AP Entertainment News Islamic music video channel hopes to spread message of faith to religiously conscious youth 05-17-2009 7:47 AM By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, Associated Press Writer CAIRO (Associated Press) -- Flames burst from the stage for a grand entrance, and fake fog swirls around a young man in a white robe. He clutches the microphone, gazes seriously into the camera and then, accompanied only by drums, he sings. "I accept Allah as my God, His religion as my religion, and His Messenger as my Messenger," he intones, as the audience, divided into men's and women's sections, claps along with the rhythm. The singer is a contestant on a new Islamic version of "American Idol," launched to promote and drum up talent for one of the Arab world's newest Islamic pop music video channels. The satellite station, 4shbab _ Arabic for "For the Youth" _ is the brainchild of an Egyptian media worker, Ahmed Abu Heiba, who says his mission is to spread the message that observant Muslims can also be modern and in touch with today's world. "We have failed to deliver this message," Abu Heiba said in an interview on the sidelines of the contest, aired in late April. "What I am trying to do is to use the universal language of music to show what Islam looks like." The channel, which was launched in February and can be seen across the Arab world, is a bid to capitalize on a generation of young Muslims who have become more observant but are also raised on Western pop influences. But it's hard to hit the right balance between conservative and liberal. The channel shows no female singers _ or any other women _ adhering to the mainstream view that women performers are taboo in Islam. Still, some conservatives are wary about mixing pop culture and religion. Abu Heiba said he wants to include women singers on the station, but "I believe that our societies are not ready to accept it." "It is a matter of time and phases, it is a very sensitive matter and it will take a very long time," he told The Associated Press. The Arab world is full of female singers, but only on the numerous secular pop music channels. The videos often feature scantily clad women singing or dancing, with suggestive lyrics. Many tut-tut that such videos are offensive and against Arab and Muslim culture, but viewers still flock to the wildly popular video TV stations. There are also many popular Islamic TV stations, featuring recitations from the Quran, sermons by clerics and talk shows on how to live a proper Muslim life _ but no music. Mixing the two worlds can get a little uncomfortable. One Egyptian pop star caused a fuss several years ago when his latest hit video showed him crooning a chaste love song to a girl in a higab, the Islamic headscarf that is ubiquitous on Egyptian streets but is never seen in music videos. Some conservatives were scandalized at the suggestion of a good religious girl being in such a romantic situation. Abu Heiba said 4shbab is an antidote to the "lewd" music videos that mainstream channels show. "We give our kids the shadow of holiness because this is basic in our culture and religion," said Abu Heiba. "But when our kids are exposed to this (un-Islamic) media, it is totally different, they don't feel like they belong to this culture anymore... their passions are divided." Sixteen-year-old Hagar Hossam said she watches 4shbab "every day and every night." Dressed in a headscarf and a long flowing robe, the high school student giggled with her friends sitting in the middle of the women's section of the competition. "I like that 4shbab shows a moderate view of Muslim youth," said Hossam. "Islam isn't just about praying and religious rituals. We're allowed to have fun, be happy and be young _ we just try to balance it with our religion and with what makes God happy." Her 22-year-old friend, Shahy Samir, is not so sure, saying she's uncomfortable with many of the videos on 4shbab, particularly those in a hip-hop style, with their rap moves. "I know that in their culture it's normal to do all that dancing and those movements while singing," said Samir. "But I don't think it's very Islamic and even though the lyrics are good, the movements take away from the weight of the meaning." Some hard-line clerics say Islam forbids music, allowing only percussion to accompany religious chants. But others don't see a strict prohibition. "Islam is not against music or singing as long as it doesn't stir desires and it adheres to the values of Islam," said Sheik Youssef el-Badri, an Egyptian cleric who has sought to prosecute in court many Egyptian artists and writers for alleged insults to Islam. "This channel would be a good thing if it tries to attract people to clean, Islamic values." In the Arab world, there are few "Islamic singers." Thus the contest, through which Abu Heiba hopes to drum up new talent. "I don't have singers, the field is empty," he said. "So I need a star-making process from the beginning to get my own stars to deliver my own message by my own way." The contest was called "Soutak Wasel," Arabic for "Your Voice is Heard," though Abu Heiba nicknamed it "Islamic Idol" _ perhaps not the most appropriate nickname given Islam's strong prohibition against idolatry. For the past two months, listeners called in to 4shbab to sing a song on the air, and a panel of experts judged them. The 12 best, from around the Arab world, won the chance to compete in the finals in front of a live audience of about 300 people in an open air theater at Cairo's historic Citadel. During the April 17 show, viewers voted by text message and chose three winners. Habib Battah, an American journalist who analyses Arab media, is skeptical about the channel's chances for success. Numerous satellite stations have been launched by wealthy businessmen aiming to spread a particular message, but end up failing to find an audience and disappearing, he said. "I don't want to say there isn't a place for religious music videos in the market," said Battah. "But there isn't a lot of research and it's very hard to stick out in an industry where there is no agreed upon rating system."