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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: It’s common to hear and read stories about Islamic fundamentalists and their rigid interpretation of the Qu’ran. But we have a story today about transformation in the Islamic Middle East — moderate Muslims challenging the fundamentalists. The contest is being played out on satellite TV channels where young Muslim televangelists are preaching a combination of piety and modern life. Kate Seelye has our special report from Cairo.
KATE SEELYE: At a cultural center in Cairo, there’s a buzz of excitement. Thousands of youth have gathered — but not for a concert or a play. They’ve come to hear a lecture by a young Muslim preacher.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Moez Masoud.
SEELYE: He’s 29-year-old Moez Masoud, a former advertising executive who turned to religion the death of several close friends. Masoud opens his lecture with a prayer and an appeal.
MOEZ MASOUD (Muslim Televangelist, speaking to audience, through translator): It’s not good to separate religion from life because life will turn into a jungle. Let’s take a closer look at religion and it won’t seem as so gloomy.
SEELYE: The audience is captivated by his message: it’s a call for compassion and love as well as tolerance.
Mr. MASOUD (speaking in Arabic to audience, through translator): Islam respects the principle of freedom of opinion, as long as the opinion is respectful of Islam.
SEELYE: Often referencing the Qu’ran, Masoud jumps from topic to topic. One moment he’s gently poking fun of religious fanatics, the next he’s talking about the beauty of art. Tonight he focuses on music. Is it allowed in the Qu’ran?
Mr. MASOUD (speaking in Arabic to audience, through translator): Is it really mentioned you shouldn’t play certain instruments? Or does it depend on the religious interpretation? There is a belief that certain instruments might be used for a good cause.
SEELYE: And then the highlight of the night: a musician comes on stage and sings about the beauty of marriage.
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN (singing in Arabic)
SEELYE: The audience loves it. Afterwards, many say Masoud’s message gives them hope.
MOHAMMED (through translator): I used to have some extremist ideas about faith, but when I heard Moez, so many things changed in my life. In my view so many things were wrong, wrong, wrong until I met him.
SEELYE: Masoud’s ideas are breath of fresh air for many young Arabs. In stark contrast to Islamist fundamentalists, he tells them they can be good Muslims and also enjoy life.
Mr. MASOUD: A lot of the Islamic faith is presented to them as only religious — meaning only outward things. It’s presented as a bunch of do’s and don’ts. And you know, with just globalization and a lot of the quote on quote, “Western culture” finding its way here, if Islam is not presented in its most expansive interpretation and really to just used, you know, every day in the coolest way possible, then there is no way people are going to approach it.
SEELYE: But Masoud doesn’t just encourage youth to believe, he also urges them to be active.
Mr. MASOUD: You’re also here to develop Earth and to make sure there’s charity and to make sure that everyone is eating and to make sure that there’s hospitals, and to just play God’s role on Earth.
SEELYE: Masoud began preaching about eight years ago after graduating from the American University of Cairo. In 2002, he landed his first TV show, but it was this program that introduced him to millions. “The Right Path” launched in 2007 on a popular religious satellite channel. Every week, Masoud travels the world, discussing issues like drugs and dating. He tries to help Muslim youth better understand the West. In one episode, he condemned the 2005 London bombings.
Mr. MASOUD (on “The Right Path,” speaking Arabic, through translator): The Qu’ran says the one who kills or spreads corruption, kills all humanity.
SEELYE: Masoud isn’t alone in calling for greater tolerance and reform. He’s one of a new wave of moderate Muslim preachers. Their goal: to mobilize Arabs and improve their societies. The most famous of them is Amr Khaled. Khaled started as an accountant but rose to fame about seven years ago with a TV show that encouraged piety and community activism. Khaled is now so popular in the Muslim world that his Web site gets more hits than Oprah Winfrey’s.
Abdullah Shleifer teaches media at the American University of Cairo. He says many young Muslims, like those at this university, don’t relate to traditional religious scholars. They’re turning to what Shleifer calls the “New Preachers” like Masoud and Khaled for guidance.
Professor ABDULLAH SHLEIFER (American University in Cairo): The new preachers share with their audience modernity. They have clarified, no doubt, their own inner discourse on how you can be moderates and pious. And by modern I don’t mean, you know, using appliances. I mean a modern lifestyle that at the same time is a pious lifestyle, you know. And that’s very difficult for people and particularly when you’re getting images coming in from MTV where modernity means anti-piety.
SEELYE: Shleifer says the new preachers are using a very modern tool to get their message across — satellite television. There are now more than 300 satellite channels in the Arab world. They reach tens of millions, and they’re allowing voices like Masoud’s and Khaled’s to target large numbers of people.
Amr Khaled’s latest show airs on this channel — Risala. It’s a new, 24-hour religious station run by Tarek Suweidan, a Kuwaiti cleric. It airs talk shows and religious call-in programs. Today Suweidan hosts a show called “Wasatiya”– “In the Middle.” Suweidan says Risala brings fresh voices and opinions to Arab audiences with a specific goal in mind.
Sheikh TAREK SUWEIDAN (Station Director, Risala): We want them to be more moderate. We want them to be more modern. The second thing that we would like to change is the interests. Many off our youth, their interest is marginal. They care about things that have no real effect in their lives, in the future, or the modernization of the Arab world.
SEELYE: Suweidan says Risala has the power to help transform the region.
Sheikh SUWEIDAN: Satellite TV is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the Islamic revival today.
SEELYE: And that revival is taking place against the backdrop of increased religious fervor here. In the past decade, mosque attendance has exploded. Most Muslim women have donned the headscarf. Some are even starting to wear the all enveloping niqab.
Widespread poverty, political stagnation, and loss of hope have all fed the boom in religion. In poor neighborhoods like these, fundamentalist imams are increasingly popular with their promises of a better afterlife. They are known as Salafis, and they’ve also benefited from the media revolution. The Salafis dominate the many religious channels in Egypt and preach a rigid morality as well as a paranoia about other faiths and cultures like this cleric, Mohammed Hassaan.
MOHAMMED HASSAN (on TV, speaking in Arabic, through translator): Recent events have been exploited by Jews and their supporters to stab Islam.
SEELYE: So in today’s Egypt who has the greatest impact — the fundamentalists or the new preachers? Khalil Anani is a scholar with the Al Ahram Institute and an expert on Islamist movements. He says the Salafis are very influential among the poor, but the new preachers also play an important role.
KHALIL ANANI (Al Ahram Institute): I think the main task off this new preacher phenomenon is to spread tolerance and the values of coexistence and to be civilized in your thinking. This is the most important benefit now to decrease the tension between the West and Islam.
SEELYE: But Anani doesn’t think the new preachers, like Moez Masoud, will have much lasting impact.
Mr. ANANI: They are a temporary phenomenon. They have no organizational or institutional bodies. They won’t be effective in the future of Egypt.
SEELYE: American University of Cairo professor Abdullah Shleifer strongly disagrees.
Prof. SHLEIFER: I don’t think Moez is a temporary phenomenon. I think his message so meets the growing concerns of this new young portion of the mainstream that is, is becoming the mainstream as they grow. He is in rapport actually, now with television, with millions and will be in rapport with still greater millions and this is not a passing fad. This is part of the transformation of Arab society.
SEELYE: Back in his Cairo apartment, Masoud relaxes with his guitar. He’s playing a song he wrote, “Coffee for the Heart.” It’s about spiritual rejuvenation.
Mr. MASOUD: So, what I’m doing right now is at least, you know, trying to put the light back into the attempts to religiously revive any thing because religion, when misunderstood, can take on a very dark form.
SEELYE: Masoud isn’t worried about the impact he’ll have. He’s pretty confident that with time more and more Muslims will discover what he calls “the right path.”
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kate Seelye in Cairo.