January 3, 2009
Preaching Moderate Islam and Becoming a TV Star
By ROBERT F. WORTH
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — As Ahmad al-Shugairi took the stage, dressed in a flowing white gown and headdress, he clutched a microphone and told his audience that he had no religious training or titles: “I am not a sheik.”
But over the next two hours, he worked the crowd as masterfully as any preacher, drawing rounds of uproarious laughter and, as he recalled the Prophet Muhammad’s death, silent tears. He spoke against sectarianism. He made pleas for women to be treated as equals. He talked about his own life — his seven wild years in California, his divorce, his children — and gently satirized Arab mores.
Sounds like he is somewhere between a televangelist (although not so conservative) and a pundit, while avoiding any distinctly religious titles for himself. Perhaps more in line with 18th and 19th century revivalists, who also took advantage of recent technology and sought to "repackage" their product:
Mr. Shugairi is a rising star in a new generation of “satellite sheiks” whose religion-themed television shows have helped fuel a religious revival across the Arab world. Over the past decade, the number of satellite channels devoted exclusively to religion has risen from 1 to more than 30, and religious programming on general interest stations, like the one that features Mr. Shugairi’s show, has soared. Mr. Shugairi and others like him have succeeded by appealing to a young audience that is hungry for religious identity but deeply alienated from both politics and the traditional religious establishment, especially in the fundamentalist forms now common in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In part, that is a matter of style: a handsome, athletically built 35-year-old, Mr. Shugairi effortlessly mixes deep religious commitment with hip, playful humor. He earned an M.B.A. during his California years, and he sometimes refers to Islam as “an excellent product that needs better packaging.”
This style of religious dissemination and "revival" is not new, and it is becoming increasingly popular, particularly through various forms of technology, particularly internet sites, including Facebook and YouTube.
Mr. Shugairi is not the first of his kind. Amr Khaled, an Egyptian televangelist, began reaching large audiences eight years ago. But the field has expanded greatly, with each new figure creating Internet sites and Facebook groups where tens of thousands of fans trade epiphanies and links to YouTube clips of their favorite preachers.
Mr. Shugairi’s main TV program, “Khawater” (“Thoughts”), could not be more different from the dry lecturing style of so many Muslim clerics. In one episode on literacy, the camera follows Mr. Shugairi as he wanders through Jidda asking people where to find a public library (no one knows). In another, he pokes through a trash bin, pointing to mounds of rotting rice and hummus that could have been donated for the poor. He even sets up “Candid Camera”-style gags, confronting people who pocket a wallet from the pavement and asking them if the Prophet Muhammad would have done the same.
At times, his program resembles an American civics class disguised as religion, complete with lessons on environmental awareness and responsible driving.
Preaching generally good civics and rights (like gender equality), self-satirization, the ability to engage listeners with humor rather than dry old fashioned sermons, and, by doing so, inspiring religious "revival" through "televangelism" has just the right ingredients to draw fire from all sides:
Inevitably, hard-line clerics dismiss Mr. Shugairi as a lightweight who toadies to the West. From the other side, some liberals lament that Mr. Shugairi and the other satellite sheiks are Islamizing the secular elite of the Arab world.
And while most of these broadcast preachers, including Mr. Shugairi, promote a moderate and inclusive strain of Islam, others do not. There are few controls in the world of satellite television, where virtually anyone can take to the air and preach as he likes on one of hundreds of channels.
Moreover, some observers fear that the growing prevalence of Islam on the airwaves and the Internet could make moderates like Mr. Shugairi steppingstones toward more extreme figures, who are never more than a mouse-click or a channel-surf away.
“There is no one with any real authority, they can say whatever they want to say, and the accessibility of these sheiks is 24/7,” said Hussein Amin, a professor at the American University in Cairo. “That’s why so many who were liberals are now conservatives, and those who were conservatives are now radicals.”
Mr. Shugairi and others like him, including the popular Egyptian television preacher Moez Masoud, counter that their moderate message is the best way to fight Islamic extremism. Forging that middle path, they say, is essential at a time when many young Arabs feel caught between an angry fundamentalism on the one hand and a rootless secularism on the other.
Buddha spoke of the middle path; Aristotle the golden mean. Nonetheless, the dissemination of different forms of knowledge, including religious innovations will continue to follow along the decentralized networks of satellite television, satellite radio, the internet (including places like Facebook). By doing so, these religious expressions will be transformed by these forms of knowledge, and, therefore, the entire religious "landscape" or, better yet, "marketplace." This is good for those interested in freedom of speech and freedom of expression of ideas--absolutely no censorship! Yet, as the "product" and "marketplace" metaphors, which are apt, demonstrate, these forms of knowledge are indebted to models of capitalism and laissez-faire economics. Whoever can "market" their religious "product" the best, will gain the most hearing. Of course, their are niche markets as well to think about. At the same time, unlike traditional capitalism, in this global system of decentralized networks (which traverse governmental boundaries), it would be difficult, if not impossible, to monopolize the conversation, yet it would be quite easy to be drowned out in the cacophany of voices. As such, you can hear a lot of voices from all sorts of situations, all along the spectrum to the extremes, and feel free to ignore the others, which proably has the effect of extending the extremes further, creating religious sectarianism in the virtual world. In such an environment, perhaps "middle" voices provide balance, trying to pull the expanding rubberband back. Technology, indeed, provides the means for a huge diversity of views, yet also provides the means for those positions to ossify.