In the conflict-ridden Middle East, a new breed of moderate Muslim televangelist is challenging Islamic fundamentalists, preaching a blend of piety and modernity over the airwaves of satellite TV.
Moez Masoud, a 29-year-old former advertising executive who turned to religion after the death of several close friends, is one of them.
“It's not good to separate religion from life because life will turn into a jungle,” he said at a recent appearance at a cultural center here. “Let's take a closer look at religion and it won't seem so gloomy.”
His message is a call for compassion, love, tolerance and respect. His talks cover multiple topics. Sometimes he may gently poke fun at religious fanatics, then turn to the beauty of art, such as whether the Quran allows music.
“Is it really mentioned you shouldn't play certain instruments?” he asks. “Or does it depend on the religious interpretation? There is a belief that certain instruments might be used for a good cause.” And then he brings a musician on stage to sing about the beauty of marriage.
Masoud's ideas are a breath of fresh air for many young Arabs. In stark contrast to Islamist fundamentalists, Masoud tells them they can be good Muslims and also enjoy life.
“I used to have some extremist ideas about faith,” one member of Masoud's audience told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, “but when I heard Moez, so many things changed in my life. In my view, so many things were wrong, wrong, until I met him.”
Masoud said too often the Islamic faith is presented to people “as only religious – meaning only outward things. It's presented as a bunch of do's and don'ts. And you know … if Islam is not presented in its most expansive interpretation and … in the coolest way possible, then there is no way people are going to approach it.”
Masoud began preaching about eight years ago after graduating from the American University of Cairo. He landed his first TV show in 2002, “The Right Path,” which launched in 2007 on a popular religious satellite channel, introducing him to millions of viewers.
Every week, Masoud travels the world, discussing issues like drugs and dating and tries to help young Muslims better understand the West. In one episode of “The Right Path,” he condemned the 2005 London terrorist bombings, saying, “The Quran says the one who kills or spreads corruption, kills all humanity.”
Masoud isn't alone in calling for greater tolerance and reform. He's one of a new wave of moderate Muslim preachers with the goal of mobilizing Arabs and improving their societies.
The most famous of the new preachers is Amr Khaled, who began as an accountant but rose to fame some seven years ago with a TV show that encouraged piety and community activism. His Web site (http://amrkhaled.net, click on “Languages” for English) is so popular that it gets more hits than Oprah Winfrey's.
Abdullah Shleifer, a professor of media at the American University in Cairo, said many young Muslims don't relate to traditional religious scholars. They're turning to what he calls the “new preachers” like Masoud and Khaled for guidance.
“The new preachers share with their audience modernity,” he said. “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. And that's very difficult for people and particularly when you're getting images coming in from MTV where modernity means anti-piety.”
They are also using a very modern tool – satellite television – to get their message across. There are now more than 300 satellite channels in the Arab world and they reach tens of millions of people, allowing preachers like Masoud and Khaled to target large numbers.
One of the channels, Risala, is a new 24-hour religious station that airs talk shows and religious call-in programs. Its director, Kuwaiti cleric Tarek Suweidan, says Risala wants to bring fresh voices and opinions to Arab audiences.
“We want them to be more moderate,” he said. “We want them to be more modern. The second thing we would like to change is the interests. Many of 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.”
The new moderate preachers are emerging in the midst of an Islamic religious revival, especially among the poor, that has seen mosque attendance boom and fundamentalist imams become increasingly popular with their promises of a better afterlife while preaching a rigid morality and paranoia about other faiths.
Experts disagree on the impact of the moderate preachers in the face of fundamentalism. Khalil Anani, a scholar with the Cairo-based Al Ahram Institute, thinks they are a temporary phenomenon because they have no organizational or institutional bodies.
“I think the main task of this new preacher phenomenon is to spread tolerance and the values of coexistence and to be civilized in your thinking,” Anani said. “This is the most important benefit now, to decrease the tension between the West and Islam.”
But Shleifer, of the American University, strongly disagrees. Masoud, he said, has a message that meets the concerns of the growing mainstream.
“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,” he said. “This is part of the transformation of Arab society.”