Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Amr Khaled: Islam's Billy Graham?

Amr Khaled is a Muslim preacher, popular on Islamic TV. His advocates says he preaches a message of hope and empowerment, and is especially appealing to Muslim youth.

On the other hand, he does have critics, who claim he is just sugar-coating the same old oppressive religion, spinning it in a way to make it more acceptable to western audiences.

Is he fooling people in the west? Is he part of the solution, or part of the problem?

I first heard about this guy at the blog Rollercoaster Journey, in a post called "Islam's Billy Graham" (Hat tip to Rudolph A. Carrera for the link). That article discusses ways in which he appeals to Muslim youth. An excerpt:

In a tiny house on the West Bank a young Palestinian woman is jogging the length of her hallway and back Again and again. The pain becomes unbearable. But she keeps going. Eventually she completes two thousand laps. Why? Because Amr said so. He called on young Muslims to get fit, and the woman could find no other safe place to run.

In the choking grime of Cairo, another young woman is tending to a small tomato vine, struggling into life atop a 10-storey city block. Why? Because Amr wants his young followers to see something grow. It will provide hope- and maybe a small income- in a part of the world where both are in short supply. The greening of rooftops in the filth and decay of this Arab mega city is a story being repeated again and again throughout the Arab world. It is a powerful metaphor for the work of a religious and marketing phenomenon called Amr Khaled, who is trying to pump oxygen into the arid lives of Muslim youth. Amr (rhymes with "charmer") Khaled is the Arab world's first Islamic tele-evange-list, a digital age Billy Graham who has fashioned himself into the anti-Bin Laden, using the barrier-breaking power of satellite TV and the internet to turn around a generation of lost Muslim youth.

"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," says the American Rick Little, an adviser on youth issues to the UN who has worked with Khaled on job creation schemes in the Middle East.

Khaled, 38, defies the stereotype of the Islamic preacher. In his Cairo office it would be easy to mistake him for a City banker. No flowing robes for him. He wears a hand-tailored cream suit, an open-necked sky blue shirt, brown loafers and a Bulgari watch.

The accountant-turned-preacher shifts easily between the worlds of religion and business. To demonstrate the success of Khaled Inc, the CEO has at the ready a series of graphs and pie-charts in a tastefully designed Annual Report. Inside he points to the proof of his proudest boast: that Amr Khaled is more popular than the US talk show juggernaut Oprah Winfrey.

The article goes on to show how his website gets more hits than Oprah's, etc. It goes into his background, and what people in the Middle East think about him.

My first thought was, if he was preaching anything radically different from traditional Islam, wouldn't there be a fatwa on him? It seems the religous estabishment does find fault with his lack of formal religious training.

People in the West embrace him, because he condemns violence. Yet he is not radical, in that he still embraces basic Muslim values. For instance, he is quite insistant that Muslim women cover themselves, and that it's a grievous sin not to. He's still very much a Muslim, no matter how western he dresses. Here is another excerpt, with comments by one of his critics:

One of Khaled's toughest hometown critics believes the West has been tricked by Khaled. "His appearance is calculated to deceive," says Hala Mustafa, who is one of Cairo's prominent liberals and the editor of a government funded academic journal, Democracy.

"He is just like the other Islamic theocrats, but he says it with a smiling face."

Mustafa has written widely on the growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups, and exhibit No 1 in her prosecution of Khaled is the headscarf, the emblem of conservative Islam. He is commonly held to be the single major force behind young women taking the veil. Removing it, he has told his followers, is "the biggest sin, the biggest sin, the biggest sin".

In one of his lectures he directed a tirade towards any Muslim girl who wished to mimic the West and not wear the veil: "Who respects the woman more? Islam or the ones who cannot even sell a box of matches without painting a half-naked woman on it? Are they the ones who have respected women or ill-treated them? Has not Islam respected women, covered them and liberated them from such exploitation?"

Khaled has saved some of his fiercest rhetoric for the ethics of the West. In his addresses to his Arabic-speaking audience he has alleged that Western people are "fatigued by depression. Suicide, addition, broken families, we pray they will go back to the right path, Allah's system. We don’t want to lead lives like the "West."

He claims that Muslims are being "oppressed and tortured all over the world". So how does this square with his vow to build a bridge between the East and the West?

"To say we are building a bridge does not mean we are making a copy of life in the West," he says. "There are some things we don’t accept in your vision of life. We have many things in our culture [where there is a] big difference between you and us, and if we say we need to take the West and to make a copy of the [West's] civilisation then no one will listen to me, because no one thinks like that."

I personally find it hard to sympathise with anyone who thinks a woman should spend her entire public life in a garment bag. OK, maybe that's unfair, he didn't say BURKA, but the headscarf. But I still don't like it. If a woman WANT'S to wear it, fine. If you want to FORCE her, or coerce her, well, that's just too totalitarian for me.

And what is all this stuff about Mulims being "oppressed and tortured all over the world"? I keep hearing Muslims saying this. Yet if you type the words "Muslim" and "persecution" into a google search engine, you'll find it's MUSLIMS who are DOING the persecuting.

I've tried to be open minded to what this guy is doing. It's true that he condemns violence (at least, what I see printed in english indicates this). And he does say touchy, feely, new-agey things that sound nice. Fine. I guess.

But it's the rest of the stuff. It's his attitude towards non-muslims I don't like; his assumption that non-belivers need his brand of coke, or they are screwed.

Now in all fairness, fundamentalists of all religions have that in common; they think you should believe as they do, and live as they do. That is what I don't like about hard-core religion; it's leaders think they should do your thinking for you; I prefer to think for myself.

Ironically, Amr addresses this indirectly, in a video clip where he criticizes Arabs for not thinking:

Memri TV video clip

I find it ironic, because I believe it is the rigidity of Islam, the lack of questioning in the faith, that creates this climate of not-thinking. If you are taught not to question, then doesn't not-thinking follow as a consequence?

Mr. Khaled has a website, and some of his writtings are there translated into English. Consider this:

Mr. Amr Khaled’s Message to the World regarding the Danish Cartoons

I have to say, I really hated it. It came across as patronizing. There is that assumption, that we in the West must somehow respect the prophet Mohammed, as he does; that we NEED Mohammed, because we are obligated to respect him and his teachings.

News for the Muslim world: other religions exist. And many of us don't like YOURS, are not interested in practicing it, and don't admire it. I may tolerate it, it you don't shove it in my face. But I have my own life, culture and religious beliefs that suite me just fine, thank you. But is this good enough for Khaled? Consider this:

Amr Khaled: Our practical duty towards the Denmark-Issue

He warns of "evil hands":

...There are evil hands working forcefully to isolate Muslims from the rest of the world. Please understand this point clearly. Some hidden hands are working on increasing the gap between Muslims and the rest of the world, and preventing the peoples of the other nations to learn the true essence of Islam. When the great advancement in communication technology took place, the chances of communicating the true essence of Islam, its goodness and mercifulness to the rest of the world, increased dramatically. There was now more room for civilizations to communicate. Therefore, there were those who wanted Muslims to lose this opportunity, and so created disputes here and there among the two groups. What happened in Denmark and what happened previously in other places as well all aim at detaching Muslims from the rest of the world. The goal is that nothing but nasty information about Muslims should reach the rest of the world, while the goodness in them, and the great notions they live for must not be communicated to the West.

We are negligent and there are those who create disputes. Both what happened in London on the seventh of July, and the Danish caricatures represent extremism, and are leading the world into a pit of doom. They are hindering communication in order to prevent the Western nations from listening to what Muslims have to say.

As Muslims we have to ask ourselves, 'Are we going to allow ourselves to become isolated from the rest of the world?' This would not be in line with the essence of our faith, and would not allow us to communicate to the world the greatness of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). We must not miss the opportunity to communicate and merge. The ayah in which Allah says, what can be translated as, "… We have made you races and tribes that you may get mutually acquainted" (TMQ, 26:13) does not address Muslims only, but rather addresses humanity as a whole. This ayah calls for the interchange between civilizations and cultures, as well as benefiting from each other. We have a lot of goodness that we must communicate to the world...

Sounds "nice"... I guess... there's more... LOTS more. They guy's kinda long-winded. I'm not interested in his religion; the whole thing feels culty, and kinda creeps me out. He ends it with:

We will not accept a symbolic apology. We want them to take actions that prove their respect for the Prophet (SAWS).

THAT is where I have a real problem; that attitude, the assumption, that I have to respect his religion, and DO something to PROVE it. Is he abtuse? Is he unclear on the concept? I am NOT Muslim; it is NOT my religion. When you demand that others in public life treat your religion with the same respect that you do, you are imposing on them. When you ask me to treat your religion as my own, that's not respect, it's submission. That may make sense to Muslims in a Muslim world, where people are routinely FORCED to submit, but we live in a larger, more diverse world. If they are going to step outside of their self-imposed cult world, they had best learn to adapt.

The Danish cartoons were innocuous; there were also lies told about them and the Danish people, and fake ones far worse than the orgininals were added to them and then distrubuted in the middle east for propaganda purposes, to cause riots. Now they are being cynically used for political manipulation. If Amr Khaled is buying into this, riding this wave of deceit and using it to demand that the west change to suit Islam, then I have to wonder if he is a part of the problem.

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