Moderate Islam Gains an Audience

Stephen DeAngelis

January 15, 2009

Despite protests from many Muslims that violent zealots don’t accurately represent Islam, fringe believers, who carry out nefarious acts in the name of their faith, have given Islam a black eye. The problem has been that the moderate voice of Islam has not had a spokesman — at least not one who could gain enough attention to make a difference. According to Robert F. Worth, that may be changing [“Preaching Moderate Islam and Becoming a TV Star,” New York Times, 2 January 2009]. Worth begins his report in an auditorium in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

 

As Ahmad al-Shugairi took the stage, dressed in a flowing white gown and headdress, he clutched a microphone and told his audience that he had no religious training or titles: ‘I am not a sheik.’ But over the next two hours, he worked the crowd as masterfully as any preacher, drawing rounds of uproarious laughter and, as he recalled the Prophet Muhammad’s death, silent tears. He spoke against sectarianism. He made pleas for women to be treated as equals. He talked about his own life — his seven wild years in California, his divorce, his children — and gently satirized Arab mores. When he finished, the packed concert hall erupted in a wild standing ovation. Members of his entourage soon bundled him through the thick crowd of admirers to a back door, where they rushed through the darkness to a waiting car. ‘Elvis has left the building,’ Mr. Shugairi joked, in English, as he relaxed into his seat.”

 

Two things struck me as I read Worth’s opening paragraph. First, American culture (i.e., the reference to Elvis) has touched most parts of the globe; and, second, televangelism has become a worldwide phenomenon. It won’t be long before “prosperity” mosques are constructed to hold the raucous crowds coming to hear self-help messages based on Koranic teachings. Worth goes on to report that Shugairi is not the lone Muslim televangelist.

 

Mr. Shugairi is a rising star in a new generation of ‘satellite sheiks’ whose religion-themed television shows have helped fuel a religious revival across the Arab world. Over the past decade, the number of satellite channels devoted exclusively to religion has risen from 1 to more than 30, and religious programming on general interest stations, like the one that features Mr. Shugairi’s show, has soared. Mr. Shugairi and others like him have succeeded by appealing to a young audience that is hungry for religious identity but deeply alienated from both politics and the traditional religious establishment, especially in the fundamentalist forms now common in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In part, that is a matter of style: a handsome, athletically built 35-year-old, Mr. Shugairi effortlessly mixes deep religious commitment with hip, playful humor. He earned an M.B.A. during his California years, and he sometimes refers to Islam as ‘an excellent product that needs better packaging.’ But his message of sincere religious moderation is tremendously powerful here. For young Arabs, he offers a way to reconcile a world painfully divided between East and West, pleasure and duty, the rigor of the mosque and the baffling freedoms of the Internet.”

 

This is a story that played out in similarly in America beginning in the 1960s, when some churches began conducting folk masses to attract young people and mega-churches began hiring rock bands to play contemporary Christian music. The challenge has been more severe, however, in the Islamic world. For decades, headlines have been captured by religious zealots more interested in thrusting the Islamic world back into the fourteenth century than propelling it ahead to the twenty-first. Young believers began wondering why something labeled the religion of peace had become so bloody. They wondered how a religion that has fostered poetry, architecture, and mathematics could now be more associated with bombs, beheadings, and backwardness. That’s the great attraction of those preaching a moderate form of Islam; they reaffirm the good and peaceable tenets of the faith.

 

“‘[Mr Shugairi] makes us attached to religion — sometimes with our modern life we get detached,’ said Imma al-Khalidi, a 25-year-old Saudi who burst into tears when Mr. Shugairi, uneasy with his rock-star departure from the auditorium, returned to the hall to chat with a group of black-clad and veiled young women. … Mr. Shugairi is not the first of his kind. Amr Khaled, an Egyptian televangelist, began reaching large audiences eight years ago. But the field has expanded greatly, with each new figure creating Internet sites and Facebook groups where tens of thousands of fans trade epiphanies and links to YouTube clips of their favorite preachers. Mr. Shugairi’s main TV program, ‘Khawater’ (‘Thoughts’), could not be more different from the dry lecturing style of so many Muslim clerics. In one episode on literacy, the camera follows Mr. Shugairi as he wanders through Jidda asking people where to find a public library (no one knows). In another, he pokes through a trash bin, pointing to mounds of rotting rice and hummus that could have been donated for the poor. He even sets up ‘Candid Camera’-style gags, confronting people who pocket a wallet from the pavement and asking them if the Prophet Muhammad would have done the same. At times, his program resembles an American civics class disguised as religion, complete with lessons on environmental awareness and responsible driving.”

 

Mr. Shugairi confirms what most people inherently understand — people are hungry for messages of hope. They want to hear that people are basically good and that helping others is the highest service they can offer their God. People also like to laugh and experience joy. Not everyone, Worth reports, is receiving Islamic televangelists with open arms.

 

Inevitably, hard-line clerics dismiss Mr. Shugairi as a lightweight who toadies to the West. From the other side, some liberals lament that Mr. Shugairi and the other satellite sheiks are Islamizing the secular elite of the Arab world.”

 

The same reaction has been heard in America where feel-good preachers like Joel Osteen have been criticized by more fundamentalist preachers as shallow. Worth goes on to point out that there is another side of the televangelist scene as well — it involves the zealots who gain an on-air following.

 

While most of these broadcast preachers, including Mr. Shugairi, promote a moderate and inclusive strain of Islam, others do not. There are few controls in the world of satellite television, where virtually anyone can take to the air and preach as he likes on one of hundreds of channels. Moreover, some observers fear that the growing prevalence of Islam on the airwaves and the Internet could make moderates like Mr. Shugairi steppingstones toward more extreme figures, who are never more than a mouse-click or a channel-surf away. ‘There is no one with any real authority, they can say whatever they want to say, and the accessibility of these sheiks is 24/7,’ said Hussein Amin, a professor at the American University in Cairo. ‘That’s why so many who were liberals are now conservatives, and those who were conservatives are now radicals.’ Mr. Shugairi and others like him, including the popular Egyptian television preacher Moez Masoud, counter that their moderate message is the best way to fight Islamic extremism. Forging that middle path, they say, is essential at a time when many young Arabs feel caught between an angry fundamentalism on the one hand and a rootless secularism on the other.”

 

While there are always concerns about allowing hate-filled radicals access to a bully pulpit, that is one of the costs of freedom. There have been neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups in America preaching their malicious theories since the Civil War. Many of them now use every form of media to preach their poison. A certain number of alienated people are attracted to such groups, but the majority of people are revulsed by such messages. That’s why I’m not as concerned about the rise of televangelism in the Middle East as some might be. The majority of the people there will attracted to moderate messages and will gain strength from knowing that many others believe as they do.

 

Bakr Azam is one of them. Like many of Mr. Shugairi’s fans, he received a dry, pitiless religious education that left him feeling resentful and hungry for something different. ‘In high school, the way they taught us religion was very white and black,’ said Mr. Azam, a 28-year-old Saudi who works as a recruiter for Toyota. ‘You always felt you were doing something wrong, and it drove a lot of people away.’ It drove Mr. Azam farther away than most. After moving to the United States for college in 1997, he more or less gave up on Islam entirely. He moved back here in 2001, a hip-hop fan with dyed red hair, a love for parties and no interest in religion. But something was missing. In 2004, he happened to see one of Mr. Shugairi’s programs on TV, and he was mesmerized. Here was a man who had lived in the West and yet spoke of the Koran as a modern ethical guidebook, not a harsh set of medieval rules. He seemed to be saying you could enjoy yourself, retain your independence and at the same time be a good Muslim.”

 

Every reformation is difficult and Islam’s will be no easier than Christianity’s. Mr. Azam’s life was certainly not made easier by accepting Mr. Shugairi’s message — he ended up separating from his wife because she wouldn’t wear a head scarf. As the reformation continues, priorities will likely change among believers (e.g., maintaining family unity through tolerance will likely been viewed as more important than wearing a headscarf). However, reformations take decades — even centuries — and Islam’s reformation can’t be rushed. The openness represented by Islamic televangelists, however, is a good thing and a step in the direction of ensuring that the Muslim world remains a part of global scene even after the age of oil has passed. This will be important because much of world’s wealth will still be found in the Middle East. As a result, an Islamic reformation will likely mean that the Middle East will once again become a center of learning and art.