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An Egyptian producer fights fire with fire

First in a series of occasional articles.

CAIRO -- It was a boyhood of miniskirts and stern-faced imams. As Ahmed abu Haiba grew into a man, he felt a kinship with the clerics who recited the Koran in badly lighted television studios, but he feared they didn't stand a chance against the new Western temptations of pop divas pouting about carnal pleasures and broken hearts.

The screen beyond Abu Haiba's clicker was changing; the iconic images that defined Islam were being challenged in the 1990s from the Internet and Hollywood fantasy absorbed by tens of millions of satellite dishes humming on rooftops across the Middle East. It was an alluring cacophony that Abu Haiba, a playwright and TV producer, warned would tug the Arab world further from its culture.

"The Islamic media was so poor, so traditional," he said. "It wasn't television. It was televised radio, a man in front of a camera speaking for hours and hours about obscure religious texts with no appeal. . . . Words with nothing connected to life."

Abu Haiba rejected the West's secular message, but he sought the power of its style and marketing. His creation, the latest in the struggle of faith, globalization and identity between East and West, is a music video channel that features Muslim piety through a slickly produced prism of Arabic rhythms to counter the thug pathos on MTV.

"I want a new Islamic media," said Abu Haiba, a 39-year-old father of three. "My point is not to condemn the West, but to build my culture with its own seeds, its own matrix. . . . I am more worried about Western culture than politics. It affects our thinking and ideals. It's a major danger we're facing on our beliefs, role models, habits. If I lose my culture, I become a stranger in my own country."

It is difficult to escape the West's imprint on Muslim society: Plastic surgeons are re-creating pop stars in Lebanon; independent women are appearing in Tunisian and Moroccan films; blogs are chiding political regimes from Cairo to Amman; Facebook and text messaging are circumventing religion-based dating rules; and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, unveiled blond women peddle shampoo in commercials.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war hardened the lines between Washington and the Arab world, accentuating what many scholars and diplomats say is a clash of civilizations. Muslims rallied against the U.S. invasion of Iraq; terrorism flared across the Middle East and into Europe. But something else was happening. Despite President Bush's rhetoric against Islamic militants and Osama bin Laden's screeds on infidels, Western culture was flourishing from Mecca to Tripoli.

A cultural schizophrenia

A crude, yet telling, sign of this was glimpsed in an Internet cafe in northern Iraq days before U.S. cruise missiles would strike Baghdad in 2003. An bearded militant visited two websites during his 30 minutes of surfing -- one sponsored by the terrorist group Ansar al Islam, the other featuring English-language porn.

The anecdote is an extreme illustration of the cultural schizophrenia Muslims in the Middle East say they face, caught on an uneasy plane between fundamentalist preachers and Western-inspired seductions.

"It's the search for an Arab identity, but we don't have an identity," said Emile Slailaty, who directs music videos and commercials in Beirut. "They want to be free and Westernized, but at the same time they want to be conservative.

"Look at what they're doing with the hijab. They're tying it different ways and doing more things with it to make it more sexy, fashionable. This is so trendy; young ladies can have lots of color but still be wearing a veil."

It is this in-between cultural landscape that Abu Haiba and other moderate Islamists want to seize from the provocative imagery and iconography of the West.

The Arab world has been absorbing and rejecting the West for centuries, since the Crusades and later when Napoleon's armies marched across the desert with books on the Enlightenment. What's troubling Islamists today, however, is the ubiquitous and consuming nature of Western culture; its capitalism and liberalism are at once dizzying and alarming, especially in the Middle East, where much of the population is poor and angry about its leaders' inability to improve their lives.

Muslim clerics worry that exposure to such unattainable materialism will weaken religious devotion, from the village prayer room to the city mosque. Their concern marks the crucial, antagonistic divide between a secular West that separates religion and state and a Muslim East where conservatives and many moderates adhere to Sharia law -- the strict belief that religion, government and society are indivisible.

"America targets only your religion, it takes your religion away, it will take everything away from you," radical Sheik Fawzi Said told worshipers in Cairo. "The devil knows that and it is the devil that drives the Americans."

Reclaiming religion

Meanwhile, Arab media moguls are reminiscent of cultural magpies, borrowing from the West to create sophisticated, hybrid television programs, such as reality shows and spinoffs of "Friends," to appeal to Muslim sensibilities. The result is Saudi rappers and an outspoken Egyptian sex therapist who wears a veil and speaks as knowledgeably about orgasms as she does about the prophet Muhammad.

Abu Haiba is distilling his own voice amid the clatter. He epitomizes the progressive Islamist. Urbane, lightly bearded and English-speaking, he talks of the complexities of infusing art with religion. He is careful to show plurality -- he happily mentions that he has a Jewish friend -- but is insistent that Islam should permeate all aspects of life. During a recent interview, he excused himself briefly to answer the sunset call to prayer.

Like other Egyptians raised in the 1970s, Abu Haiba grew up amid the trappings of the West. Miniskirts were common in Cairo and hijabs were many fewer than today; the children of the rich were often schooled in Europe and the U.S. But by the 1980s, a pan-Islamic revival replaced decades of failed Arab nationalism. The fervor spread to the young professionals, who, missing a religious core themselves, guided their children toward the Koran.

"The scene at the nursery school is the embodiment of today's Egypt," said Abu Haiba, who has three daughters. "The blond, unveiled mother arrives in high heels. The little girls look to their mothers who look so Western, yet the mothers want their daughters to wear the veil and pray. Mother and father want a religious life for their kids even though they were raised without it."

The intent of his production company, Light of the East, which has raised $4 million from investors, is to popularize Islam for a younger generation. The music video channel is expected to launch in June. Egyptian authorities closely monitor such ventures by Islamists and Abu Haiba has kept an air of secrecy around the project. He wouldn't give the names of his investors.

Sitting at his desk the other day, Abu Haiba played a promo for the channel on a large flat-screen TV. It cited ratings and demographics: In Egypt, 15- to 24-year-olds make up 50% to 64% of viewers tuning in to nearly 70 music channels. That group makes up 0% of the religious programming market.

That's a disturbing statistic for Abu Haiba, a mechanical engineer whose religious evolution mirrors that of many professionals of his generation. During his undergraduate years at Cairo University, Abu Haiba, who has been writing poems and plays since he was 13, founded a theater troupe. At the same time, he explored different strands of Islam, including extremism, before settling on the political and spiritual fusion espoused by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood party, which has wide support among the middle and educated classes.

Abu Haiba's connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, which won 20% of seats in parliament in 2005 and since has seen hundreds of its members jailed, earned him a file with the state security services. He says the dossier is full of "fairy tales" but that in his artistic work, except for an occasional battle with censors, he has not been harassed. His new play, "The Code," a meditation on Western influence in his nation, brought closer scrutiny.

The play tells the story of the invasion of Egypt by a fictional nation strongly resembling the U.S. The conquered are controlled by robots and reclaim their freedom and cultural heritage only when they turn to God. The religious subtext is subtle, but persuasive. The villainous superpower craves Egypt's sand -- not gulf oil -- to manufacture silicon for its technological empire. The defeated people are powerless, becoming scared, yet seduced by the invader.

"The point of the play," said Abu Haiba, "is to ask the question: What happened to us? We were such a great nation. We lost our souls."

The America he portrays in "The Code" was borrowed from years earlier when he put a Muslim spin on one of Hollywood's most watched and globally successful sitcoms. In 1998, Abu Haiba was a marketing manager for Suzuki in Cairo when a colleague introduced him to a group of Saudi investors looking for a manager for a new media production company, Light of the East. Abu Haiba produced a series called "Boys and Girls," a chaste, Arabic version of "Friends."

A new approach

The show wasn't a hit, and Abu Haiba teamed up with friend Amr Khaled, a former accountant turned moderate Islamist preacher who was captivating young professionals, especially women who were seeking a less patriarchal interpretation of the Koran.

In 1999, Abu Haiba and Khaled collaborated on "Words From the Heart," a mainstream evangelical series that featured uplifting music and spiritual pep-talks from the likes of Soheir Babli, a renowned Egyptian actress who has donned a veil and dedicated her life to Islam.

Abu Haiba's Saudi investors weren't happy. There were no bearded clerics, no fundamentalist fervor. That's exactly what Abu Haiba wanted -- spontaneity instead of august recitations of holy texts. But other networks weren't interested, either. The show seemed unclassifiable, a moderate Islamic message presented in an Oprah-style format.

With no distributor, Abu Haiba passed tapes of the shows to street vendors. He sold 13,000 copies, and that quickly grew into tens of thousands more. The satellite channel Dream TV offered Abu Haiba and Khaled air time for the four original shows and 11 new episodes. "People suddenly started talking about this new trend, of how to plant the root of Islam in life," he said.

Abu Haiba is hoping for similar success with his music video channel, and sees an opportunity to loosen the grip of the West. In the promo for the channel, the narrator proclaims, "We must exert all effort to defend what's precious to us. . . . We can't turn a blind eye to this ghost who sneaks into our houses."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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