Bully Pulpit: Religious Media in the Middle East
September 21, 2016An oud plucks in the background of the TV promotion as the words “Terrorism: It has no religion” explode in flames. A new message appears: “Terrorism: Its religion is Islam,” along with the logo of the sponsor, a popular Arabic Christian channel. Religious programming is spreading in the Middle East, and an increasing amount of it borders on incitement.
Majorities in many Arab countries report that TV is their main source of religious information. And the number of free-to-air avowedly Sunni, Shi`ite, and Christian satellite channels is growing, rising 50 percent from 2011 to 2014. In a more crowded market, competition pushes programmers to find ways to be more exciting and more emotionally engaging.
Clearly on the wane are the old statist religious stations featuring clerics delivering sonorous lectures to an obedient flock. Talk shows and debates rage over social and political topics, and well-dressed young presenters use emotional stories to bring tears to the eyes of their audiences.
Religious satellites have also become a bitter front in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, as Riyadh and Tehran accuse one another of bankrolling sectarian programming.
While Islamic media tend to hog the world spotlight, the rise of divisive Christian channels is unsettling some in the region. Many such channels are locally run, but one of the most extreme, Al Hayat, is produced in California with funding from U.S. evangelists. Other Christian networks—such as the Lebanese Nour Sat—promote comity, but it can be hard to compete against fear-mongering with snappy production values.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.