Egyptian TV Dramas--'The Faith and the Nation'

By Hilary Hesse

Local Contexts of Islamism in Popular Media

By Lila Abu-Lughod

Amsterdam University Press

Colombia University professor of anthropology and gender studies Lila Abu-Lughod has authored several books, such as  “Veiled Sentiments” and “Writing Women’s Worlds.” Her most recent book, “Local Contexts of Islamism in Popular Media,” discusses the way that Islamism is portrayed in Egyptian television serials. According to Abu-Lughod, these widely viewed melodramatic series have enriched the national discourse on religion.  

“Local Contexts” describes how the Egyptian government began waging a television propaganda war in the mid 1990s against Islamism via the dramatic serials. Abu-Lughod goes on to analyze what this campaign ultimately revealed about Egyptian society and concept of nation.

She centers the piece on her early question: “Can religion any longer be understood without reference to the nation-state?” As Abu-Lughod guides the reader through the antiterrorist-themed serials, describing the public debates that ensued as well as some of the shows’ unforeseen consequences, we come to see that, at least in Egypt, it cannot. Claiming that “religion has again become the ideological hub of the public sphere,” Abu-Lughod also says that “‘the nation,’ and what is good for the nation, now form the only legitimate grounds for debate about religion.” This, she writes, is due to “the entrenchment of the modern nation-state,” thanks to the nationalism of the Nasserite era. In other words, religion is now discussed within the framework of the nation-state. Seeing television as a catalyst for national debate, Abu-Lughod believes the media plays an important role in setting up the Egyptian discourse on religion and nation.  

The content for this book was drawn from a lecture Abu-Lughod delivered in 2004 at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM). Arguing her point in a concise and clearly reasoned 15 pages, the scholar arrives at sound conclusions. “Local Contexts of Islamism in Popular Media” is an excellent supplemental read for students and scholars of Middle Eastern Studies.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid