Book Review by Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam
7 June 2016
Islamic Televangelism: The Salafi Window to Their Paradise,
by Ibrahim Saleh (2012). In: Global and Local Televangelism by Thomas, PradipNinan, Philip Lee (Eds.). Pages: 64-83. Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (UK).
Radical televangelism, of all faiths and religious sects, has become a serious threat to the survival of the pluralist and democratic societies the world over, particularly in the Middle East. The communication of radical Islamism in the electronic media, particularly through the Salafist TV channels has ushered in widespread promulgation and perpetuation of anti-pluralism religious thoughts in the war-torn Middle East.
That Salafist televangelism is evoking emotions and views antithetical to religious pluralism and democracy is an emerging view endorsed by the progressive Arab scholars, free thinkers and liberal writers like the Egyptian novelist AlaaAswany. He often critiqued the Egyptian Islamist political outfit al-lkhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) for using the Salafist preachers and televangelists.In India, the most influential Salafist preacher has been Dr.ZakirNaik whose Peace TV channel had a viewer base of up to 100 million people across the region. Since Naik is on record for his extremist, exclusivist and misogynistic utterances that have potential to inspire violent extremism, the Indian government has banned Peace TV broadcasts in India since 2012.
The Salafist preachers have long engaged in ‘religious broadcasting’ or what is called ‘televangelism’ which includes all existing and emerging forms of media; popular media, online media and new media. To disseminate their medieval, obsolete and retrogressive ideology, the Salafi televangelists tend to earn huge financial support from highly affluent and the wealthiest Arab sheikhs, who are the ardent and blind followers of the Salafist clergy, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE. Thus, the Salafist TV channels are massively propagating an un-Islamic extremist and exclusivist ideology, successfully recruiting the vulnerable sections of the Arab Muslim viewers. Beside these massively funded TV channels, the online media particularly the social networking sites have also been used as working tools in the hands of the radical Salafists for the mass mediation and integration of their extremist thoughts.
As their prime concern, Salafist televangelists seek to ‘purify’ Islam in a bid to reclaim the ‘purity’ of the ‘Salaf’ (the predecessors of Islam). But it is interesting to note that while they loudly claim to bring Muslims back to the medieval era in the name of the Islamic shariah, they keep upgrading themselves, employing modern and advanced tools of mass communication.
In this context, there is a comprehensive research work which expounds the radical Salafist Islamic televangelism and its considerable impact on the Muslim viewers, particularly in the Middle East. Entitled “Islamic Televangelism: The Salafi Window to Their Paradise”, this seminal research work has been carried out by Dr. Ibrahim Saleh, a media scholar based in Egypt. It originally came as a chapter in the ground-breaking book on the interplay between religion and media entitled Global and Local Televangelism compiled byDr. Philip Lee and Professor PradipNinan Thomas, a leading Indian academic in the area of religion and media, communication and social change and communication rights. The sizeable research work produced in the book Global and Local Televangelism is a critical examination of the various facets of televangelism of the three major world faith traditions; Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
In his research work, Dr. Ibrahim Saleh has defined “Salafist Televangelism” as ‘the use of the television medium to proselytize the audience and viewers, and to earn the support for emerging movements and followings for the exhortations of Islamist televangelists’. He has explained, at the very outset, that The Window to Paradise is a very popular programme in the Salafi Islamic televangelism that catches the attention of viewers from around the Middle East. At the same time, it is also a booming TV channel in the region which greatly helped the Salafist preachers in their mediation of an anti-pluralist theology and exclusivist religious ideas.
The theoretical focus of this work is to explore how the Islamist and more specifically Salafist televangelists present themselves, and how they are received via their television channels. The author hypothesizes that the Salafi TV channels loudly claim the authority to speak for Islam per se, but it tries to crush down the voicesof moderate Islam as well as Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. He argues that the Salafi televangelism mirrors ‘exclusivism’ in its ideology, discourses and religious sermons.
Most Salafist religionists, Dr. Saleh tells us, have espoused an exclusivist attitude towards the ‘Westerners’, Jews, Christians and even adherents of the moderate narrative of Islam.He writes: “In spite of the wide range of countries, languages, religions, and cultures in the region, Salafi television channels have consistently projected a shared common interest in scrutinizing ‘otherness’ in thought, ideology, and religion. Hence, it is not surprising that the list includes Christians, Jews, ‘Westerners’, and even proponents of moderate Islam.These channels have claimed the authority to speak for Islam. They operate in a region where there is collective frustration over economic disparities and a loss of faith in political systems. This situation has favoured the making of a public space for fundamentalist groups to use these collective anxieties as a pretext for mobilizing members, developing bureaucratic organizations, and formulating policy alternatives (Entelis 1999)”.
At the bottom of this highly motivated radical televangelism, as succinctly put in this book, is the hard-core Salafists’ belief that they are the only saved, unadulterated and unalloyed sect of Islam, which strictly adheres to Islam ‘as founded by the Prophet Muhammad, and as propagated by his companions for three generations after the passing of the Prophet’. Therefore, the Salafist televangelists propagate themselvesas the only authentic sources in the religious affairs ofMuslims.
Dr. Saleh has also presented a detailed analysis of how religious pluralism has always been a challenging issue in the Arab world and how the Salafist televangelists have exploited it to further their political ends.
It is patently clear that the sectarian conflicts and interfaith tensions are on the rise in the Middle East as a result of constant political turmoil, religious clashes and rifts. But this grim situation has been exacerbated by the zealot religionists and Salafist televangelists. Dr. Saleh writes: “This unsettled environment has been exploited by radical Islamic groups who have turned this to their advantage through redefining Islamic identity for Islamic society or 'Ummah' (Bellin 1994). Radical Islamists have used this social, political, and economic flux to create a new niche market founded on the belief that the present wrongs in the Arab world are a consequence of colonization that can be resisted by going back to basics”.
He further elaborates: “The majority of those who can be called traditional Islamic televangelists use the media to propagate narrow, sectarian messages and so it is not altogether surprising that they connect to like-minded audiences. They have used specific types of religious symbolism and rituals to heighten emotional outrage, while strengthening a shared sense of identity through disseminating a discourse that exhorts audiences to make it the', personal duty to take action as soldiers in a war to protect their own vision of the ideal Muslim community”.
In his conclusive remarks, Dr. Saleh has introduced a softer and less radical version of Salafist Televangelism. He points out that there is an emerging faction of the Islamic televangelists who construct a softer image amid the hard-core Salafi-Wahhabi preachers in the Arab countries. “This new approach attempts to reach out to the educated and elite through the repackaging of traditional content in more contemporary formats, while retaining its chauvinism and radical perception of their ideal Islamic society”. The author objectively explains howthis new generation of Salafist televangelists hasearned huge publicity through a style diametrically different from the old Salafist televangelism.
In this empirical research study, Dr. Ibrahim Saleh has used the method of Visual Analysis, a reflective and analytical research method in media studies, in order to examine one of the most popular programmes in Salafist televangelism called “The Window to Paradise”. He describes this programme as a strong vehicle and a ‘successful channel in itself’ for the mediation of radical Islamism catching the imagination of mostly young viewers from different parts of the Middle East. The author has also studied the language, images produced in this particular program through videotaping.
A regular columnist with New Age Islam, Ghulam RasoolDehlvi is a scholar of Comparative Religion & Classical Islamic sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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