Abdullah Gymnastiar straddled his customized electric bicycle and buzzed down the cobblestone alley into the crowd.
Wearing a white turban, Indonesia's premier television preacher toured the back streets of this hill town, greeting nearly 5,000 people who overflowed the mosque and who were waiting to follow his weeknight sermon on large-screen televisions. They pressed forward, some kissing his hand, others hailing him as if he were a rock star.
More self-help guru in sarong than Islamic scholar, Gymnastiar, 42, has built a following unrivaled among his fellow Muslim clerics by marrying soft, sonorous words of counsel and tearful prayer, delivered not in Arabic but Indonesian, with razor-sharp marketing acumen.
Widely known as Aa Gym -- "older brother Gym" in the local dialect -- he estimates that he reaches at least 60 million people weekly through television and radio, not including his books, cassettes, videos, newspaper, management training seminars and aphorisms printed on the red cans of the soft drink he markets, Qolbu Cola.
He is so popular that four of the five candidates in the presidential election to be held in July invited him to speak at their campaign kickoffs last month. Police croon his song "Take Care of Your Heart" while seeking to calm surging crowds of protesters. All seven private television stations in Indonesia bought his programs for the holy month of Ramadan, paying up to $50,000 a show, according to his staff.
Far more than the country's Islamic extremists, Gymnastiar articulates the sentiments of many in the world's largest Muslim country who are attracted by the United States but have grown distrustful of its intentions.
"I hope America and Indonesia will join together to build a civilization of the heart," he said in an interview, rejecting the extremists' talk of an inexorable conflict between Islam and the West.
But he was quick to heap disdain on a U.S. administration that launched military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm so sorry to see the image of America deteriorating. There has been so much violence and so many people killed. Countries have been destroyed for reasons that haven't been proven, for instance, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Gymnastiar said, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted porch of his cottage as a television crew set up cameras on the backyard lawn for a live broadcast later in the day.
Gymnastiar, a boyish figure with round, metal glasses, thick lips and a thin, wispy beard, is by some measures the most American of Indonesian clerics, embodying a can-do entrepreneurial spirit that has tapped the latest technology to build a corporate empire.
Trained as an electrical engineer, he is the eldest son of an army officer, his name reflecting his father's passion for athletics. Gymnastiar said he continues to sky-dive and practice shooting at a cardboard target in his back yard. In free moments, he swaps his electric bicycle for one of four motorcycles kept under a dust cover in the alley.
His conglomerate, MQ Corp. -- the initials stand for Heart Management in Indonesian -- has 18 subsidiaries, including a satellite television channel, a radio station, a publishing house, a recording studio, an advertising firm, a travel agency and companies merchandising clothing, mineral water, shampoo, cosmetics, detergent and instant noodles. In one of his new endeavors, his staff reported, more than 2 million Indonesian subscribers receive his daily teachings via text messages on their cell phones.
On a recent evening, as Gymnastiar plunged into the crowd on the electric bicycle -- a model that he sells -- he passed shops and stalls peddling T-shirts, key chains and other souvenirs to the tour groups who visit his Bandung complex from Indonesia's most distant islands.
He steered past his supermarket, boutique, bank, hotel and pair of training halls. In one, 20 executives from the state-owned oil company were taking part in a three-day management seminar for $300 a person. Next door, 50 middle managers from a leading national bank were involved in another three-day course for $200 each.
Calling out the traditional Muslim greeting "Salaam aleikum" -- "Peace be to you" -- he buzzed past walls decorated with his capsule teachings. One sign read, "Seven tips for success: Be calm, plan well, be skillful, orderly, diligent, strong and humble." Another advised, "Five tips for a good product: Cheap, high quality, easy to use, up-to-date and useful for both the world and hereafter."
It was the light touch of his teaching that Yenny Irene, 32, a Jakarta accountant, said first attracted her to Gymnastiar. "I started to follow him all the time," she said. "It has had a great, great impact on me." She watches him every night on video compact disc before going to sleep and has begun marketing his products.
Zuchal Munsief, 46, a buyer at an oil trading company, was schooled in a traditional Muslim boarding school but came to follow Gymnastiar because of his simple language and humble demeanor. "His teaching is very down to earth. It's easy to understand for common people like me," Munsief said.
Despite his unorthodox approach, Gymnastiar has won praise from many in Indonesia's Islamic establishment for drawing people closer to religion. "His teaching is unusual and a new type for us," said Umar Shihab, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars. "In addition to using the Koran, he gives examples from real life. And while clerics usually do all the talking, he holds a . . . conversation with his audience. It's very good for Islam."
Gymnastiar does not share the insistence of other clerics that Indonesia implement rigid Islamic law. Although he is a traditional Muslim who prefers his women in head scarves and not in leadership posts, Gymnastiar said imposing sharia, or Islamic law, is not his priority.
His chatty, playful and at times bawdy preaching rarely ventures into world politics, a common subject for the country's firebrand clerics. Yet he has not been shy about declaring his views. Days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gymnastiar led 5,000 antiwar protesters to the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. In his arms, he clasped his young son, dressed theatrically in clothes stained red to look like blood. However, he also urged his followers not to resist the United States violently.
When President Bush came to Indonesia last fall, Gymnastiar and three other moderate Muslim leaders were invited to meet him. But Gymnastiar, who had seen Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during a similar visit a year earlier, boycotted the meeting.
"American people need a president with a good heart so that America will be loved in the world and that will make America safe," Gymnastiar said in an interview. "If America does not treat the world fairly, people will hate America, and that will make America insecure."
Gymnastiar made front-page news last month when he visited the imprisoned Muslim cleric Abubakar Baasyir, who Indonesian and U.S. officials contend is the leader of an extremist group linked to al Qaeda. Although it was widely seen in Indonesia as a show of support for Baasyir, Gymnastiar said in the interview he simply wanted to get Baasyir's side of the story.
Reflecting the skepticism of many Indonesians, Gymnastiar dismissed the conclusion of Indonesian and Western investigators that Baasyir's Jemaah Islamiah underground group was behind the bombings of two Bali nightclubs in 2002 and the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last year, which together killed 224 people.
Gymnastiar said that there was no terrorist threat by Muslim extremists against either Indonesia or U.S. interests in the region and that he thought U.S. warnings about terrorism were exaggerated.
"America has been saying so much about this, but they can't prove it," he said, raising his voice slightly. "America talks a lot. But they can't prove what happened in Iraq, either. When they attacked Iraq, they lied."