Malaysian Reality Show Seeks Young Imam

The new Malaysian reality TV show Imam Muda will select a young leader in its season finale July 30. Throughout the season, contestants performed tasks like preparing bodies for burial and counseling unwed mothers. The prize is a job as an imam at one of the main mosques in the capital city. The show has become extremely popular among youth, and its Facebook page has nearly 45,000 fans. Robert Siegel talks to BBC reporter Jennifer Pak.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a new reality show is on the hunt, not for the next best singer or the best dancer or the best husband, but for the ideal imam.

(Soundbite of show, "Imam Muda")

Unidentified Woman: The search begins and 10 of the best candidates have been chosen.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken) "Imam Muda" unda(ph).

SIEGEL: The TV show is called "Imam Muda" or "Young Imam." And next Friday, the show's MC will pick the winner.

Reporter Jennifer Pak of the BBC has reported on this and she joins us now. And first of all, Jennifer, tell us, what will the winner get?

Ms. JENNIFER PAK (Reporter, BBC): The winner gets a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia, a car, a laptop. But the grand prize is a job will be waiting for them. They will become an imam at the end of their studies at one of the main mosques in Kuala Lumpur when they return.

SIEGEL: And who are these contestants?

Ms. PAK: These contestants are all under the age of 28 and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Among them, there was a farmer, an engineer and a bank officer.

SIEGEL: And the channel thats doing this is a religious channel in Malaysia.

Ms. PAK: It's a Muslim lifestyle channel that is promoting all sorts of these types of programs. But this is one of the first of its kind in the country, because while there have been reality searches for the best Quran reciter(ph), you know, the best singer, these do not hold a candle to what they're trying to achieve with this show because this person is actually going to become a very important Muslim figure in the community.

You know, some people might question that perhaps this is not the best way to look for a religious leader. But the show creators think that this is the best way to attract more young people to learn something about Islam. And perhaps, you know, attract more of them to come to the mosque.

SIEGEL: Now, when you say it's argued whether this is the best way to select a religious leader, it's not the audience thats going to select. It's not like "American Idol" or a program like that.

Ms. PAK: Thats right. It's not a popularity contest. And this is the way that the show is hoping to maintain the integrity of religion, if you will. Only the Islamic scholar, he is the only one who can decide who stays and who goes. And so, they're looking at whether this potential aspiring imam knows enough about Islamic theory.

But on the other hand, aside from that, whether they can really relate to young people and their problems. You know, for example, if you hear someone in the community is perhaps thinking about divorce, they want this potential imam to go in and counsel this couple right away, you know, rather than hanging back until this couple approaches them.

SIEGEL: Well, I watched a bit of this. And in addition to the scholar, the MC questioning the contestants, I've also seen them visit an orphanage and try out their skills at sermonizing or reading prayers. What are some other things they've actually been seen doing in the program?

Ms. PAK: Some of the other challenges include counseling unwed, pregnant teens, as well as talking to people who have joined motorcycle gangs, (unintelligible), which is a big problem in Malaysia, as well.

One of the weeks that I went to talk to them, they were showing the contestants showing up at a Halal slaughterhouse to see if the chickens were being, you know, killed according to Muslim law.

Usually, the decision of who becomes an imam takes place behind closed doors at the Religious Affairs Department or even inside the mosque. So this is a great insight to some people. And I've spoken to some fans who are, you know, well into their 40s and 50s, and they like the show because they think it's refreshing. Sometimes, it even helps refresh their Islamic knowledge.

SIEGEL: Well, Jennifer Pak, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Ms. PAK: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: So Jennifer Pak, who is the Malaysia, the Kuala Lampur reporter for the BBC, talking about the reality show "Young Imam" or "Imam Muda."

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