Younger Muslims Tune In to Upbeat Religious Message
Sunday, December 2, 2007
CAIRO -- Muna el-Leboudy, a 22-year-old medical student, had a terrible secret: She wanted to be a filmmaker. The way she understood her Muslim faith, it was haram -- forbidden -- to dabble in movies, music or any art that might pique sexual desires.
Then one day in September, she flipped on her satellite TV and saw Moez Masoud.
A Muslim televangelist not much older than herself, in a stylish goatee and Western clothes, Masoud, 29, was preaching about Islam in youthful Arabic slang.
He said imams who outlawed art and music were misinterpreting their faith. He talked about love and relationships, the need to be compassionate toward homosexuals and tolerant of non-Muslims. Leboudy had never heard a Muslim preacher speak that way.
"Moez helps us understand everything about our religion -- not from 1,400 years ago, but the way we live now," said Leboudy, wearing a scarlet hijab over her hair.
She said she still plans a career in medicine, but she's also starting classes in film directing. "After I heard Moez," she said, "I decided to be the one who tries to change things."
Masoud is one of a growing number of young Muslim preachers who are using satellite television to promote an upbeat and tolerant brand of Islam.
Television preaching in the Middle East was once largely limited to elderly scholars in white robes reading holy texts from behind a desk, emphasizing the afterlife over this life, and sometimes inciting violence against nonbelievers. But as TV has evolved from one or two heavily controlled state channels to hundreds of diverse, private satellite offerings, Masoud and perhaps a dozen other young men -- plus a few women -- have emerged as increasingly popular alternatives.
Masoud and others promote "a sweet orthodoxy, which stresses the humane and compassionate" as an alternative to "unthinking rage," said Abdallah Schleifer, a specialist in Islam and electronic media at the American University in Cairo.
As a "contemporary figure," Masoud is fast becoming an influential star among youth from "a middle-class full of yearning" who will eventually become decision-makers across the Middle East, Schleifer said. And as a product of American-founded schools in the region, Masoud is able to speak with authority about Western values in a way many others can't. His most recent show, a 20-part series that aired this fall on Iqra, one of the region's leading religious channels, attracted millions of viewers from Syria to Morocco. Clips of the show appeared immediately on YouTube, and fans downloaded more than 1.5 million episodes onto their computers.
"We don't need someone to tell us that if we don't pray we will go to hell -- we need someone to follow," said Adham el-Kordy, 23, an Egyptian who is studying to be a gynecologist. "He talks about things that happen to me every day."
The new Muslim televangelists are riding a satellite TV boom that began after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the region's elites were shocked by the power of CNN. The Middle East now has at least 370 satellite channels, nearly triple the number three years ago, according to Arab Advisors Group, a Jordan-based research firm. Among channels that offer news, movies and music videos are 27 dedicated to Islamic religious programming, up from five two years ago.