Tele-evangelists are an embarrassment to Christianity, but at least they're not on every channel. In the Muslim world, the staple of TV programming is "tele-Islamists". By and large their messages are railing, angry, and extreme; but that may be changing. Apparently, Islamic TV producers have been watching TBN.
"Amr Khaled is a 37-year-old former accountant turned Islamic "televangelist." With his stylish business suits, trim moustache, large, expressive eyes, and magnetic charm, Khaled moves audiences to tears with his retellings of Quranic stories and promises of God's redeeming love. Ever since he began preaching in private homes and clubs in Cairo several years ago, Khaled's fame has grown astronomically, particularly among well-to-do Arab women and youth.
As a "born-again" Muslim who rediscovered his own faith as a teenager, Khaled offers himself as living proof that being religious does not have to mean being "backwards" or fanatical. Khaled said in an interview with the English-language Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly, "My main concern is to make young people love religion instead of fearing it."
His first show, Kalam min al-Qalb, or Word from the Heart, used a talk-show format featuring audience participation and "testimonials" from famous actresses, football players, and ordinary young Muslims. Its producer and director, Ahmed Abu Haiba, asked Amr, "Have you ever seen Christian preaching channels in the West? I believe that if we did this with Islam it would be a new experience for Islam."
The filming took place in a space-age studio setting with soft pastel lighting, video screens, celebrity guest stars, and a live audience of young people, both boys and girls, who shared the microphone with Khaled as he moderated a discussion about a particular religious moral issue, or aspect of personal piety. "I chose subjects to be related to the heart, outside of the fiqh and the rules, halal and haram," Abu Haiba said, adding that key components were the use of colloquial Arabic and the exchange of personal feelings.
His show is part self-help psychology--an emotional and positive twelve-step program to a better Islamic life--part spiritual experience, and part televised call for social reform and grassroots organization. The young preacher's tapes, videos and CDs outsell the albums of today's hippest Arab pop stars, while his lectures in mosques and clubs across the Middle East, Canada, and the UK have attracted thousands. In some places people stand outside and clog the streets with traffic for hours to hear Khaled speak.
Students, businessmen, women and others have formed clubs named after the program. On college campuses and community centers, students sell t-shirts, key chains, and stickers bearing the shows logo and motto "Together We Build Life" in both English and Arabic. These trendy (and fairly expensive) commodities are reminiscent of the virginity promise rings and "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets so popular among born-again Christian youth in America.
Khaled's rise to superstardom--and his undeniable marketing success--is evidence of a new breed of media-savvy Islamic preachers. The messages resonate with an increasingly globalized Arab youth culture struggling to carve a third way between the excesses of religious extremism and disillusionment with state-subsidized clerics. As demonstrated by the growing popularity of everything from "dial-a-sheikh" telephone services that charge by the minute and online "fatwa sessions" that invite Internet users to submit religious questions by e-mail, there is a growing mass market catering to Muslims seeking spiritual guidance, both moral and mundane."