Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 December 2002
Issue No. 616
Egypt
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Preacher on the run

The recent ban on popular Islamic preacher Amr Khaled has triggered a plethora of rumours and reactions, as well as a boom in his tape sales. Gihan Shahine reports


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Amr Khaled
Authorities probably didn't expect that banning 35-year old da'ia (Islamic preacher) Amr Khaled would boost his popularity, especially with his mostly young audience. More than 10,000 of Khaled's supporters, however, have reportedly signed a petition asking Minister of Awqaf (religious endowments) Mohamed Hamdi Zaqzouq, to lift the ban imposed on Khaled.

The pro-Khaled campaign may be Egypt's first ever on the Internet. The on-line petition describes the ban as "unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable".

In an earlier phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from London, Khaled had said that he was suddenly asked by "certain" authorities to give up da'wa (preaching) altogether only a few days before the beginning of this year's Ramadan. Soon thereafter, it became known that he had travelled to England where he will continue to preach while studying for a PhD at a UK university.

The ban on Khaled has inspired numerous questions, as well as anger from those who don't even like the popular young preacher. Many of Khaled's opponents criticised the ban for "making [Khaled] a hero" and "giving him too much credit".

Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan, meanwhile, has sent a written question to Zaqzouq asking him to explain "why the young preacher was banned". In the request, Hassan said that Khaled uses "a straightforward, moderate discourse that appeals to the young", and that banning him at a time when "Muslims and Islam are accused of terrorism, just seems illogical".

"I sent the question three times, but have yet to receive a response," Hassan told the Weekly. "Young people are disenchanted by the ban; they feel it is a clampdown on freedom of expression. I think the Internet campaign that the young people have launched is a very modern and peaceful way to express their anger. And if the minister does not respond to my request, a committee will be formed to investigate the matter and the minister will be summoned before Parliament."

Until the ban, Khaled was attracting large audiences to his sermons in mosques, sports clubs and even in private homes, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. His TV programmes, which were broadcast on two satellite channels during Ramadan, and Web site have all been very popular throughout the Muslim world.

The reasons for the ban remain largely unclear. Khaled told forislam.com -- the Web site for which he writes -- that "certain authorities" asked him to give up all da'wa activities, including satellite channel broadcasts, for having "allegedly tackled issues that recently caused problems". He called these claims "slanderous", arguing that his sermons "are all there on tapes to prove it".

Although this is not the first time that Khaled has been banned, his sudden migration has inspired a great deal of public clamour, including extensive coverage of the issue by the local press, many news agencies, as well as some Arab and international newspapers.

Many speculate that Khaled's "popularity has soared so fast that Egypt's authorities, ever-wary of any fresh stirring of Islamic fervour that could breed a political challenge, have sought to curb his activities," according to Reuters.

Grettel C Kovach, of the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor newspaper, agrees. In an article entitled "Moderate Muslim voice falls silent", Kovach wrote that "Egyptian authorities are scrutinising even relatively moderate religious leaders as they struggle to control a message that is reaching broad swaths of Egyptian society." According to Kovach, "Khaled was not revolutionary, despite the outcry when he was silenced." Maamoun El-Hodeibi, who heads the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, is quoted in the article as saying that "stifling peaceful Islamic voices is shortsighted".

A spokesman from the Ministry of the Interior, however, recently told the Associated Press (AP) that the ministry did not ban Khaled from preaching. The ministry also denied earlier reports that it was responsible for previous crackdowns on Khaled.

In an age of globalised media and technology, the issue of whether a ban can actually be effective seems to be another question raised by this case. Actually, the ban on Khaled has reportedly boosted his tape and CD sales, while the Islamic Iqra' satellite channel recently announced that two new programmes hosted by the young preacher will soon be on air.

Khaled himself has established a new Web site where Internet surfers can listen to his sermons, read his articles, send him e- mail, have a scheduled voice chat with him, and find out when his satellite programmes will be broadcast.

Many other Web sites, in the meantime, are already circulating his sermons, with some even appearing in French. A recent poll on morocco.com asked readers to provide their opinions on Khaled's preaching. Amongst those who responded was Lilly from the US, who declared that she is "a big fan of Amr Khaled [who] watches his show once a week on ART in America. I'm also aware that all his lectures can be heard on-line. I would actually love to watch his lectures more often."

Another Web site, islammemo.com, found itself at the centre of a major Khaled-related rumour when it published unverified quotes about the young preacher from an article allegedly written by popular TV presenter and talk show host Mufid Fawzi. Fawzi, a Copt, denies having ever written that Khaled was driving a wedge between Muslims and Christians by asking Muslim girls to distinguish themselves by taking the veil.

Fawzi told the Weekly that he did not write anything of the sort and does "not even have the slightest idea of what is going on. I swear I don't even know what Amr Khaled looks like," Fawzi said, "and have never heard a sermon by him, or even know who his audience is."

The quotes attributed to Fawzi in the article on islammemo.com read: "The departure of that elegant Rasputin [Khaled], who perfects theatrical performance, was a must." The Web site claimed that Fawzi had linked news that young actress Merna El-Mohandess had taken off the veil to Khaled -- who has been credited for the recent wave of veiling among young women -- being forced to leave the country. "It was due to his thankful departure that Merna is back ... Egypt is back... national unity is back... and civilisation is back... all despite the powers of darkness and backwardness."

Although the Web site did not provide any reference to where Fawzi supposedly wrote the article, many newspapers hastened to circulate the quotes, triggering public fury.

Mustafa Bakri, chief editor of the independent weekly newspaper Al-Osbou', was quick with a request that Fawzi apologise for offending Khaled and all veiled women, "if Fawzi [was really in favour of] national unity".

Fawzi says he does not know "who involved me in this farce, but it is probably someone who hates Egypt and wants to drive a wedge between its Muslim and Christian populations".

When asked why he had made no attempt to clear his name in the papers, Fawzi said that for him, "silence and laughter are the best response". He also scoffed at the idea that he would put that much importance on the veiling or unveiling of a young actress like El-Mohandess.

"Merna once appeared on one of my TV programmes for just 12 seconds," he said. "I didn't know that she had put on the veil and actually I don't even remember her. It is all a farce."

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