Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rapping for Allah: the new channel for the Muslim MTV generation

Egyptian channel 4Shbab aims to provide an Islamic take on music video culture for the world

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - March 2009

The thumping beat, baggy football tops and slick production values bear all the trademarks of a typical hip-hop music video. But instead of scantily-clad women dancing around a swimming pool, the main character in this song is a schoolmistress draped in an Islamic headscarf; in place of guns, drugs and money, the rappers talk of prayer, healing and Allah. Welcome to 4Shbab, (‘For Youth’) Egypt’s newest entry into the lucrative music TV market and a channel dedicated to bringing Muslim values to the MTV generation.

Swaying precariously on a boat moored off by the Nile, 4Shbab’s founder, Ahmed Abu Haiba, explained why the current set of music video networks dominating satellite television in the Arab world constitute a threat to Muslim identity. “These channels are strange to our culture,” he said. “There are young Muslim men today who’d like to have girlfriends, be part of a dating culture, and yet when they want to get married they look for a devout, religious wife. This is cultural schizophrenia ... and it’s these channels which are giving our young generation such misunderstandings and smashing their identities.”

To reverse the corruption of an entire generation through “lewd imagery” and “contradictory values” Abu Haiba travelled around Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries raising funds for a brand new TV channel – one which would appeal to the same audience as MTV and its Arab competitors, but be fully consistent with the teachings of Islam. Two years on and 4Shbab has finally arrived on TV sets throughout the Middle East and Europe, with plans to extend coverage to Asia and North America later this year.

But staying upright on the Nile waves is not the only balancing act Abu Haiba is having to pull off as he seeks to take 4Shbab global. Despite promising to ‘Encourage dialogue, deconstruct stereotypes and deepen understanding’, the channel – which boasts the tagline ‘Listen to the tune of Islam’ – is already being criticised on multiple fronts. On the one hand Abu Haiba has been accused of demeaning Islam by those who believe that all music is haram ( religiously forbidden). “We are already being attacked by fundamentalist Islamists on the net,” admits Abu Haiba, who says he’s “not a sheikh, but rather a media man on a mission.”

On the other side, his station has taken flak for the absence of women on the airwaves, who rarely feature either in its music videos or its game shows such as ‘Who wants to be an Islamic pop star?’. The entire network’s content is vetted by a committee of five men who decide whether videos conform to 4Shbab’s Muslim philosophy. “We don’t have a problem showing women, as long as it is according to Islamic standards,” insisted Abu Haiba, who previously worked with Amr Khaled, a blockbuster preacher who has revolutionised Islamic sermonising on TV. “But we must be careful in dealing with the issue of women on TV, and it’s not wise to smash all the walls straight away.”

The launch of 4Shbab is part of a wider trend in Egypt which has seen the traditionally liberal cultural landscape being bought up by Saudi investors promoting a more conservative ‘Salafist’ discourse, which advocates a literalist interpretation of the Quran. Flagging film studios have been revitalised by Saudi money but many now refuse to show even an empty bed for fear of it being suggestive, and some of Egypt’s most famous belly-dancers are now covering up as a result of investment from rich Arabs in the Gulf.

It’s a development which worries analysts like Khalil Al-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at the Al Ahram Foundation. “They are trying to make society more cautious when it comes to dealing with ‘the other’, and that’s a dangerous path,” he says.

But Al-Anani also acknowledges that with music video stations currently securing 14% of the Arab television market, the launch of 4Shbab is a savvy business step. “There is a huge group of high-class, westernised youth who are looking to be more religious and it’s a very smart move to try and attract this customer base,” he argues. “Religion today in Egypt is like a supermarket, you can go and pick what you want, and there is competition for customers between the different discourses ... quite frankly, I think this venture will succeed.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Joshua Salaam, one of the baggy-shirted rappers featured in the video. Salaam is part of Native Deen, a three-man American Muslim hip hop outfit who are one of the first bands to be promoted on the new channel. “I think the launch of this channel is massively important, probably more so than a lot of scholars and parents realise because they haven’t been raised with music video in their lives,” explained the 35 year old. “But music and video set the tone of what culture is, what identity is, and for a Muslim to be able to watch this channel and see that they are also part of something bigger and they don’t have to separate their religion from their culture, that’s huge.”

Caught in the crossfire between his liberal and Islamist detractors, Abu Haiba remains confident that his new channel can take on not just the Middle East, but the world. Salaam is equally optimistic: “I think there is a demand for this sort of network in the West. The majority of American Muslim youth and their parents are pretty much fully assimilated into American culture and are not currently coming to the message,” he said. “If you want to reach them you have to go through the regular avenues that are out there in mainstream culture, and that’s what 4Shbab is doing.”

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