Christian televangelism in the Middle East

Was the baptism of Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict XVI at the Easter Vigil mass in the Vatican on last Saturday evening just one part of a trend?  An NRO article Islam's ‘Public Enemy #1' Coptic priest Zakaria Botros fights fire with fire, by Raymond Ibrahim, details this priest's in your face attitude towards Islam on his Christian Middle Eastern satellite TV show Questions About Faith. It also  suggests that conversions to Christianity, albeit in secret, are not uncommon in the region. Indeed, according to the article   

Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros's public ministry.

Botros is a feverent Christian whose aim is to save souls not reform a political system.. He does so by often sharply pointing out the folly of the dead legalism of portions of sharia and then contrasting it with the spiritual appeal of Christianity.  Botros is fluent in classical Arabic and has studied the Koran, the Hadith and the ulema.  He comes to each topic in Islam knowledgeable of the details so that the issue is shown as having been settled but on his show:
[h]e treats the question as still open - and humbly invites the ulema, the revered articulators of sharia law, to respond and show the error in his methodology. He does demand, however, that their response be based on "al-dalil we al-burhan," - "evidence and proof," one of his frequent refrains - not shout-downs or sophistry.

While Botros may argue from reason, he also seems to knows it is entertainment and emotion that draws a TV audience. This may have given him influence beyond his immediate viewership. A prime example happened when Botros regularly featured an obscure and scandalous hadith stating that women should "breastfeed" strange men with whom they must spend any amount of time.  The justification for this is that the act, in effect makes the men "sons" who could thus feel no sexual stirrings for their new "mother".  Eventually the wider Muslim media picked up the discussion. 

The issue resonated because the desire for Muslim women to work outside the home while still maintaining devout to Islamic standards of chaste female behavior is of increasing importance across the entire Middle East. Chaos ensued when a prominent scholar confirmed on a popular live talk show that going through the motions of breastfeeding adult males is part of sharia. Then the head of the Hadith Department in Al-Azhar University, Dr. Izzat Atiyya, unwisely issued a fatwa supporting the breastfeeding of adults to allow women to work along side men outside their homes.   Needless to say the public was outraged, the fatwa was retracted and Dr. Atiyya was suspended from his position.  

The Islamic scholars have since tried to adopt the strategy of ignoring Botros, but this can also backfire:    

The host, Basma - a conservative Muslim woman in full hijab - asked two prominent ulema, including Sheikh Gamal Qutb, one-time grand mufti of al-Azhar University, to explain the legality of the Koranic verse (4:24) that permits men to freely copulate with captive women. She repeatedly asked: "According to sharia, is slave-sex still applicable?" The two ulema would give no clear answer - dissembling here, going off on tangents there. Basma remained adamant: Muslim youth were confused, and needed a response, since "there is a certain channel and a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no response from you."

The flustered Sheikh Qutb roared, "low-life people like that must be totally ignored!" and stormed off the set. He later returned, but refused to admit that Islam indeed permits sex-slaves, spending his time attacking Botros instead. When Basma said "Ninety percent of Muslims, including myself, do not understand the issue of concubinage in Islam and are having a hard time swallowing it," the sheikh responded, "You don't need to understand." As for Muslims who watch and are influenced by Botros, he barked, "Too bad for them! If my son is sick and chooses to visit a mechanic, not a doctor - that's his problem!"

Muslims like blogger Ali Eterez have been writing there has already been an Islamic Reformation, that the spread of the media culture has allowed ever more Muslims to arrive at their own interpretations of their religion's strictures. The sheikh's angry response to a devout coreligionist certainly suggests that questioning authority is far too much the current state of religious affairs for his liking. 

While many Muslim no doubt still take issue with those who proselytize Christianity, that a priest is publicly asking questions their own religious authorities cannot or will not try to answer is only likely to hasten the process of decentralization.  The problem remains, however, that while many will seek to move forward, as with our own Reformation there will be those who take heed of the passages the scholars have chosen to ignore and try to breath new life into them.  

English transcripts from some of Father Zakaria Botros's shows can be found here.
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