< The Rise of "Satellite Sheiks"


Friday, June 05, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. While the Obama administration is busy rebranding America in the Arab world, a new group of young Arab media stars is working to alter the world’s view of Islam. They're sometimes called “satellite sheiks” since their shows are beamed across the region on satellite channels. They're preaching a moderate version of Islam and producing shows that speak to the everyday lives of young people in the Arab world with Western production values. The number of Arab satellite channels devoted to religion has grown from one to over thirty in the past 10 years, leaving plenty of room for the big tent teachings of these younger, hipper preachers. Robert Worth, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, profiled one of the most popular of the so called satellite sheiks, Ahmad al Shugairi. Worth says Shugairi’s success stems from his talent for relating Islam to the real world.

ROBERT WORTH: You know, he'll quote a Koranic passage and say, you know, it’s against Islam to waste and not to care for the poor. And he'll go to some wealthy neighborhood in Jidda, where he lives, and show huge amounts of food being tossed into a dumpster or something like that, and then he'll show images of people starving. You know, that’s just one example. He'll also talk about incredibly mundane things, which actually I think is one of the wonderful things about his show. So, for instance, he'll talk about sort of the way people park their cars, and he'll say, you know, there’s a careless way to do this. A lot of what he’s doing is really sort of basic civics. He’s saying, you know, be a responsible person, but he’s talking about that in an Islamic language.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are some of his novel production techniques?

ROBERT WORTH: They're a kind of cinema verite type film techniques. Sometimes he’s wearing jeans and a teeshirt, but, I mean, it looks like an American program in some ways. So he does sort of Candid Camera type stuff. You know, he'll — for instance, they had, in one of the shows they had, I think it was a man who pretends to accidentally drop a wallet, so that you test the reactions of these people. Will they give the wallet back to the old man who dropped it or will they just take it? So if the guy tries to just take it, they quickly stop him and say, excuse me, that wallet belongs to that guy. But then they say, why didn't you give it back to them? Is that the kind of thing that the Prophet Muhammad would have done?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kind of like a religious sting, isn't it?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written that Shugairi and the other satellite sheiks are getting criticism from both sides. On the right, hard line critics say that he’s too Western. Secularists on the left say he could be something like a gateway drug to more extremist Islam.

ROBERT WORTH: Sure. Many of the people to whom he’s appealing are young, relatively well off people who would go to college and might adopt a more or less secular world view, but he’s essentially Islamizing them. Now many of them, of course, if they follow his instructions strictly, they would become moderate Muslims, open to the world just the way he is. But there are also people who fear that, not because of him but because of the trend toward extremism across the Arab world, toward Islamism in general, that he may end up becoming a stepping stone; in other words, that once you've adopted a more Islamic way of life, you then become vulnerable to extremists who say, hey, you know, you’re on the right path but you haven't gone far enough yet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Robert, you know the region and I don't, but I just think that notion of the secularists doesn't make any sense. You think you can box people off from Islam by keeping a moderate sheik or all of them off the air?

ROBERT WORTH: I think you have a point, that if you try to sort of appeal to these people with a total secular point of view, you’re probably not going to do very well because it’s too late for that. The region has gone through a tremendous religious revival in recent decades, and you've got to meet people halfway. And that’s where he is.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that people like Ahmad al Shugairi can make a difference?

ROBERT WORTH: Sure, absolutely. I've talked to a lot of people who watch his show and admire him, who seem to feel that they were faced with a very difficult choice. They felt the world seemed to be divided for them into sort of a really secular path where they felt a bit like they were abandoning their culture and their traditions, or a really hard line, tough Islamist’s “I hate the West” kind of stance. And what they like about him is that he gives them a middle path.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert, thank you very much.

ROBERT WORTH: A pleasure to be with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Worth is Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. We reached Shugairi in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. The 35 year old Muslim televangelist told us that he became extremely religious during a seven year stay in California after, shall we say, a hyper secular period. He says his message of moderation grew out of the two extremes he lived while in the U.S.

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: You know, a pleasure based life and zero spirituality, just living day by day and having fun, and then when I switched, I switched to the total opposite, meaning I just cared about spirituality and religion. And I guess the balance is what I believe I reached. Of course, everyone thinks he’s balanced at the end of the day. Even extremists describe themselves as being balanced. But I believe now I am in a balance where religion helps me be a better manager, a better husband, a better student.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you were in the States, at the time that you decided to become much more religious, you were also watching a lot of television. Can you tell me what the American media taught you, if anything, about what you’re doing now?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: Yeah, that education, if it’s going to be portrayed in media, it has to come within an entertaining format.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does that play out in the programs that you've done?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: It plays out, first of all, to have a short program because we're talking to an MTV generation. They're used to video clips that end in five minutes. I think I heard this, or I read it one of the American books, that they have the strategy of not focusing more than 20 or 30 seconds on the same frame or something like that, and I'm using that. We don't focus on anything more than 30 seconds. Secondly, it’s not just a person talking to camera and preaching. We're using in a lot of the programs, the Candid Camera format, which is an American format, to show certain morals. So it’s a back and forth, kind of fast paced, 10 minutes, short, right to the point, no lecture-y attitude.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me what the message is.

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: The message is live a balanced life, the same message as what Plato, Aristotle, all the philosophers, the prophets said. Be good in this life, never hurt anyone and perfect your work, and eventually this will come back to you as good on Earth and after death. There’s also — one very important topic I always cover is respecting other religions and other cultures and opening dialog with them and not having me versus the world mentality. I mean, I'm not coming up with something new. It’s just I'm packaging it in a way that the youth can accept and understand.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that there’s something missing in the spiritual media diet for young people there, that it’s hard for them to relate their religion to the reality of their own lives?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: Yes, because some shows that are available are put in a, let me say, boring monologue, one hour-guy-talking way. It doesn't capture what they're seeing in other kinds of shows. They're watching American Idol. They're watching Oprah. They’re watching [LAUGHS] all kinds of shows that are just attracting their emotions, and the other programs are not delivering that. So I'm trying to cover that gap. I'm trying to give them something where they can watch and have fun.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have been referred to in news reports as one of the “satellite sheiks.” What do you think of that term?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: First of all, I'm not a sheik. Sheik is an Arab word that means like a rabbi, a priest. And I always say in my program that I'm not a scholar and I'm not a sheik. I'm not a priest. I'm just a simple human being who has hopes for the Arab and Islamic world to improve in all levels, economically, financially, socially. Now, that doesn't necessarily make me a sheik. It’s just a person speaking his mind out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have to tiptoe around certain issues so as not to upset the authorities or the executives at the satellite channels that broadcast your show?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: I don't mention names when I talk on any topic. I do not mention a country and I don't mention a certain government and I do not mention names. Therefore I can get by talking about some taboo topics. So until now it’s been okay, so pray for me plus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How are you dealing with the fame?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: Yeah, dealing with the fame. I'm reading a lot of books on psychology –

[BROOKE LAUGHS] - on how to deal with the fame. I'm not going to deny that I enjoy it. It’s human nature to enjoy acknowledgement and appreciation. However, I'm trying to not make it get to me to the extent that I get used to such a life because, you know, things are easy for you. They give you discounts somewhere. If there’s no reservation at a restaurant, they let you in — you know –

[BROOKE LAUGHS] - these kinds of things. People come up to you and they want pictures. So I'm just trying to enjoy it and not let it get to me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What show are you working on now?

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: We're doing the fifth season of the show Khawater, Reflections, which will air on Ramadan. And, interestingly, this season it will be all from Japan. So we have 30 episodes about the Japanese culture, the Japanese morals and manners and the Japanese work ethics. And I'm just aiming at showing the Arab world how they are implementing a lot of the things that we are just preaching. For example, we preach in our schools that cleanliness is a major part of the believer. However, you see the streets in the Arab world, a lot of it, it’s just a mess because we're not practicing this virtue of cleanliness. I'm showing the Arab world how the Japanese were able to have extremely clean streets and how they are implementing these morals.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about how these moral prescriptions offered by the Prophet are being carried out in an entirely non Islamic environment.

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: Yes. These commandments are universal, so you don't have to believe in Prophet Muhammad to be clean. [LAUGHS] I'm just trying to make the Arab world feel jealous from the Japanese streets. I mean, I ask the Arab world, if the Prophet Muhammad came today, who will he see implementing his teachings more, the Japanese or the Muslim world? A big question mark. And I say that, by the way, also about the U.S. Most of the prophetic teachings are practiced in the U.S. much more than they are in the Islamic world. Our problem is we focus on two major things and we just shove everything else aside. We focus on alcohol and sexual issues. So we see the U.S. — they're open in these two arenas, so we say we're better than them because we don't have those. However, we forget that these are two out of a hundred. Barack Obama’s presidency is a great implementation of a human virtue that Prophet Muhammad and Jesus before him promoted, which is all humans are created equal. When you see an African American leading the most powerful country in the world, out of election, not out of force, and this cannot be implemented anywhere else in the world, anywhere else, this needs to be acknowledged.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ahmad, thank you very much.

AHMAD AL SHUGAIRI: Thank you for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ahmad al Shugairi is the host of the program Khawater, produced in Jidda, Saudi Arabia and available on satellite throughout the region.