Father Zakaria: "Daniel of the Year"?
I'd never heard of World Magazine or its "Daniel of the Year" awards, but I have heard of the Coptic priest Father Zakaria Botros, whom I reported on in a September blog entry on change in the Arab world, and I have just discovered that Father Zakaria has received the magazine's 2008 Daniel award for his television show, Truth Talk, which he has been hosting since 2003 and which appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., "Life TV").
As I've previously acknowledged, I don't know Arabic, so I've never watched Truth Talk and can only report secondhand. Moreover, I know almost nothing about World Magazine, which I take to be a theologically conservative evangelical publication.
Those are my caveats, so let's take this magazine's report with a grain of salt . . . but even with the salt, the report in this current issue of World Magazine (December 13, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 25) is very interesting:
[Truth Talk is] broadcast via Cyprus-based satellite channel Al-Hayat, . . . [lasts] 90 minutes and may have an audience of up to 60 million viewers across the Arab world and beyond -- from the Middle East to Europe to North America to Australia. And most of the viewers who sit down to watch the televised ruminations of a 75-year-old Christian will be Muslims.Sixty million viewers, mostly Muslim, watching a live television show in Arabic that openly criticizes Muhammad and Islam . . . well, that's certainly news, if true, and explains why Father Zakaria would receive World Magazine's speaking-truth-to-power award. Of course, he also receives other recognition -- death threats from jihadists:
Jihadist groups have reportedly posted a death threat worth $60 million against him. This year his name and photo appeared on an al-Qaeda website, seeking retribution for his teachings, which often depict Muhammad as less of a prophet and more of a womanizer.I don't suppose that anybody is surprised to hear of jihadist death threats against anyone uttering such unflattering depictions of Muhammad, so we can surely trust this part of the report. In addition to threats for his television show, Father Zakaria also receives threats online during his internet chats. One clearly frustrated jihadist recently wrote:
"I want to kill you and I want to cut your neck, but I cannot find you."Apparently, Father Zakaria is seen as a danger because he is so successful at reaching a market that Muslim religious leaders wanted to corner:
When Al Jazeera began broadcasting about a decade ago as the only independent channel in the Middle East, the Qatar-based news station opened a door to the free flow of information no Arab dictator could close. Until about 2000, state-sponsored news broadcasts and censorship were the norm (satellite dishes remain illegal in Iran, and were banned until the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere). As more Arabs could own televisions and the programming grew, all it took to outsmart the censors was a tuner and a set.Based on this report, I can see why Father Zakaria is effective. He lets his viewers see the contradictions and disagreements among Islamic leaders themselves, an internal debate that expresses the unease among Muslims themselves that the sources of stories about Muhammad cannot be simultaneously "true and exemplary."
What followed was a burst of Arabic-language programming. Islamic teachers of every type leapt to the airwaves, hoping to expand the teaching of the mosque -- once reserved for Friday prayer services and male-only audiences -- to 24/7 preaching and propaganda piped directly into the Muslim living room. Botros is turning their campaign on its head. By culling from what's now a bloated archive of televised remarks from the Islamic world's leading sheikhs and imams, he has found a potent way to expose the war within Islam, including raging debates between reformers and traditionalists, and to force Muslims who for generations took its teaching at face value to examine it at its roots.
One recent episode of Truth Talk, aired Nov. 21, cut to 20 separate clips, most of Cairo's respected Al-Azhar University Sheikh Khaled El-Gendy, to debate the age of Aisha when she became Muhammad's second wife. Islamic hadiths (the sayings and actions of Muhammad) say she was 6 years old when married and 9 when the marriage was consummated (and reportedly returned to play with her toys afterward). Yet many scholars -- and a controversial new novel about Aisha, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones that was dropped from Random House's list because of Muslim threats -- have tried to paper over the obvious morality issue of child marriage with assertions that Aisha was 14 or even 18. What's at stake, it becomes clear as the episode unfolds, is whether the Quran and the hadiths can be both true and exemplary.
In one clip El-Gendy argues that "the Quran is enough" and the hadiths on Aisha aren't needed. Another scholar cites a recent magazine article claiming she was a teenage wife. As Islamic authorities shout at one another onscreen, Botros calmly asks, "Are these holy books or not?" "If you are explaining her age based on a magazine article, what's your reference?"
It seems that the communications revolution is now bringing open debate to the heartland of Islam, the Arab world, and that is surely a positive thing.