Islamic Televangelists Draw Acolytes, Critics Religion and television have been a powerful combination in the United States, and the same thing is true in the Middle East. Arab channel surfers looking for a dose of Islamic preaching needn't look far.
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Islamic Televangelists Draw Acolytes, Critics

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Islamic Televangelists Draw Acolytes, Critics

Islamic Televangelists Draw Acolytes, Critics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SAMI YUSUF (Islamic Singer): We once had a teacher, a teacher of teachers.

CHADWICK: The Islamic music of Sami Yusuf, a popular singer made more famous by his music videos that blend MTV style with religious themes, watched by Arabs around the world. Now Arab television is copying another Western TV phenomenon, the televangelist. In the final part of our series on the Arab media, NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Arab channel surfers looking for a dose of Islamic preaching need not surf far.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: There are dozens of channels to choose from. The militant Shiite group Hezbollah runs a satellite channel that airs a mix of news, entertainment and calls for jihad against America and Israel. One MTV-style video shows the Statue of Liberty dripping in blood, a knife in her hand instead of a torch.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: Other channels feature a retinue of Islamic preachers, old men with long beards and stern faces who warn of God's retribution. But there's one channel that's different. It stars a 38-year-old former accountant from Egypt.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: Amr Khaled has thinning black hair and big expressive eyes. Instead of a long tunic, he wears Western-style suits. The set of his show, "Words From the Heart," is sleek and modern. It looks more like the set of an American happy chat show than an Egyptian program about Islam.

Mr. AMR KHALED (Islamic Televangelist): (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: `My goal,' says Amr Khaled, `is to make young people love religion instead of hating it.'

Khaled speaks colloquial street Arabic. And instead of lofty theological discourses, his sermons--or what might better be described as Islamic rap sessions--deal with everyday topics: dating, family life, drug use.

Ms. LINDSAY WISE(ph): I think in some ways he's a cross between Dr. Phil and Billy Graham.

WEINER: Lindsay Wise, an American living in Cairo, has studied the Amr Khaled phenomenon for years.

Ms. WISE: He tends to really emphasize Islam as something trendy, something very cool, something productive and positive. He has a very warm style, although sometimes people think he gets overexcited and gets a little bit screechy.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: Khaled's TV producer acknowledges that he was inspired in part by watching Christian televangelists in the US. The parallels are hard to miss. There's the simple uplifting message, the energetic pacing and the merchandise: T-shirts, key chains and stickers bearing the logo of his most popular show.

Amr Khaled is clearly onto something. In a few short years, he's achieved fame of Oprah proportions. His Web site is the most popular Islamic site in the world. His satellite TV shows are watched by millions of Arabs from Morocco to Gaza. A Jordanian company is even making Amr Khaled's sermons available via cell phone, for a fee, of course. He's especially popular with the middle and upper classes, like those who attend elite universities.

So we're in this beautiful courtyard at American University in Cairo. And you see a lot of students in blue jeans, but also a fair number of women in the the hijab with their head covered. Would you have seen that when you were a student here?

SHAREEN BAYOUMI(ph) (NPR Interpreter; Former American University Student): You would have seen some students with hijab, absolutely, but not to this scale at all. That has changed a lot.

WEINER: That's Shareen Bayoumi, a former student at the American University and now an NPR interpreter in Cairo. We walk over to a table of students, women, all wearing hijab. One of them, Nora Alad(ph), said she was never particularly religious until she began watching Amr Khaled's TV show.

Ms. NORA ALAD (Student): Well, the fact that he's younger than all the other Islamic sheiks and that's making him more popular among younger people. And he understands exactly what we're going through and he knows how to talk to us in our language.

WEINER: In fact, Amr Khaled has contributed to the advent of born-again, or what people here call veiled-again, Muslims, an entire generation of Egyptians who are often more religious than their parents. Lila Fadah Agareitly(ph) is in her early 20s and covered in an especially modest hijab. Not that long ago, she says, she dressed like an American teen-ager.

Ms. LILA FADAH AGAREITLY: Jeans, T-shirts, swimming suits, the usual.

WEINER: Was it like one day you woke up and said, `I'm going to wear hijab?'

Ms. AGAREITLY: No. I started like reading in my religion and understanding it more. And I found that there are many misconceptions and we understood our religion in the wrong way. And that was a major go-back. So I started learning it the right way and I discovered it's so easy to follow it. And it's so--now it's so good.

WEINER: Amr Khaled does have his critics, though, and they come from both ends of the religious spectrum. Secular Arabs worry that he may not be as moderate as he sounds. Khaled has consistently condemned violent attacks in the name of Islam, including the London bombings of two weeks ago, but still, they worry that he is, as some call him, the smiling face of extremism. More conservative Muslims also have their concerns. Some accuse Khaled of hawking a dumbed-down version of Islam, Islam light.

Ms. DALIA YUSUF (Islam Online): Personally, no, I don't like to be one of his audience.

WEINER: That's Dalia Yusuf. You would think she'd be a huge Amr Khaled fan. She's a devout Muslim. Her head's covered in the hijab. She works at a Web site called Islam Online, but she's suspicious of Amr Khaled and the cult of personality that's grown around him.

Ms. YUSUF: One of the most important criticisms of the Islamic movement was that, just the people follow without any kind of awareness or enlightenment of independency. So again, we don't want, like, another way of following the leaders blindly.

WEINER: Others worry that Amr Khaled has political ambitions. Lyle Nowara(ph) is an activist with an Egyptian opposition party.

Mr. LYLE NOWARA (Activist): He doesn't talk today about religion anymore. He talks about unemployment. He talks about the 80 million people for whom we have to create work. He talks about being positive and taking positive step to mend what's been broken. So this is someone who prepares himself for a political endeavor. I'm certain of this.

WEINER: Amr Khaled insists he has no desire to enter politics, but the Egyptian government is clearly worried about his enormous popularity. Three years ago, it banned him from preaching and asked him to leave the country. He now lives in England. But these days, it's difficult to truly exile a media star like Amr Khaled. His satellite TV shows and Internet sites are more popular than ever, despite the government ban or perhaps because of it. None of this, says Khaled, should worry the Egyptian government or the West. In fact, Khaled's friend and producer, Ahmed Abu Haiba, says the US should be encouraged by the rise of moderate Muslim voices like Amr Khaled.

Mr. AHMED ABU HAIBA (TV Producer): I believe that if the Islamic strength or if this Islamic values that we are promoting now on television starting to be in the day life of the people, I believe that the Western culture will find a very good partner to share.

WEINER: Eric Weiner, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And Eric's series this week on Arab media was produced by DAY TO DAY'S Martha Little. You can hear more and see more at our Web site,

DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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