He has worked with the British government, the U.N. and Nike
Cairo — As he leaves a press conference in Egypt’s swanky Intercontinental Hotel, the wildly popular Muslim preacher Amr Khaled is mobbed by a crush of admirers waving, giggling and snapping his picture with their cell phones and digital cameras. Unruffled and gracious, the 38-year-old Egyptian grasps hands and kisses cheeks like a movie star.
“I’m honored,” he murmurs. “Bless you, thank you.”
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“He’s so cultured and eloquent,” says Egyptian university student Aya Mahmoud Samy, 18, as she gazes after him. “He speaks right to your heart and makes religion so easy to understand.”
“Everyone loves him,” adds her 25-year-old sister Mona, an interior designer. “It’s because he’s moderate and his style is very modern.”
A charismatic charmer who moves his audiences to tears with stories about the life of the prophet Muhammad and God’s merciful love, the young “tele-Islamist” with an engaging smile, smart mustache, chic suits and open-collar shirts markets a trendy, self-help Islam that has more in common with the likes of Dr. Phil or Billy Graham than Osama bin Laden.
Although Khaled is a lay preacher and not a religious scholar, he uses his television shows — broadcast on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel — to speak out against terrorism and despair. He emphasizes instead the importance of personal piety, political reform, social activism and coexistence with the West. His sermons promote charity work and job creation as a means of fighting extremism and despair among Arab and Muslim youth.
Already a super-celebrity across the Arab world, Khaled is gaining popularity among Muslims in Europe and the United States who tune into his “Life Makers” and “In the Steps of the Prophet” or listen to MP3 recordings of his lectures online at his Web site, www.amrkhaled.net.
He has at various times joined forces with the British government in promoting outreach to moderate Muslim leaders following last July’s terrorist attacks on the London subway system; with the United Nations and World Health Organization in campaigns against drug and alcohol abuse; and even with Nike to promote job creation in the Middle East — all part of his campaign to trigger a faith-based renaissance throughout the Muslim world.
Khaled’s latest proposal is a conference to promote Muslim-Western understanding and tolerance. He wants to hold the event in Denmark, where cartoons lampooning Muhammad were published, igniting furious protests across the globe. He plans to follow up with a series of round-table discussions between Western and Arab youth across Europe and hopes to visit the United States for the first time this summer.
“There are extremists everywhere, on both sides, Muslim and Danish,” Khaled told the recent press conference, describing his new idea with the same energized inflections and passionate gestures that he uses on TV. “They’re pushing us toward isolation. Let me ask you, young Muslims: Do you want to alienate the Muslim nation? What kind of world do you want 25 years from now? Do you want Muslims isolated from the world community, or do you want to coexist with each other?”
As a moderate Muslim from Alexandria who grew up in a secular, upper-middle-class household, Khaled says he is proof that being religious does not have to mean being old-fashioned or fanatical. Although he is conservative on such matters as women’s traditional dress and sexual abstinence before marriage, he favors a relaxed conversational style of preaching that uses the colloquial slang of Cairo youth.
“I speak their language,” he said. “For a long time no one spoke to the youth in this way.”
Criticized as a lightweight by some intellectuals and sheikhs, Khaled responds by citing his viewers’ responses. Thousands have joined in his campaigns to collect clothes for the poor, boycott cigarettes and alcohol, plant trees in pollution-plagued Arab cities and write letters to record companies decrying the exploitation of women’s bodies in music videos. Teenagers form clubs, wear T-shirts and carry key chains bearing slogans from his TV programs: “Together we make life” and “We are life makers not life takers.” His DVDs, CDs and tapes are as popular as the albums of the hottest Arab pop stars and often are sold in the same stores.
Khaled’s success is not just a matter of style, but of ideology, said Mohammed Hammam, the former head of Iqra’s youth programming and now a consultant on Khaled’s “Life Makers” program.
“The problem with Islamic TV shows was that they used to have sheikhs, 60 or 70 years old, speaking in a very monotonous way and sitting in a room with books on the shelves — very cheap books, in fact — handing down their wisdom to the audience,” Hammam said in an interview. “This was the people’s perception of Islam. Amr Khaled managed to create a new product. It’s a concept he’s building from nowhere. He’s trying to pass his enthusiasm through people’s souls in order to awaken them from this long spiritual death.”
“He makes us feel self-worth and see powers within us that we might have misused,” said Miriam Nasr El Shenawi, a 22-year-old student at the American University in Cairo. “Instead of sitting bored in front of the TV, we can do something good for our society. And he makes you more in love with God. He makes you feel nothing’s impossible — that you can solve your problems with the right attitude.”
For Nashwa Awad, a 34-year-old Egyptian tour guide and working mother, Khaled’s programs are attractive because his sermons defy the stereotype that Islam represses women.
She likes his emphasis on the importance of women’s leadership in the Arab world. Khaled tells his television audiences that Muslim culture produced great female poets, a woman founded the first hospital, and Islam gave women the right to their own money centuries before the West accepted that idea. “He’s not strict, and Islam is really like that,” Awad said.
“Women in the Arab world face very great oppression and, unfortunately, this oppression is in the name of Islam, but Islam is innocent,” Khaled said. “This injustice is due to old traditions and wrong ideas that wear the guise of Islam. Who says a woman cannot be a president of a state? Who says a woman cannot be a judge? Who? Who says not allowing women these rights are ideas or rules of Islam? Unfortunately, some traditional sheikhs defend this idea using flawed logic.”
Despite his studiously apolitical discourse, Khaled was forced to leave Egypt in 2002. He was attracting crowds in the tens of thousands at Cairo’s mosques, and jittery Egyptian authorities, wary of his popularity and growing influence, told him he either had to stop preaching or leave.
Khaled moved to the United Kingdom with his wife and young son Ali, but continued to beam his TV programs into Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Rather than stifling him, the Egyptian ban helped Khaled’s popularity soar.
“The absence of Amr Khaled and other popular preachers and their forced exile was not a smart move on the part of the regime, which has a very strong vested interest in maintaining influential, moderate Islamic preachers,” said Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “The vacuum created by their absence is now leading to a state of polarization between the regime and the Islamists.”
The Egyptian government seems to be reconsidering its stance toward Khaled. Shortly after a string of terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil last year, he was allowed back into the country for the first time in three years. Since then, he has visited regularly and opened a new Cairo office for his British-based charity Right Start, though he still cannot preach in public.
He says the West must be willing to listen to the majority of Muslims who, like him, are moderates, but who nevertheless feel oppressed and misunderstood.
“Bin Laden is saying he is talking on behalf of Muslims,” Khaled said. “Who asked him to talk on behalf of us? Nobody. But now I’m talking on behalf of millions. They asked me to carry their voice to the world. So please, please listen to these people. Right now the extremists are a minority, but if you don’t do anything, they will be a majority.”