporters found their heroes in firefighters, police officers, emergency medical workers—and George W. Bush.

They were, in short, Al Jazeera’s secret sharers, mirroring it with reverse images.

The point of the exercise was not to pass judgment on the networks but to establish that all news comes from somewhere, that context shapes the news and the news media system. When it comes to coverage of religion in the Muslim world, the context is Islam.

Islam permeates the news the way the intonations of the Koranic radio station permeate the narrow streets and marketplaces of Cairo. But Islam as religion—as distinct from a pretext for violence—rarely makes news.

In Islamic countries I know of no specialist reporters covering religion on a separate beat, as though it were city hall, the educational system, sports, or science and health. No one is assigned to keep up with theological breakthroughs, developments, or debates in Islam.

Summaries of stories that involve Islam, Muslim-Christian relations and religious extremism in the Arab press are presented in English and distributed to subscribers of the Religious News Service from the Arab World. The service is run in Cairo by Kees Hulsman, who has written for publications such as Christianity Today and Egypt Today.

And there are, throughout the Islamic world, innumerable Muslim publications, some independent and some associated with government or particular political factions. Their content ranges from the merely pious to the ferociously militant—and sometimes both, at the same or different times. For instance, the Muslim press in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been relatively innocuous in pre-Milosevic Yugoslavia, was perceptibly and understandably radicalized over time under the pressure of persecution and war.

Many mainstream newspapers, including the independent English-language Arab News in Saudi Arabia and government newspapers Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar in Egypt, carry sermons, historical features about religion, and advice by Islamic scholars and religious figures. The Arab News even has a Q-and-A column to which readers can send queries about Islamic practices and beliefs.

Since the 1970s, too, many universities in the Muslim world have tried to promote the idea of "Islamic journalism" through their curricula. Arab countries have more than 30 institutions for journalism and communication education, some of which have tried to formally tie modern concepts of mass communication with Islamic principles. This is propaganda, in the old Catholic Church sense of "propagation of the faith."

In fact, Imam Mohamed Ibn Seoud Islamic University in Saudi Arabia has something called just that, the Higher Institute for Islamic Propagation of Faith. Other prominent schools of religiously oriented journalism include the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the traditional seat of Islamic learning, Al Azhar University in Egypt, and the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Um-Durman University in the Sudan.

"Islamic journalism," however, is a mutable concept.

It can be political. One Muslim weekly, Dha’rb-I-M’umin, sent out a call over the World Wide Web for "those interested in Islamic and religious journalism" and "those who love jihad" to subscribe. The newspaper clamors for holy war against the United States, Israel, and India, and tries to raise money for families of men killed in jihads. (Dha’rb-I-M’umin is published by the Al Rashid Trust of Karachi, which distributes food to the hungry and prosthetics to amputees in Afghanistan—and made President Bush’s list of 27 suspected terrorist groups and individuals whose assets would be frozen shortly after the September 11 attacks.)

Or it can be professional. S. Abdullah Schleifer, an American Jew who turned in his leftist political credentials decades ago to convert to Islam, has been promoting "Islamic journalism" for years as an alternative to the "destabilizing" Western model of intrusiveness and exposure.

A colorful former NBC producer who now teaches TV journalism at the American University in Cairo—where I also have taught—Schleifer describes "Islamic journalism" as protective of privacy and social decorum: good, positive communication. "For example, it might concentrate on stories that call attention to, and encourage participation in, what remains of traditional, direct, personal religious systems of communication," he wrote in a chapter on Islam for a book on religion and the media.

Egypt’s mainstream press has nothing in common with "Islamic journalism" in those terms. With a generous allowance for the work of some first-rate editors and reporters, the broad personality of the Egyptian press is highly partisan, aggressively nationalistic, sensational, inaccurate, petty, intolerant, and defensive.

And for the most part, it addresses religion by filtering many of its stories—even stories that are only most tangentially about religion—through an Islamic lens. For religion is as compelling an orientation to the Egyptian press as pan-Arabism is to Al Jazeera or injured patriotism now is to the U.S. news networks.

In the mid-1990s, when relations between Egypt and the United States were under stress over disagreements about sanctions against Libya and extension of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, even moderate writers were turning out articles expressing strong anti-Western sentiment couched in religious rhetoric. An Egyptian scholar, asked by me about the religious tone of the articles at the time, said the writers were only taking out insurance against Egypt’s increasingly uncertain future.

"If there is [an Islamic] revolution," he said, "they can hold up this article and say, ‘Look, see what I’ve done. I’m with you.’" He asked that his quote not be attributed to him by name.

News about religion, however, often has to be gleaned by readers parsing messages between the lines, like Kremlinologists examining the pages of Pravda when the world was only bipolar.

Going public in Egypt with controversial religious issues can land a person in prison. Among the many sins of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian sociologist and civil society activist released from jail in February after serving 10 months, had been to study and openly discuss Muslim-Coptic relations.

Ibrahim was savaged by the press—both government and opposition—when he planned a conference on the minority communities in the Middle East, including Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian population, in 1994. Ibrahim persisted in his position that the Copts had legitimate grievances: They were victims of discrimination and prejudice in education, government, and even in their ability to build and repair churches.

The Copts themselves were reticent in public. Their leader Pope Shenouda, apparently fearful of a Muslim backlash, issued official statements objecting to any designation of his flock as "a minority."

The press flatly refused to discuss the "plight" of the Copts, who at that time were caught in the crossfire between extreme Islamist groups and the government, especially in Upper Egypt. But it spilled plenty of ink denouncing Ibrahim as a troublemaker in the employ of foreigners.

Ibrahim eventually had to move the conference to Cyprus, but he remained a choice and easy target of the press and was badmouthed even in private by journalists and academics. Most insisted that the Copts were treated with absolute equality in Egypt and suffered no special persecution as a group, despite the sickening recurrence of attacks and murders directed against them. Maintaining an image of national unity—saving appearances regardless of inconvenient reality—is an obsessive concern of both government and the press.

Ibrahim is now awaiting retrial on trumped-up charges of accepting unauthorized foreign funding, embezzling European Union funds, and defaming Egypt’s image. The Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, headed by him and committed to democratization in the Arab world, remains closed.

The airing of religious issues is much more likely to be done by the press through indirection. One debate gnawing just below the surface involves the extent to which government, or at least the current government, should be involved in religion.

Radical Islamists—and others—consider everyone from the mufti to the local mullah religiously suspect, if not illegitimate, because they are appointed by what they believe is a secular-leaning government. But presidents Sadat and Mubarak both learned their lessons from Gamal Abdul Nasser, who was careful to preclude the development of centers of Islamic power that could challenge his regime. Government appointments are one way to maintain control. Another is to sit astride groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood—banned since Nasser’s day, but tolerated by government today to keep a closer eye on it.

The "mosque-state" debate is addressed obliquely in the course of reporting on tangential news events, such as the October 1992 Cairo earthquake, when the response of Islamic groups invited favorable comparison with government. They rushed in to help victims with blankets, food, and medicine while the immediate official response was tangled in red tape and confusion.

The next year, at the trial of an Islamic militant charged with the murder of a humanist intellectual and writer, Farag Foda, Muslim Brotherhood member Ma’mun Al Hodeibi reportedly said, "In our view the government’s behavior generally speaking is responsible. The government supports people who use their pens to stab Islam in the back." Writers for government and leftist opposition newspapers, which had launched a campaign against Islamist terrorism, at the time criticized such statements as supporting the murder by so faintly damning it.

Beneath the controversy over Foda’s assassination, however, was an implied discourse about religion and the Egyptian state. To what extent had the state become too secular to be tolerated by the conservative religious faction? To what degree could the Islamist movement be tolerated before it became a threat to the state?

But if the Islamist-government divide is handled gingerly in the press, the perceived divide between Islam and the West can be trumpeted at will.

Many Americans were shocked to read of coverage in Arab and Egyptian newspapers after September 11 that, if it didn’t outright blame the United States for the attacks (often in the most vitriolic language), rationalized the attacks as inevitable because of "anti-Muslim" U.S. policies in the Middle East.

But in fact the coverage was consistent with that of many other stories, from female genital mutilation to the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, that have over the years implied an important religious question: How should Islam adapt itself, or assert itself, in a world dominated by economic, military, technological, political, and cultural forces associated with the "secular" West?

That question most often obtrudes in coverage of singular events. For example, from 1996 through early 1997 a story on supposed devil worshipping among Egyptian youth broke onto the front pages, putting the entire country into an uproar for months.

Dozens of young people, who were mainly kids in black T-shirts who had taken up hard rock and heavy metal music, were arrested. Lurid accounts of orgiastic rites, bizarre dress and tattoos, wild music and dancing, burning the Koran, digging up corpses and so on were reported not only in the most sensational opposition papers, but in Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and other mainstream publications.

The reputable opposition daily Al-Wafd began publishing "confessions" of the devil-worshipers, including a penchant for drinking rat blood. The newly appointed Mufti Nasser Farid Wassel was reported in Al-Ahram Weekly as saying that the youths could be forgiven if they renounced their beliefs, "but if they persist in their sin we should carry out the penalty prescribed by Islamic law"—death.

The hysteria eventually died down after the police, unable to establish that Satanic cults had actually taken root in Egypt, finally released the devil’s alleged disciples. But not before the nation’s most prominent journalists and commentators had held forth on the issue.

In his weekly column, Al-Ahram board chairman Ibrahim Nafie attributed the "shocking news" that Satanism had materialized in Egypt to its revival in the West. He added that Egyptians should not "underestimate the role played by the archenemy of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim world, the state that has recently smuggled large quantities of drugs into Egypt with the intention of damaging the minds of the young, in subverting traditional values"—that is, Israel.

Others blamed the West indirectly because of technological innovations like the Internet, which gave Egyptians access to evil. Al-Ahram Weekly columnist Mahmoud El-Saadani wrote that Egyptians could blame themselves for not reinforcing traditional values firmly enough to help youths to resist the enticements of the West. El-Saadani acknowledged they might not be Satan worshippers, but they did "worship idleness, triviality and frivolity."

An intriguing aspect of the coverage is that, with relatively few exceptions, no one really questioned the existence of Satan as a palpable living entity who could possess Egyptian youth and assault Egyptian values. Nor was there much question that this Satan was somehow, perhaps literally, identified with the West.

It is ironic that while Satan is not part of a secularized worldview, a sacred worldview identifies his very being with secularism. Like coverage of the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, coverage of Satanism in Egypt was about a perceived divide between the Islamic world and the West, between the sacred and the profane, or perhaps between the holy and the demonic.

The way religion is "covered"—or incorporated into news coverage—in Egypt comports with the "clash of civilizations" scenario described by Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard political scientist who has been, not coincidentally, much discussed in Egyptian newspapers and journals. That may be unfortunate from the perspective of those still hoping that better communication will hasten evolution toward a more pacific global village.

Religion in the Muslim world can be "objectively" covered as just another social phenomenon by a professionalized, secularized Western journalist. But such an approach is seen by most Egyptian journalists as alien, even sacrilegious. A clash of, let us say, news media systems, should not be surprising.