Amr Khaled: A preacher's puzzle
If there's an appropriate symbol for Amr Khaled, it's the Pied Piper. His new-age religious tune has magnetised a generation of young people who are following him to an unknown destination -- much to the discontent of the town elders. But does the piper himself know where he's headed? An extensive, probing interview with Amr Khaled provided some clues, but no solid answer to that vital question. With minor prompting, the charismatic preacher dropped hints that his project may ultimately be political; then again, there were signs it could turn diplomatic, in a global dialogue sense. For now, though, he has dropped the mask of pure spirituality and is heavily plugging what he calls faith-based development. Shunning all other labels, he argues that every year he adds another piece to the Amr Khaled puzzle. From preacher to televangelist to activist, Khaled refuses to place himself in a permanent box.
Interview by Tarek Atia
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"Any attempt to develop and fix Arab society that doesn't concentrate on faith -- the strongest, most beautiful element in the Arab being -- will not succeed; on the other hand, it will sway and rise for a while, and then fall. Because the main mover is not there."
Amr Khaled closes his eyes. He is imagining London, where he has spent much of the past two years. He is playing football in the park with his four-year-old son Ali. He is dreaming of a better life for the child, in a world where the clash of civilisations has disappeared, where every Muslim heads to the mosque for dawn prayers, every day. There are no tears in his eyes as he delves into this reverie, but it is without a doubt the emotional apex of an hour-long interview.
It is also reminiscent of a state of mind Khaled always seems to reach at some point of every episode of his popular hour-long TV shows on the pan-Arab religious satellite channel Iqra. His expressive reaction to the question -- "With your busy schedule, do you find time to spend with your family?" -- was much like the way his sermons eventually give way to a dreamy state, often accompanied by a fever-pitched delivery of words, Khaled giving off the image of a man so utterly possessed by faith in what he's doing that he does not care how awkward it might look.
Then again, he does. Image remains one of the keys to his worldly success. He is the cool preacher, the Islamist in jeans who knows how to talk to young people about religion in a language they understand. No more stuffy Azharite dialogue or gear, please: in his Mohandessin office earlier this month, Khaled wears a slick beige suit and perfectly matching grey-blue shirt. He carries the latest Nokia communicator. And his business card is a model of understated elegance: there's no job description, no address; just his name in fancy calligraphy, and phone numbers in London and Beirut.
His words are as stylised and uncluttered as the desk he sits behind. "Amr Khaled is a person with a message, who wants to bring forth a renaissance in this region in the next 20 years -- via faith." The renaissance he envisages is "scientific, cultural, and artistic ... a renaissance of behavior and values, a renaissance of justice and freedom."
Arab civilisation, Khaled says, doodling on a blank piece of paper for a while before offering his trademark intense stare, "is currently going through one of the worst moments in its history. The West looks at us -- Muslims and Islam and the Arab world in particular -- like we're the cause of the world's troubles..." And yet, "God described our prophet, and the religion he revealed, as mercy for the world. We want to prove that the Quran is right -- that we are the world's mercy."
He believes he was put on earth for a purpose: to lead young people -- Muslims and Christians -- to this noble goal. Trained as an accountant, and from an upper middle class background, Khaled has emerged as a major 21st-century global phenomenon. He seems to be speaking of himself when he says, "I believe that every 100 years the world's thoughts change. And extraordinary people appear who carry new ideas to humanity."
There is no doubt about his power to influence, especially the young. Thousands, maybe millions of young girls donned the veil after hearing his lectures. Young men rapidly dropped their partying, drug-taking lifestyles, grew beards and became active at their local mosques.
But while his supporters and detractors all recognise this power, the former love him for it, and the latter quake in fear. They either accuse him of promoting a superficial understanding of religion, or of merely being the kinder, gentler face of the kind of fire and brimstone outlook Muslims need less, not more of, in the modern world.
Khaled's view is that "any attempt to develop and fix Arab society that doesn't concentrate on faith -- the strongest, most beautiful element in the Arab being -- will not succeed; on the other hand, it will sway and rise for a while, and then fall. Because the main mover is not there." At the same time, he makes clear that it's not just "a return to spirituality" that he's advocating. "That's how I started, but I've gone past that stage. The first piece of the puzzle I am completing was faith; after that I moved onto development."
The move has been -- like everything Khaled does -- fraught with controversy. Prominent columnist Magdi Mehanna, for instance, recently delivered a "piece of advice: a simple young preacher who recounts to young people the stories of the Prophet and Islamic conquests should totally forget the role of reformer, as it is a much bigger task than his capabilities."
It is not advice Khaled plans on taking. His mega-popular "faith-based development" programme, "Life-makers", is like a political party in waiting. Khaled speaks of the "1.4 million young people -- 40 per cent of them Egyptian -- who have taken part" in this TV-and web- based project encouraging the young to start their own businesses. He proudly displays the decorative boxes, jewelry and other products that say, "Made in Egypt", or "Made in Morocco", and are now exported to the West. He boasts of meetings at the British Foreign Ministry, and the deals that have been made by his London-based Right Start foundation to further this kind of economic cooperation, and hopefully, by 2006, take it into the realm of training as well.
While some have argued that Khaled's mission was always political, these days there is no shying away from that reality. His first religious lecture may have been unplanned, delivered during a relative's birthday party at the Dokki Shooting Club, but the audience was so impressed that he soon became a regular lecturer at the club's mosque and in the salons of the upper class. When demand again increased, he headed for a mosque in 6 October, a new suburb on the outskirts of Cairo where the empty streets would suddenly become packed when he came to speak.
With the Internet and satellite TV, Khaled's reach expanded beyond imagination. He became so popular and influential, it was said, that the government wanted him gone. The story of his allegedly being asked to leave Egypt by unnamed security bodies because he was becoming too popular and influential is a yarn well spinned by both supporters and detractors: the former see it as evidence of his heroism, while the latter think Khaled himself exaggerated the matter in a calculated manoeuver to achieve hero status in the first place.
In any case, by March 2003, as the US invaded Iraq, Khaled found himself based in London and Beirut, hosting an extremely popular show on the Saudi Sheikh Saleh Kamel's ART network. There, he made his first direct stab at activism, encouraging his viewers to express their anger at the US presence in the Middle East by sending SMSs and e-mails to US embassies and officials in their countries.
The transition from pure preaching to talk of politics only further complicated the bundle of questions surrounding Khaled. Why the change, critics wanted to know. What was his ultimate goal? Who are the forces behind him? Is he the friendly face of the Muslim Brotherhood, or of Saudi Wahabi Islam? It was said that Saudi billionaire and satellite TV mogul Kamel was trying to influence religious discourse in Egypt through Khaled. Others suggested that he was backed by Egyptian intelligence services, in order to replace the late Sheikh Mohamed Metwalli Shaarawi as the moderate religious voice of the new generation, a slick counterpoint to the ever-increasing, harshly- bearded salafi hardliner types. Was that the real reason for all the negative stories in the state-run press about him -- a sort of reverse psychology plan actually meant to increase his popularity?
While the answers to all these questions remain unknown, it's clear that Khaled's mission is just beginning. His web site -- amrkhaled.net -- is among the most popular 1,000 in the world, ranking among global heavyweight media influences like The Washington Post, Al-Jazeera and the Drudge Report. But for all his talk of mass constituencies and millions of followers, Khaled still balks at being explicitly referred to as a political activist. "Participating in the political process is not shameful, forbidden, or something to shy away from," he says. "But when you have a goal you want to achieve, or a message you are trying to deliver, it's not about political participation for the sake of it... It's more about political participation as a tool" to achieve what you need.
That pragmatism may have been in play when Khaled and his TV producer friend first came up with the idea of consciously imitating the style of US Christian televangelism. The successful formula was like nothing the Arab world had ever seen, and it caught on like wildfire. Young people, especially impressed by the slick sets, soft lighting and friendly tone, said Khaled was the first to inspire them into understanding Islam's gentler side.
His sermons, however, with their clear and vivid warnings of the hell-fire that awaits unbelievers, appear to be just another form of fear mongering -- even though he is critical of what he calls "a religious discourse that merely says everything is haram and wrong". While constantly using scare tactics, the difference is in the seemingly friendly way he does so: by smiling, for instance, as he asks, "When you meet God on Judgment Day, will you be ready?"
Today, even Al-Azhar-educated sheikhs will sometimes use his style, investing their discourse with a greater narrative element and a familiar voice.
Khaled, meanwhile, is accused of providing aspirin-like painkillers that do not address core problems in modern society's interaction with religion. He is blamed for the increasing number of people who appear to be practicing religion in a superficial manner, or out of guilt, without understanding how to apply Islam in their lives.
To which charge, he says, "There are two kinds of people: the first is someone who practices the rites of religion -- like praying and fasting -- properly, yet is badly behaved, or lacking in virtue. The second is someone who is very virtuous, but lacking in religiosity. Both are rejected. The former seduces you with his religiosity, but then when you deal with him, you discover how lacking in virtue he is, and the latter seduces people with his behaviour. Why can't we have both?"
The pat answer, effective as a sound bite but not really answering the question, may provide clues as to why many would say his popularity has more to do with the shallowness or ignorance of his audience than anything really great or effective he might say or do. That he's a smart guy who saw an opportunity and took it -- filling the vacuum created by the lack of decent preachers.
Over the course of some 144 audio tapes, and hundreds of TV episodes, his charisma reveals itself, as does the fact that his power over the medium -- in the way he talks, and the confidence with which he uses his smile and his stare -- also appears to be improving with practice. He has the kind of following you'd expect of a movie or pop star.
But as more and more competitors join the fray, how long will that success last?
Perhaps Khaled's constant reinvention of self is more of a conscious attempt to keep ahead of the competition than anything else. His latest surprise move involves a return to the homeland, again inspiring mounds of speculation over whether some sort of secret deal has been reached with the authorities.
Khaled tries to avoid involving himself in this kind of speculation, choosing to stay on point with his message of the moment: "My message contributes to an increase in coexistence, development and moderation," he says in response to a question about whether or not he expects to be harassed on his return. "Young people have huge reserves of energy, and I am leading that momentum peacefully, and in moderation. It pains me to say that there are no political, social or athletic activities in the Arab world. That's why we should be allowed to direct this energy towards developmental work. Via ideas like Life- makers and faith-based development, I am protecting young people from potential deviations of behavior and thought -- from things like violence and drugs. So, for the good of the country, I hope opportunities are opened for this."