He made it on Time

The skyrocketing popularity of young preacher Amr Khaled has ranked him among the world’s top 100 most influential people — and, ironically, the most controversial back home. Gihan Shahine explores the two sides of the coin

“When you look at the reach of what he is doing, and when you look at the millions he is touching, I don’t know another single individual in the region who is having the impact that Amr Khaled is having.” Thus said Rick Little, a US adviser on youth issues to the UN who has worked with the popular 39-year-old preacher on job creation schemes in the Middle East, to the Independent.

That testimony on the part of an American activist may partly explain why Time magazine has named Khaled among the top 100 most influential people worldwide. The magazine said 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 from within the Islamic world”.

The magazine praised his programme Life Makers “because it encourages Muslims to implement plans to transform their lives and communities through Islam. It also urges them to get along peacefully with the West.”

Time further said, “what really put Khaled on the world stage was his decision to host an interfaith conference in Copenhagen in March 2006, after the controversies over the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim clerics criticised him for extending an olive branch to the Danes. But Khaled did not back down.”

Khaled was not chosen solely by Time. The US magazine names more than 100 individuals, leaving the rest to the public to choose. Muslim youths living in the US voted for Khaled, who ultimately ranked 13th among the “heroes and pioneers”.

The fact that Khaled was the only Egyptian chosen among the 100 list has made the superstar preacher even more intriguing and, perhaps just as controversial. Many wonder why a US magazine like Time would name Khaled in the first place and whether that had anything to do with recent US and generally Western attempts to establish dialogue with moderate Islamic voices, as is currently the case with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Why isn’t Khaled as appreciated in his homeland where he could be equally used to counter extremist thoughts? And would Khaled lose part of his credibility for dialoguing with the West, sometimes considered a stigma in the eyes of conservatives?

Al-Ahram ’s prominent columnist Fahmy Howeidy told Al-Ahram Weekly, “there might be more than one reason why Khaled was selected”… But not that the West is extending dialogue with Khaled, which according to Howeidy, “would only happen with groups like the Brotherhood, and definitely not a single individual.”

Instead, Howeidy speculates that the West “welcomes” the talented preacher on the grounds that “his discourse promotes dialogue and rallies masses of youth through the barrier-breaking satellite channels and the Internet.” The fact that Khaled is not bearded was an extra asset in the eyes of the West, according to Howeidy.

A State Department official recently told The New York Times that Khaled’s message was “very much in sync with what we want to say to the Muslim world, which is that we have no problem with Islam and no problem with conservative Islam.”

The Independent similarly revealed how the British government has been “happy” to support Khaled’s efforts. According to the Independent, Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells sent a message of support to Khaled praising him for his “courage and strength in attempting to bring cultures together”. The paper also wrote that the British cabinet has been suggesting “ways of strengthening the hand of moderate Muslim leaders, including young Muslims with future leadership potential” and that “leaked British cabinet papers named Khaled as a figure worth promoting as a counterweight to the imams preaching jihad in England.”

But Western support for Khaled seems to have backfired in his hometown where many of his critics questioned the preacher’s motives and whether such good relations with the West would mean he is compromising principles.

Howeidy, for one, finds no problem that the West uses Khaled, but on condition that the game is fair: they [Western governments] use him [Khaled] to promote moderate Islam and he [Khaled] uses the chance for daawa.

“This is called interaction,” Howeidy insisted, sniffing at conspiracy theories which blindly stigmatise whoever engages in dialogue with the West. That said, Howeidy insists that Khaled should watch where he is heading in order to avoid any potential “misuse. He [Khaled] should rather focus on reaching youths because this is where he excels. Social development and dialogue are not his domains.”

Khaled, however, seems to be very much aware of where he is heading. He told the Weekly via a brief call from JFK Airport [on his way back from a ceremony where he received the Time prize] that the reason why people doubt the motives of those engaging in dialogue with the West is that, “many dialoguers compromise principles in the process.” Khaled, however, insists that he would never accept “being manipulated into making concessions in his quest for reform and a common ground of cooperation with the West.

“Our message has always been the same everywhere: that co-existence does not mean melting into other cultures, or that the West imposes its culture upon us and occupies our lands,” Khaled said in a tired, yet persistent voice. His latest programme, A Message to Co-exist, which is translated into four languages and is being aired on four satellite channels, makes the message very clear. And so was the speech he delivered at the US ceremony. Khaled was the only Arab Muslim participant, telling a gathering of 600 influential people in a proud and confident voice, “we reject the occupation of Iraq, we reject that the West imposes its culture on us and we reject the attack on Islam.”

Khaled said that he is a preacher who believes in dialogue as “a Quranic principle”, and that in doing so, he is actually “following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohamed.

“We are left with two choices: either to engage in conflict or dialogue — and for me dialoguing without concessions is the best solution,” he told the Weekly. “If, amidst this constant attack on Islam, we get the chance to have a microphone through which we can promote the truth about our religion, which sane mind would say that we should abandon this opportunity?” Khaled asked in a live chat with youths on Islamonline before leaving for the US.

For Khaled, the ceremony was a chance to tell the world, “I was proud to tell the world that Prophet Mohamed is my example in life and that it is he who taught me ethics, success in life, mutual respect and love,” he told the Weekly.

A similar storm of criticism erupted last year when Khaled hosted an interfaith conference in Copenhagen in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon crisis. Critics, including many prominent Islamic scholars, insisted that the Danish government should apologise first.

“Part of the criticism I received was that the conference was useless and ineffective. Today, Time magazine has come to prove otherwise,” Khaled told the Weekly. “The conference was an example of civilised dialogue which is the only way we can settle hot issues and quell violence.”

Khaled is the first Islamic televangelist whose moderate preaching, highly charismatic personality and clever use of barrier-breaking technology, have influenced the lives of millions of young Muslims across the world. He has acquired even more popularity in Europe and the United States for his two recent TV programmes, Life Makers and In the Steps of the Prophet. Both promote social activism, job creation and development as the only means to fight despair, unemployment, extremism and injustice. His logic throughout the series is that those who do not learn how to help themselves will never be able to decide their future, nor will they be following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohamed.

Khaled’s message has always been directed at youths and the higher strata of society, and his discourse witnessed a gradual shift from a purely spiritual message of piety and devotion to God, to social development based on faith, and now, to building dialogue with the West. Today, youths should know that abandoning smoking, fighting drug addiction, cleaning their streets, planting crops on their building rooftops, educating the public on self-hygiene and even engaging in fitness exercises are all part of their worship of God.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has honoured Khaled in recognition of his anti- smoking TV campaigns after a large number of his audience heeded his call to quit smoking.

Prominent thinker Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri believes that Khaled’s power resides in his innovative “socio-Islamic discourse” which “entwines heavenly rewards with work, motivates youths to be socially active and revives the concept of having a dream… without which people would fall prey to depression and become unable to change the world around them.”

That said, Khaled has always been the target of severe criticism in his hometown where he was banned from preaching more than three years ago, an issue which drove many curious scholars, including Elmessiri and American student at Oxford University Lindsay Wise, to study him as a phenomenon.

Secularists accuse Khaled of being “dangerous”, a preacher who is very “close in style to the Brotherhood”, and “in it for the money”. Some of his staunchest critics, like liberal researcher and chief-editor of the state-funded periodical Al-Dimoqratiya, Hala Mustafa, attacks the preacher for being a driving force behind veiling in Egypt and of tricking the West with his deceptive appearance. “He is just like the other Islamic theocrats, but he says it with a smiling face,” Mustafa was quoted as saying by the UK’s daily Independent. Some University of Al-Azhar sheikhs attack Khaled for being superficial and not scholastic. “They [Azhar turban sheikhs] know they are vying with him for the attention of Egypt’s middle- and upper-class women and youth, and worry that they may be losing the battle,” Wise noted in his thesis on Khaled.

The political regime, as well, does not appear to want Khaled to preach in Egypt or use his moderate discourse to counter extremism. “The government does not want any moderate Islamic voice,” Howeidy opined. “It wants extremists to be the only force in the battlefield, so that it can tell the world that if we are bad, then they are worse.” Wise concurred that Khaled’s only threat resides in his “successful presentation of an alternative Islamic discourse that not only threatens to be more popular and better marketed than Azhar’s official version, but also wreaks havoc with the state’s attempt to categorise Islamists as poor, uncouth, fringe extremists.”

Wise explained that “according to the state’s construction of ’official’ Islam versus ’unofficial’ Islamism, a fundamentalist does not look and talk like modernised, Westernised ’us’. He is a backward, dangerous ’other.’ Khaled’s genius is to style himself as an Islamist who is one of ’us’.”