Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Asking difficult questions, seeking easy answers: The Amr Khaled Phenomenon

A recent New York Times Magazine article about the Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled has helped me understand his appeal to Muslims who did not grow up steeped in Islamic culture and scholarship. The biographical information about him explains how he can identify with the journeys of newly religious Muslims, ones who are searching for easy answers to complex questions about their existence and mission in life. It also explains why more scholarly, but equally westernized, Muslims of the same generation -- like Tariq Ramadan, who was quoted in the article -- feel that Khaled is evasive on all the truly difficult issues.

Most interesting in the article, however, was the report of Amr Khaled's own frustration when he visited Germany and tried to convince his audience that their primary goal is to integrate in their societies, interacting fruitfully with non-Muslims. All the proposals he heard had to do with teaching Arabic to new Muslim immigrants, and similar activities that had nothing to do with his main message. It reports some of his devotees challenging him on the message, which suggests that they may defect from his camp if he continues to push them on difficult issues. What they like is the use of modern methods and language (reformist language), assurance that they area adhering to traditional Islam (salafist language), and comforting spirituality (Sufi influence). When he tried to push them to think outside the box and explore difficult choices that they have to make as Muslims in the modern world. The reporter mentioned that Khaled asked her if she thinks that his audience understood what he was saying, saying that he thinks what he said didn't sink in.

So, here is the problem: even if you build your popularity and credibility with the masses through a combination of Joel Osteen and Dr. Phil methods, as the reporter described, you can't get the Muslim middle classes to address difficult questions that are important for their life in the modern world. How can we get them to think about religion not merely as a feel-good-about-yourself aid, but as a vehicle for social improvement and change?


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