Islam as a Lifestyle Choice
The Effects of the Islamic Media Revolution
The renewal that Amr Khaled is trying to achieve is that of the Islamic Ummah, which explains why the candidates are not asked to rehearse new pop songs or pass tests of courage. Instead, they are required to do something useful for society, such as renovating a school or developing a campaign that will encourage young Muslims to use the internet in a more responsible way. The teams are Islamically correct in that the candidates are divided up into a men’s team and a women’s team. All sixteen candidates are very devout and consider themselves to be part of the ‘Sahwa Awakening Movement’. What’s more, they are also successful in what they do. There is a woman dentist from Saudi Arabia, an Egyptian who found her own way out of unemployment, and a young man who has set up his own wedding agency in Saudi Arabia. The aim of the show is to create role models. There are no reliable figures about how many people watch the show, but one thing is certain: The Renewers is a huge success. The show could mean a comeback for Amr Khaled.
The rise and fall of Amr Khaled
After his meteoric rise as a star preacher, Amr Khaled’s popularity had dropped considerably in recent years. His programmes during Ramadan, which were massive hits at the turn of the century, were not as successful between 2006 and 2008. Even dedicated fans began to find him aloof. His series for Ramadan 2009, on the other hand, was very well received. In this series, he focussed on the life of the prophet Moses, relating episodes from his life in the locations where they actually took place. Both the Moses stories and The Renewers have put him back in the headlines, especially because the Egyptian government refused him a permit to film in Egypt. They obviously assumed that parallels would be drawn between the current political dispute between the Egyptian government and the Islamist opposition, and the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh. Although rumours about Khaled’s expulsion from Egypt were denied, he once again moved his place of residence to England. The scandal has not had a negative effect on his popularity. On the contrary, the dispute with the government gives him credibility.
Amr Khaled has been in the television business for over a decade. He was one of the people who developed the Islamic entertainment genre and has, therefore, shaped a generation. If one looks at young people not only in Egypt but also in the Gulf states and Europe, it is clear that Amr Khaled and others like him have succeeded in doing what they set out to achieve. Nowadays, there are hardly any young Muslims who are not devout, who do not pray, or who don’t wear the new religious accessories: a fashionable headscarf, a prayer mark, and a neatly trimmed beard. A new study by the National Population Council based on a survey of 15,000 young Egyptians under the age of twenty-nine discovered that only 0.5 per cent of Muslim girls of a headscarf-wearing age do not wear the hijab.
The Islam TV boom
When Amr Khaled began preaching in the middle-class district of Mohandessin in 1997, there was just one Islamic television channel, the Saudi-funded Iqraa. Together with his then producer, Ahmed Abu Haiba, Khaled developed his first television show. His guests were young film stars who explained why they gave up their careers for their religion. Khaled then refined the narrative genre in television: he began reporting about the Prophet and his followers as if he had been there in person. By giving examples and using colloquial Egyptian Arabic, he managed to relate the story of the Prophet to the lives of his viewers. What was important was that the stories touched viewers’ hearts and that they were allowed to cry. The Islam he preaches is a hands-on Islam. The message he propagates is that instead of waiting for the government to do something for them, young people should take their lives into their own hands and do something for society.
Khaled, a qualified book-keeper, was the first of the ‘Dawiin al Gudud’, the new preachers. However, imitators and like-minded people with their own target groups quickly appeared on the scene. Moez Massoud, for example, focussed more on teenagers in private schools, while Khaled al Guindy turned his attention to a more conventional audience. The religious establishment initially ignored the trend and then began to criticise it, saying that people who do not have the requisite training should not make statements about Islam. For their part, the new preachers emphasised that they had no intention of issuing fatwas and that they are ‘inviting’ people to religion. ‘We reacted to this development much too late,’ admits Sheikh Salim al Guindy. He describes himself as the traditional religious Azhar University’s answer to the new preachers. The eloquent scholar appears in television shows. His appearance and his message are similar to those of the new preachers. By taking this step, the officials are indirectly legitimising their lay competition. After all, many viewers argue that if al Azhar is doing the same as the lay preachers, the latter can’t be all that bad.
However, it is not just the number of preachers that has multiplied over the course of the past decade; more than forty Islamic television channels are now vying for the viewers’ attention. Most of these channels were established on the initiative of wealthy business people and governments. At a time when relations between the West and Islam were at a low, they wanted to improve the image of Islam. Others target young people in the Arab world. All of these television channels have one thing in common: they want to communicate ‘the correct’ Islam to their viewers and seek to educate them – a goal that some manage to conceal better than others beneath a layer of entertainment.
‘I am very disappointed when I watch a lot of these programmes. They are incredibly badly made: just a bearded man sitting in a cheaply decorated studio waffling on about something boring. That was exactly the kind of thing we wanted to do away with,’ says Ahmed Abu Haiba. Amr Khaled’s former producer describes himself as the inventor of the new Islamic media. For a time he managed the Muslim Brotherhood project ‘Al Risala’ (‘The Message’), which was launched in 2006. ‘Our intention was to create a channel for young people, but surveys showed that all our viewers were over the age of forty. When I heard that, I came to the conclusion that we were doing something wrong,’ says Abu Haiba. This is why he founded 4Shbab a year ago. 4Shbab (which means ‘For young people’) broadcasts Islamically-correct video clips, game shows, and discussions twenty-four hours a day. Abu Haiba considers the station to be the obvious next step in the development of his experiences: ‘We don’t want to make religious programmes because they would only be watched by young people who are interested in religion. We are making entertainment for all people; the only difference being that our entertainment transmits values.’ He goes on to say that the Islamic media have not yet reached maturity and are continually developing. In the early phase of their development, it was frowned upon that musicians like Sami Youssef allowed themselves to be celebrated like stars and became wealthy. Islamically correct music, it was felt, should also find expression in the humility of the performers. ‘Many have changed their minds in this regard,’ says Abu Haiba. ‘The Islamic media now offer new stars: they are fantastic singers and exemplary Muslims at the same time. It is right that our young people take them as role models.’
4Shbab produces most of its programmes in Cairo. Nevertheless, a relatively large number of its presenters speak with Gulf accents. This is a nod to the station’s Saudi backers. Because the station does not have a licence to broadcast in Egypt, its programmes are uplinked from Bahrain. Abu Haiba assumes that the broadcasting ban is the result of bias on the part of the Egyptian government, which would rather favour the strictly religious Salafist broadcasters. The reason for this is that, unlike 4Shbab, channels such as Al Nas and al Rahma, which are allowed to broadcast, have steered well clear of political issues. It is true that women’s issues and family matters dominate the sermons and call-ins organised by these channels, which propagate an Islam that is not very tolerant and is faithful to the letter of the Koran. Abu Haiba feels that the over-supply of channels of this kind is down to the many financial backers in the region: anyone who is anyone in the Gulf invests in a television channel. With the exception perhaps of Al Nas, however, none of the channels has a particularly large fan base.
Ten years of Islamic media have shaped a generation. Abu Haiba is proud of this fact: ‘We have succeeded in establishing Islam as a lifestyle,’ he says. For many, however, Islam is above all a fashionable accessory. ‘As long as the girls are more enthusiastic about shopping for headscarves than about praying at dawn, we have not yet reached our goal.’ Islamicisation, he says, is a process that involves numerous stages; to date, only a fraction of young people have got past the stage of outward piety and are working on deepening and implementing the values.
Education instead of the Koran
Mohammed Hamed, another of the founders of the pop Islam movement, is more sceptical. He feels that reducing religiousness to external characteristics damages the movement: ‘This is why many girls from the educated classes have taken off their headscarves again,’ he says. They opted for Islam because they wanted a better life. ‘But they realised that it was only ever about the headscarf and whose hand you should shake and whose you shouldn’t. They were disappointed. That was not what they gave up their former lives with travel and freedom for,’ says Hamed. Just under ten years ago, he opened centres for learning the Koran by heart right across the country. Since then, these centres have also started offering courses in social sciences and computer literacy. Says Hamed: ‘We found out that learning the Koran by heart alone does not improve society.’ Above all, he feels that people have to become better, more educated people.And what about Amr Khaled? The superstar among Islamic preachers has learned from experience and is reacting to criticism by producing The Renewers. He offers a professionally produced entertainment programme that both addresses society’s problems and involves well-qualified, successful, yet devout Muslims, showing that they are the ones who have to take the Sahwa forward. However, the most innovative thing about The Renewers is that it is not ultimately about one candidate walking away with prize money. In an interview with the newspaper Masry al Yaum, Amr Khaled said that at forty-two years of age, he is starting to get too old to represent young people. In short, he is looking for a successor.
is a Cairo-based German journalist.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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