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An Egyptian accountant turned preaching sensation brings his charismatic brand of hopeful, tolerant Islam to Houston
Joy rather than jihad

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

April 23, 2008, 11:30PM


The superstar preacher dresses in designer business suits and open-collared shirts. His best-selling self-help books, videos and CDs tout the power of a positive attitude. On his TV shows, he moves listeners to tears with promises of God's redeeming love.

Muslim "televangelist" Amr Khaled has more in common with Houston's own Joel Osteen than the stereotypical turbaned cleric calling for jihad against the West. The charismatic 40-year-old accountant from Egypt skyrocketed to celebrity in the Mideast by pioneering a trendy, upbeat brand of Islamic preaching that appealed to well-to-do women and youths.

A self-described moderate Muslim from a secular, middle-class household, Khaled rediscovered his own faith as a teen. Now he uses his public appearances and television shows — broadcast on Arabic-language satellite TV — to condemn terrorism and highlight Islam's tolerant side.

On Wednesday, he brought his message to Houston, where 300 people at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy heard him speak about women's rights in the Mideast. It was the third trip to the U.S. in less than a year for a man named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Denounces terrorism

Speaking in English and Arabic, Khaled drew laughter and applause when he said, "There aren't any human rights to start with in the Middle East, let alone women's rights."

Women do face great oppression in the Muslim world, he said, but the reason for that oppression is misguided and outdated cultural traditions, not true Islam. "Women in the Middle East are ready to work and participate in society if we give them the chance," Khaled said.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Khaled was quick to denounce the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bombing of the London Underground in 2005. He said he believes Muslims and non-Muslims have two options: a clash of civilizations or coexistence through dialogue.

"The Islamic religion invites us to coexistence," Khaled said. "I believe in coexistence because I believe in the Quran. The Quran said God created you in different colors, languages, cultures to get to know each other and to exchange benefits between you. This is Quran. So this is my main message to the world, that this religion believes differences will make the world more rich."

At the same time, the Quran teaches that people should not impose their own culture or ideas on others, he said.

"This means for all of us," he said. "For you and for the Muslims as well."

Khaled started preaching at private homes and clubs in Cairo in the late 1990s. He quickly became a sensation. Tens of thousands flocked to mosques to hear him deliver sermons in the colloquial slang of Egyptian youths on everything from the life of the Prophet Muhammad to the importance of daily prayer, family relationships, social responsibility and sexual abstinence before marriage.

"I told them there is no clash between your faith and your modern life," Khaled said. "On the contrary, your faith has to encourage you to success in your life."

Internet, satellite TV

His message drew followers who found themselves struggling to balance their increasingly Westernized lifestyles with the powerful pull of a regional Islamic revival.

But his growing influence unnerved the country's authorities, who banned him from preaching in his native land in 2002. Khaled moved to Lebanon and then England, where he continued his ministry via the Internet and satellite TV.

Already a star in the Arab world, he gained popularity in Europe and Canada as young Muslims tuned into his talk-show style TV programs Life Makers and In the Steps of the Prophet, or listened to recordings of sermons online.

A few years ago, he opened the faith-based Right Start foundation to coordinate his millions of viewers in campaigns against smoking and drugs, literacy classes, small business job-creation and clothing drives for the poor.

"The Arab and Muslim youth are a big number, and if you leave them without jobs and without hope, they will go to the extremists or to drugs," Khaled said. "That's why it's important to get them involved in positive activities."

"He's really creating a born-again movement in Islam," said John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. "He is a critic of society but he is not calling for jihad. Instead what he's offering is a good, simple program, telling people if you really want to change all of society, the place where you can most effectively start is by changing your own life."

'He reaches out'

Khaled's fame has started to reach American Muslims through word of mouth, said Shariq Abdul Ghani, 26, who heads the Crescent Youth organization in Houston.

"He's smooth, very smooth," said Ghani, who has seen Khaled preach on YouTube and DVD. "The advantage he has over traditional scholars is the fact that not only does he reach a greater audience because he uses the mass media, but his approach and his style is a little more friendly. He reaches out to the common man and because of that he really is able to touch people and empower them."

Some intellectuals and sheikhs dismiss Khaled for hawking what they describe as "Islam-lite" or "Reader's Digest Islam," but Sherif Zaafran said there's a reason Khaled's preaching resonates with so many like him. The 37-year-old Houston physician and his friends arrived early to the invitation-only event at Rice to make sure they snagged seats.

"It's a positive message, a message of hope," Zaafran said. "That's very rare coming from the Middle East these days." 

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