New York University doctoral student Yasmin Moll, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Gilsenan, will undertake research on transnational Islamic media. The goal is to better undersand the role of televisual media in contemporary religious understandings and practices. The research will be focused on the production of Islamic satellite television in Egypt. The first privately-funded Islamic television channel, Iqraa, was established in Egypt in 1998. Since then, the Egyptian satellite scene has seen the rise of several other Islamic "televangelical" channels boasting a regional viewership numbering in the tens of millions. The researcher will collect data on two Islamic satellite channels headquartered in Egypt. She will use participant-observation, interviews, life-history collection, focus groups and textual analysis to compile information on how program producers understand, produce and circulate what they call "Islamically-correct entertainment," and how they imagine a transnational audience of pious Muslims.

This research is important because by examining the micro-practices of broadcast production by devout Muslim media-makers, it will illuminate the relationship between such media and a variety of domains, both religious and non-religious. This will help to develop social scientific understanding of the variety of roles played by transnational media. It also may contribute to public policy debates on contemporary Islam. Funding this research also supports the education of a social scientist.

Project Report

Iman (a pseudoynm), one of the world’s first Islamic satellite television channesl, was launched in the late 1990s. Since then, the Islamic satellite sector has been steadily burgeoning, with over 30 Islamic channels established within just the last five years. Like Iman, many of these channels are financed by Saudi Arabian private investors, but based in Egypt. Iman, however, stands out for its desire to produce programs that can compete with mainstream entertainment blocs – rather than just other religious media – for viewers. To that end, this channel has produced some of the most talked-about, controversial, and innovative Islamic programming within the last decade, namely the popular talk-shows of Egypt’s al-duah al-gudud, or the new preachers. This project investigates how contemporary Islamic televisual media is made in the everyday interactions between Iman producers, directors, translators, preachers, as well as viewers. Concerned with how new media technologies gives rise to new religious imaginaries, I track Iman’s production of al-duah al-gudud programs, their reception and evaluation by viewers, and their circulation across a variety of social sites. In turn, I move beyond an analysis of on-screen media content to ask what it means to "produce Islam" (both as a media form and in the broader social sense) by exploring the intersections of new media technologies, religion, ethics, and politics in Egypt. At stake here is not just the creation of new forms of religious media, but also new ways of imagining what religiosity is, how it should be cultivated, and to what ends. I argue that the location of Islamic television within regimes of entertainment, neo-liberalism, revolutionary nationalism, and ethical self-discipline rearranges the conditions of possibility for religious discourse, power, and authority in historically unprecedented ways. With the events of 9/11 and the subsequent proclamation of a "War on Terror," Islam and Muslims came to occupy center stage in public discourses in the United States and beyond. Within these discourses, there has been a (highly selective) focus on Muslims’ use of media – whether Al-Qaeda’s video-taped messages, radical audio-cassette sermons in Iran or insurgent photography of beheadings in Iraq – and the threat such use poses to American security. Missing from such sensationalized accounts of "Islamic media," however, are the vast majority of media that Muslims actually produce, consume and circulate in their day-to-day lives. My research into Islamic satellite channels in Egypt, by examining the micro-practices of broadcast production by devout Muslim media-makers, highlights the ways in which such media are deeply enmeshed in a variety of domains, not all readily recognizable as "Islamic." Indeed, some of the most popular programs produced by Islamic televangelical channels for example, an "Islamically-correct" version of the popular reality show "The Apprentice" – would not be too far removed from the cultural references of most American TV viewers. My research thus has the potential to contribute to the burgeoning academic literature on contemporary Islam in a way that moves away from prevailing images of a "militant" Islam necessarily opposed to, and threatening of, so-called Western values and norms. Moving beyond the (banal) novelty of "religious people" adopting new technologies, this project hopes that attending to the complex processes at work in Islamic televangelism in contemporary Egypt will lead to a more nuanced theoretical understanding of how religious mass media work to create the conditions of possibility for certain kinds of moral subjects and actions, and discounts others. Such research is of paramount importance given that influential theoretical orientations within the social sciences have seen modern technologies as spelling the gradual erosion of the purchase "traditional" institutions like organized religion have historically had in the public sphere. Within these frameworks, the rise of a more public religiosity espoused by religious groups is viewed as a negation of the (normatively secular) modern. By undertaking fieldwork among a group of Muslims who are committed to spreading, through television, a greater commitment to religious practice and belief, this project revises still prevailing assumptions about what it means to be a "modern" person.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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New York University
New York
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