Thursday, September 17, 2009

The rock star in Islamic World

Khaled’s message is more than ‘air-conditioned Islam’

Last month, as I joined a group of media researchers and experts in Amman for a Cambridge University workshop on religious broadcasting in the Middle East, I realised the impact that satellite television has had on the presentation of Islamic values to an international audience. The convergence of religion and television, two powerful players in this region’s cultural life, has given rise to a new genre of Islamic “televangelism” that seeks to promote Islam as a religion of peace, tolerance, and love in their simplest terms.

Islam provides peace of mind for more than one billion people around the world and defines much of their cultural identity in an age of globalisation. I see the new generation of satellite television preachers as fostering global receptivity to Islam and the Muslim world. When one speaks of the new wave of Islamic “televangelism”, Amr Khaled always jumps to the forefront.

Billed as “the Billy Graham of the Muslim World”, Mr Khaled was named in 2007 by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Time noted that although the lay preacher “is not a household name in the West”, he is still “a rock star for a segment of the Islamic world” and “a needed voice for moderation”. Contrary to some commentaries that see the rise of the Mr Khaled as a function of show business, I believe the combination of his innovative presentation style and his theological perspectives are the key to his spectacular success.

For young Muslim audiences, Mr Khaled’s preaching style has been inspiring primarily because it engages their senses in a spiritual and communicative experience. He uses simple verbal and non-verbal presentations to reveal Islam’s cherished values. Unlike traditional preaching styles defined by sometimes monotonous and abstract formulas, Mr Khaled directly addresses the audiences and relates theological abstractions to their concrete realities.

I remember watching one of his Quranic stories on Abu Dhabi Television earlier this Ramadan in which he told the story of the birth and upbringing of the Prophet Moses in Egypt. He showed video footage of a small boat sailing in the Nile, presumably carrying the baby to escape being killed by the Pharaoh. In another Quranic story about “people of the cave”, Mr Khaled travelled to Jordan and shot a video of what is believed to be the cave where, according to the Holy Quran, seven young men escaped oppression and stayed asleep for 309 years .

But the Amr Khaled phenomenon is not limited to his televised sermons and speeches. It has come to include tangible philanthropic projects catering to the needy in this region. His “Life Makers’’ project encourages young men to implement action plans for transforming their lives and communities through the application of Islamic values. The project, in which 35,000 volunteers take part, has helped nearly 7,000 families this year in countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt. As part of a project in Yemen, Mr Khaled launched a social development initiative to eradicate poverty and illiteracy among children.

It is amazing to see the Amr Khaled phenomenon also address Muslim relations with the West. In the aftermath of the Danish cartoons incident some three years ago, Mr Khaled, along with another television preacher, Tareq al Suweidan of Kuwait, contributed to an interfaith dialogue organised by the Danish government to debate the infamous drawings. In his message, he condemned the cartoons as well as the violent reaction to them across the Muslim world and called for sustained Muslim-Christian interaction. According to The Independent, the UK foreign secretary sent Mr Khaled a message of support for organising the Copenhagen conference, praising him for his “courage and strength” in attempting to bring cultures together.

As Muslim societies grapple with the challenging tasks of adapting their distinctive cultural identity and building enduring ties with the West, the need for voices like Mr Khaled’s that echo the spirit of Islam as a religion of peace, love and tolerance has never been more fully appreciated.

Of course, the lay preacher has been taken to task for his lack of formal religious training. Some Muslim scholars have referred to his work scornfully as an “air-conditioned” brand of Islam. But what counts is that Mr Khaled has made a difference not only in how Islam is being understood and practised in this region, but also in how it is being perceived by those in non-Muslim societies. And here, the Amr Khaled phenomenon could be instructive to the traditional preaching establishment.

Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah

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