Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009

Muslim televangelist takes his message to millions

Muslim televangelist Amr Khaled
Not your typical preacher: Amr Khaled is trying to modernise the face of Islam.

By Magdi Abdelhadi
Arab Affairs Analyst, BBC World Service

Amr Khaled's unique brand of Muslim preaching has made him one of the most popular preachers in the world.

Such is his appeal, he was recently named the 13th most influential person in the world by Time Magazine.

In Cairo, his DVDs stand on the top shelves reserved for best sellers in the Virgin record store, next to Bruce Willis and Charlie Chaplin.

His controversial style, comparable to the almost rock star approach of some of America's Christian evangelists, has drawn criticism from the religious establishment and he has moved away from his native Egypt.

Ironically, thanks to the proliferation of satellite channels, he is now able to reach far greater numbers than he could have ever done had his message remained within the confines of a mosque or a lecture hall.

'You're fired'

Now, following on from his hugely successful TV shows - which are watched by millions across the world - Mr Khaled plans to launch his own version of the reality television show The Apprentice.

"The aim of it is not to make money, but to make the youth ready to support the society," he told the BBC.

Your behaviour is what defines a good Muslim - not how many times you recite the Koran in one week, or how many times you go to the mosque
Geneive Abdo, author

The Apprentice began in the US with business magnate Donald Trump searching for a candidate to run one of his operations.

In the UK version of the show, the contestants compete for a six-figure salary working for multimillionaire businessman Lord Sugar. The unsuccessful candidates earn his catchphrase dismissal: "You're fired!"

But Mr Khaled said the fundamental difference between those and his own show was that the competition would not be for personal material gain, but would search out contestants who would come up with the best idea to serve his or her community.

"In one mission they will go to the villages," Mr Khaled explained, "and we'll see who can support the poor families in the villages better than the other."

The best ideas will see the team progress and, for the loser, a team member will be fired.

Fresh style

The secret of Mr Khaled's success is simple, say young women in colourful headscarves in Cairo: "He speaks our language."

Unlike traditional preachers, he wears a casual suit and uses the Egyptian vernacular in his programmes. Formally trained imams tend to use classical Arabic.

Mostafa Hosni, a televangelist, prepares to go live on air
Mostafa Hosni, a televangelist, prepares to go live on air

Mr Khaled, who even has his own YouTube channel, has spearheaded a growth in this style of evangelism.

But the difference goes beyond language, says Geneive Abdo, the author of a seminal book on Islamic revival in Egypt.

She believes the new breed of preachers appears to fulfil an important need.

"They have found a way to interject religion into a more modern lifestyle. In other words, your behaviour is what defines a good Muslim - not how many times you recite the Koran in one week, or how many times you go to the mosque," Ms Abdo argues.

In this sense, the young televangelists represent a paradigm shift. While the emphasis in traditional preaching is on rituals, theirs is on personal conduct and social responsibility.

"The Prophet Muhammad said to work, to support a poor family is better than to stay in a mosque 40 days," Mr Khaled has said. "How faith can help support the society, that is my way."

'Out of touch'

While preachers like Mr Khaled have angered the religious establishment - which often accuses them of not having formal training - their popularity is perhaps evidence that the old-style preachers may be out of touch with the predominantly young population.

It's a "more individualistic take on religion", says political scientist and writer Ezz El Din Shoukri when I ask him for an assessment of the phenomenon.

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"It's a bit like the reform in Christianity in the Middle Ages.

"You move away from external authority to the individual's role in interpreting texts, in finding his or her way in life."

However, he says the trend is a double-edged sword.

"On TV you get the attention of tens of millions of people in the Arab world. When you have so much power, who guarantees what you are saying is not going to hurt these people? How would we know when you are wrong?

"You cannot afford as a society to give someone so much power without checking this power," Mr Shoukri warns.

Purple heart

Amr Khaled's modern style - and his success - has spawned a new wave of televangelists. Mostafa Hosni is just one of the newcomers.

The set for Mr Hosni's weekly programme looks like that of a pop music show, with the name, Love Story, drawn over a big purple heart in the background.

"The time has come to speak to the young in their language, to live in their world," he says.

And it's working. Along the banks of the Nile, huge crowds have gathered for a rock concert.

Among them are many young girls wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Do they watch the television preachers and are they influenced by them? Of course, says one.

"They are having the same thoughts as us."

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