WASHINGTON — The rhythmic clapping began the minute Amr Khaled stepped into the packed ballroom. Surrounded by security guards, the Egyptian preacher had to weave his way through the crowd — men both clean-shaven and bearded, women both fashionably coifed and dressed in conservative Islamic dress — that had come from up and down the East Coast to hear him. Two massive screens projected his image to those in the back.
“My goal is that you leave happy,” Khaled began softly, once he finally got to the lectern. “My goal is to fulfill the hadith of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that says, `Whoever puts joy in the hearts of the believers, his reward is not less than Paradise.’”
The rock-star preacher in the designer suit, often called “the anti-bin Laden,” had arrived in America with his new brand of upbeat, feel-good Islam.
For American Muslims beset by the tensions of the post-Sept. 11 world, Khaled tried to bridge the gap between conflicting allegiances, notably their U.S. citizenship and their fury at U.S. policy in Iraq and other Muslim countries.
“I feel what 9/11 has done to you. You are all crying aloud: ‘This is not Islam. We reject this,’” he said at the appearance in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America. “At the same time, we don’t agree with what is happening in Iraq. We feel confusion, pain.
“You came to this country to provide for your families. Do we isolate ourselves from society? Or do we completely assimilate and forget our faith and our background? Do we hate the society we live in? No. The prophet Muhammad taught us kindness, justice, mercy, coexistence with others, that God created us different so that we can get to know one another.”
In speeches and appearances throughout his first trip to the United States, in May, Khaled spoke consistently of compromise and coexistence.
“My message is: Please be rightful representatives for your religion,” he said in an interview. “Please show people here your good manners, your attitude of hard work, how you can succeed in this society, what you can add, your positive integration while maintaining pride in Islam — so people know how really great this religion is.”
The message resonates. Over the past decade, Khaled has emerged as the top-ranked televangelist in the Arab world, likened to tele-megastars Joel Osteen and Dr. Phil. His appearances are uploaded on YouTube. His Web site, in 18 languages, gets tens of millions of hits. This year, he ranked 62nd on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In programs broadcast worldwide on four satellite stations, Khaled has also revolutionized the way Islam is ministered and the focus of the faith’s message. He tells folksy tales of the prophet adapted to modern life. Wearing a mustache but no beard, sometimes dressed in jeans instead of the trademark robe of Islam’s clerics, he reaches out to the young and encourages women.
“His spirituality is very raw. It’s fresh. You don’t feel like it’s artificial or old. When he prays, he gets emotional and his voice changes,” said Hadia Mubarak, former president of the national Muslim Students’ Association in the United States. “He even attracts females who wear jeans, tank tops, don’t cover their hair — and don’t normally go to mosque. The content of his talks is geared to day-to-day practical advice. ... He’ll say go to your closet and see what clothes and things you haven’t used and send them to this address, or create a food bank in your community.”
In his 50-episode “Life-Makers” series of television lectures, Khaled presses for proactive good deeds and self-help in the Arab world, from teaching the illiterate to fixing potholes. He has been quick to publicly condemn terrorism, including the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the 2005 bombings of the London Underground.
If his message about practical daily matters is unconventional, his path to the Muslim ministry borders on the bizarre. Khaled was working with Pepsi and Colgate at Egypt’s biggest accounting agency in 1997 when a friend asked him to substitute for a local preacher who couldn’t make an engagement at the Egyptian Shooting Club. His comfortable folksiness led to invitations at other clubs, then theaters and, finally, for his own television show.
Khaled, 40, married with two young boys, is widely criticized by clerics for having no serious religious training and speaking in simplistic terms. He is working on a doctorate in Islamic studies at the University of Wales, which has fueled criticism about his Westernized Islam.
Yet Khaled’s following challenges political and religious leaders in the Middle East worried about both the emergence of politicized Islam and a younger generation of leaders offering alternative worldviews.
His appearances in Egypt were monitored by government security officials; as even secular parts of society began showing up to hear him, he came under pressure not to speak publicly at all. Khaled fled first to Lebanon, then to London. Even then, his appeal did not diminish.
“His popularity in the Arab world is unrivaled,” Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, wrote in his recent book “Journey Into Islam,” based on polls he took in the Islamic world. “He is able to instill pride and happiness in people for being Muslim and has helped strengthen faith in Islam at a time when it is thought to be under assault by Westernization, secularism and nationalism.”
Khaled’s fame spread to the West after the controversial 2005 publication of 12 Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad, which sparked protests in Europe and Asia and more than 100 deaths. Khaled organized a conference on coexistence in Denmark four months later, a move widely condemned by leading clerics.
His main rival is Youssef al-Qaradawi, a fiery octogenarian cleric trained at Egypt’s famed al-Azhar seminary who has enormous standing among Muslim clerics. On al-Jazeera, where he is broadcast, al-Qaradawi rebuked Khaled for the Denmark conference.
“You have to have common ground to have dialogue with your enemy,” al-Qaradawi said. “But after insulting what is sacred to me, they should apologize.”
Secular critics say Khaled is fostering a religious revival rather than modern reform. Wael Abbas, a leading Egyptian blogger, said Khaled is “charismatic and the girls like him. But Egypt is becoming more conservative as a result of him. More girls have started to wear veils.”
True, say others, but at least the scarves are pink instead of black, and the young women are wearing them on college campuses where they are studying to be engineers and writers and teachers.
“The fact that he has no training has actually given him additional legitimacy, as people are tired of the traditional clergy who have not kept up with the current dilemmas facing the young and who present Islam in ways that are archaic and boring,” said Radwan Masmoudi, head of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington.
The question now is whether Khaled represents a fad or an enduring trend. Khaled is most popular among the middle and upper classes. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper described him as a “Pied Piper” leading Arab youth “to an unknown destination — much to the discontent of the town elders."