Photo: Paul Keller
Claiming a 40 million viewer population, with 97% of viewers Muslims (www.allied-media.com), Jazeera Satellite Channel (JSC) stands out within the sphere of influence among the Arab world. The present thesis will examine whether Islam within JSC programming is open to progressive ideas of reforms that contribute to stimulate the intellectual and material lives of its adherents. Furthermore, the thesis will review the concept of wasatiyya – the logic of centrism or moderation – as it appears as an influential catalyst to a number of eminent hosts, chief among them is sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi.
Few media in the Arab world try to exploit the political potential of television as much as JSC. The network covers a broad array of topics ranging from domestic and international relations to moral guidance within Islam.
The media's interest in Islam became a burning issue in the West since the coordinated terror attacks in September 11, 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York. Not only were the terror attacks broadcasted live on television screens around the world, but the traumatic crime scene footage in the weeks that followed framed Islam as a religion that promotes violence.
The Muslim answer to this “biased” and unbalanced framing of 9/11 attacks was JSC among other things. The influence of JSC on its audience's weltanschauung can hardly be overestimated. In many viewer's eyes the channel tries to counterbalance the western dominance of the news media. It represents a way of looking at the world from an (Arab)-Muslim perspective.
One of the major programs that illustrates this tendency is the Islamic talk show al-Sharīca wa-l-ḥayāt ("Shariah and Life").
The thesis consists of a critical discourse analysis of dozens of episodes of Shariah and Life of the fall season 2007. The reason behind the choice of critical discourse analysis as an approach is to explore the traces of ideology in the construct of the program’s premise and the promotion of a specific social order in the name of Islam.
A major feature of Sharia and Life, beyond the fact that the program is aired on one of the largest Arab news channel, is its infamous host, sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi. Al Qaradawi’s lifework as a scholar and a preacher is marked by what he regards as wasatiyya - which is commonly defined as a conciliatory or a moderate stance. For Al Qaradawi, Islam is a way of life that can be adjusted to the realities of modern day life through the prism of wasatiyya. The term wasatiyya is used, albeit indirectly, by other hosts of Al Qaradawi, some are religious figures, others not.
The relation with the Other is expressed in Sharia and Life in terms of a neo-colonial critique as well as a critique against today’s value system. In both cases, however, the social ideals of Islam are linked with values that emphasize the role of the family, religion and paternal authority. In regards to the premise of Islam in the program, it is articulated as a coherent and available creed. Meanwhile, a number of hosts recognize that fitna (“civil strife”) constitutes a challenge to the moral integrity of Islam’s normative values.
Delving into the influences of one popular program that offers its public legal guidance reveals a complex dynamic about how each of the distinct factors addressed above impacts Arab culture, religion and society. The portrayal of Islam as an identity marker in Sharia and life assumes, however erroneously, that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to bridge the gap between “us and them”. Yet, any attempt to describe the relationship with “the other” in deterministic (and antagonistic) terms is deemed to fail. Neither Al Qaradawi, nor other scholars of Sharia and Life can anticipate the outcome of this relationship. A relationship that can be described rather as dialectical. The story of the Islamic community’s interaction with “the other” is indeed incomplete, conflictual, changeable, and open. Regardless of the rift between “us and them” in Shariah and Life, divergent and competing cultural paradigms must refer to the same world, and must share sufficiently similar vocabulary. However, the Islamic community’s acceptance of otherness, of stereotypes, of fear, of racial hierarchies, of epistemic superiority is symptomatic of greater problems, one of them is related to the fundamental tensions within Islam, and particularly its strained ethnic, linguistic and sectarian composition.