Islam's Up-to-Date Televangelist

The accidental preacher: Amr Khaled is surrounded by an enthusiastic Crystal City audience.
The accidental preacher: Amr Khaled is surrounded by an enthusiastic Crystal City audience. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The rhythmic clapping began the minute Amr Khaled stepped through the door of the packed Crystal City ballroom. Surrounded by security guards, the Egyptian preacher had to weave his way through the crowd -- men both cleanshaven 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 crowd ate it up. For the next 90 minutes, they laughed at his witticisms, smiled at his stories, nodded at his exhortations and clapped again -- spontaneously and often. But most of all, they listened intently.

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-9/11 world, Khaled came to address a deep crisis of confidence. He 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 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?" he asked. "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 sermons, speeches and appearances throughout his first trip to the United States, in May -- he said he hopes to return often -- 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, a New Age Islamic guru likened to tele-megastars Joel Osteen and Dr. Phil. His appearances are uploaded on YouTube. His Web site-- in 18 languages, including Danish, Turkish, Hebrew, English and Russian -- 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. In slangy Arabic, he preaches hard work, good works and good manners. 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. Sometimes he cries," said Hadia Mubarak, who grew up in Panama City, Fla., and is a former president of the national Muslim Students' Association in the United States. She has watched Khaled on Arab-language programs beamed by Arabsat satellite.

"My mother also watches him all the time. He's her favorite speaker. 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 always ends with what are you going to do as audience members? 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," she said. "Joel Osteen, the Christian televangelist, talks about eating well based on the Bible and staying in shape. Khaled reminds me of him."

Khaled, a tall man with piercing eyes and an impish laugh, usually begins his lectures slowly and softly, the cadence and emphasis steadily building. As he gets worked up, he gets more animated, pinching his fingers together or spreading his arms. At his Crystal City lecture in May, he urged American Muslims to be proactive. "So I implore you, be active in society, don't isolate yourselves. . . .


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