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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.