CAIRO: The face of Islam has evolved over the past few years to keep up with growing antagonism and rapid globalization. With a presence in all four hemispheres, and a target audience of the fastest growing religion in the world with some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, preachers are struggling to find their niche in this ever-changing world. It seems televangelist superstar Amr Khaled has found his. The Egyptian-born preacher lectured at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Sunday night in what appeared more like a rock concert than a spiritual gathering; students frantically waved their ID cards in the hope of getting a seat. Cameras in hand, girls in veils raced to claim seats in the front row, hoping to snap a shot of this man they so admire. A pair of boys seated up front used the free time before Khaled arrived to warm-up, listening to Quranic recitations through shared headphones. Those who couldn’t get a seat packed into the main campus courtyard, where a large screen played the lecture live.
Sponsored by the AUC Student Union and development groups Alashanek Ya Balady (For You, My Country) and the Entrepreneurs Society, students took time before Khaled began to debut a number of community outreach programs. Khaled watched almost euphorically, and with good reason; his teachings emphasize the importance of such programs geared at improving society. Since he got his start as a preacher through videos and cassette tapes sold on Cairo streets, his goal has been to reach out primarily to young middle and upper-middle class Muslims, ages 15 through 35.
“People die without knowing what they wanted in life, Khaled, an accountant, told the crowd of spectators. “I beg of you, don’t be that person.
With bright eyes, expressive body language, understandable dialogue and a tone that transformed a large auditorium into an intimate gathering, Khaled spoke of a form of “self-help Islam, where young people seize the day and make something of their lives. He used quirky stories, often referencing cartoons to clarify a point.
“Remember when Tom and Jerry used to chase each other off a mountain? he asked, generating giggles in the room. “They didn’t even realize they were running on air until they’d finally look down and fall 60 stories. Always know where you stand.
Khaled offered the room three messages he promoted as the core to a successful future. First, he instructed students to identify their goals early in life. Second, renew your loyalties, or remind yourself what is important to you. Finally, he beseeched them to constantly have hope. “Children learn to walk by falling, he said, moments later knocking over the microphone as he waved his hands in excitement.
Amr Khaled is promoting community development using what he terms development using faith. His latest program, Ala Khota Al Habeeb (On the Path of the Prophet) aired last Ramadan. He hoped the talk show would invigorate people to give back to their communities during the Holy Month. He has carried out the same strategy since the debut of his first show. His Dream TV production called Kalam Min El-Qalb(words about love), featured testimonials from believers, rather than the monotonous monologues from holy men to which the Arab world had grown accustomed.
“Amr Khaled compliments this role by focusing on your emotional relation with God, how to love your God and your religion while also focusing on the practical part of your life, says Rania Radwan, 21, a graduating senior at AUC.
“He is a leader who has influenced a lot of the youth religiously and practically speaking because he has given us the image that a lot of us haven’t seen before, that religion is related to everything in our lives, adds Laila Lasheen, 20. “God bless him.
Khaled has his share of critics. Islamic conservatives often argue that moderates like Khaled deter young Muslims from grasping their responsibility for defending the faith, leaving it vulnerable to Western domination. Khaled is an advocate of dialogue for bridging cultural and religious gaps.
He recently elicited a storm of controversy when he attended a conference in the Danish capital earlier this month geared at easing rifts between European and Muslim leaders, following a controversy surrounding cartoons published of the Prophet Mohammed last September. Critics saw his attendance as a cop-out, claiming that through firm resistance can the Muslim world emphasize its opposition to the matter.
Khaled refused to discuss the issue, saying that “the page has turned. However, in a recent interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, he explained his position on the matter, saying he chooses to be part of a school that looks to the future, rather than that which constantly confronts and attacks.
“The conference was only a starting point, a practical step forward that .compliments other roles, he told the weekly. “We did not do miracles, but I would safely say that we were able to introduce Islam in a positive way that made us win the other to our side.
“I think [Khaled] is not that welcome outside the Arab world because he is saying the truth, suggests Mohammed Abdallah, 20, a sophomore at AUC. “I think they have their own truth and they just see their own view and they don’t put themselves in others positions.
“I think [Khaled] is totally right about this because not all the people in Denmark know Mohammed, therefore we must tell them, ‘this is Mohammed,’ says Sherrif Essam, 21, a fan of Khaled. “The west thinks Islam is Osama Bin Laden and that’s it. Amr Khaled is the new face and I want to be just like him.