Case Study: Religion & The Media

While Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahhabi states, the Saudi monarchy is deeply enmeshed with the Saudi ‘ulama due to an agreement between Al-Saud and Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab that dates back to the 18th  century. In contrast, Qatari emirs have successfully controlled religious institutions. This has allowed Qatari leaders to oversee religious discourse while cultivating a broad range of voices friendly to the state, even if they are critical of outside governments. And, it allows the government to deflect the potentially explosive force of political Islam away from the state.

Emblematic of this control is the weekly Al Jazeera program al-shari’a w’al-hayat (Shari’a and Life), which has been on air since the network’s founding in 1996 and has a viewership of around 60 million.[1] Shari’a and Life features a host and an Islamic scholar, typically Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who discuss topical issues.[2] Qaradawi, who has lifelong ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has used the program to showcase his reformist vision of Islam through commentary and juristic opinions, and to discuss contemporary political issues.

For example, the show was a platform for Qaradawi’s condemnation of the Egyptian coup against former president Mohammed Morsi and for protest against the military government.[3] Qatar is thus responsible for the amplification of Qaradawi’s message as well as for his meteoric rise to fame in the Muslim world. While Qaradawi is seen as independent of the state, he avoids criticism that would complicate his relationship with the al-Thani family and his views typically parallel that of official state policy.

In addition to Qaradawi, numerous other Brotherhood members have influenced Al Jazeera’s programming and coverage of a wide range of events. Waddah Khanfar, the network’s director from 2003–2011, is a Brotherhood member, as are numerous employees.[4] The connections were especially explicit since the Egyptian coup and subsequent outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Echoing previous eras of exile as early as the 1960s when the Brotherhood was outlawed under Gamel ‘Abdel Nasser, Brotherhood members fled Egypt to Qatar where they stayed in Al Jazeera-owned suites, had their expenses covered by the network, and in some cases became commentators on the Egyptian Islamist opposition.[5]


[1] Alexander Smoltczyk, “Islam’s Spiritual ‘Dear Abby’: The Voice of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Der Spiegel, February 15, 2011, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islam-s-spiritual-dear-abby-the-voice-of-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-a-745526.html, accessed December 23, 2014.

[2] Mohammed Ayish, “Religious Broadcasting on Mainstream Channels: Al Jazeera, MBC and Dubai,” Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East, ed. Khaled Hroub (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp. 13–33.

[3] Juan Cole, “Egyptian Backlash against Yusuf Qaradawi’s Call for foreign Intervention in Egypt,” Informed Comment, July 29, 2013, http://www.juancole.com/2013/07/backlash-qaradawis-intervention.html, accessed November 18, 2013.

[4] Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 109.

[5] Abigail Hauslohner, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood finds havens abroad,” The Washington Post, November 6, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egypts-muslim-brotherhood-finds-havens-abroad/2013/11/05/438f2dfe-463a-11e3-95a9-3f15b5618ba8_story.html, accessed November 18, 2013.

Image Credits:

"Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi," Omar Chatriwala, from Flickr Creative Commons.