ICAIRO, Egypt, AP – slamic televangelist Amr Khaled is young, smiling, teaches love and mercy, and is so popular he’s credited with inspiring thousands of women to take the veil.
Now he’s putting his popularity on the line by trying a new role, as a bridge between Islam and the West at a time when many are talking about a clash of civilizations.
In the process, Khaled is telling the faithful something they’re not used to hearing from clerics — that Muslims aren’t blameless in the tensions, that the West is not always bad and that dialogue is better than confrontation.
“A young Muslim goes to Europe with a forged visa, takes unemployment insurance there, then goes on TV and says, ‘We’re going to expel you from Britain, take your land, money and women,'” Khaled said recently on his weekly program on the Saudi satellite TV channel Iqraa, trying to explain the mistrust of Muslims in Europe. “It’s a rare example, but it exists.”
The 38-year-old Egyptian raised a storm of controversy when he attended a March 9 conference of European and Muslim leaders in Denmark, which has been the focus of anger across the Islamic world over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish paper.
Some in the Arab world saw his attendance as a surrender and branded him a traitor and an opportunist.
This week, Khaled is headed to a gathering of Islamic clerics in Bahrain that begins Wednesday, aimed at considering the next step in the response to the prophet cartoons. The conference is organized by one of Khaled’s most vocal critics, hard-line Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi.
Many Muslims saw the caricatures — one of which depicted Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb — as an intentional insult and reacted with a wave of protests. In the West, the outrage was seen as an attack on freedom of speech and only deepened anti-Muslim sentiment.
For Khaled, the controversy underlined the need for a new approach by Muslims, one of reform and dialogue with the rest of the world.
“For the past three years, with youth across the Islamic world, we’ve been working for a faith-based renaissance in this region, which will not take place by clashes but by coexistence,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in Cairo.
Khaled is not the only Muslim religious leader promoting dialogue. But he has become one of the most outspoken.
And he brings the fan base of a pop star: young people, women and members of the middle and well-to-do classes.
He built his popularity over more than 10 years of preaching in a style far from traditional clerics in their beards and robes, whose sermons often emphasize the demands of Islam and the threat of damnation and hellfire.
By contrast, Khaled is known for his stylish suits and broad smile. In his sermons, he avoids politics and stresses God’s mercy, seeking to show how one can be a good Muslim while still enjoying the activities of modern life.
That message instantly appealed to the young — particularly the well-off, looking for a version of Islam that suited their lifestyles. Educated as an accountant, not a cleric, Khaled began preaching as a hobby in social clubs, but then vaulted to television. Thousands packed mosques where he preached.
“He is a very simple, moderate, humble man, easygoing. He makes you feel like you are his sister,” said Zeinab el-Sherif, 32, a wealthy, veiled Egyptian businesswoman who has been a fan of Khaled’s for a decade.
“He is so tolerant and friendly, he makes you feel good about your religion and yourself,” she said.
The Egyptian government, apparently nervous over his popularity, pushed Khaled out in 2002, banning him from giving sermons at Egyptian mosques.
He moved to London with his wife and son Ali to pursue a doctorate in Islamic studies. His thesis: “Islam and coexisting with the other.”
The time in London “has resulted in a mixture of maturity and seeing the other better and readiness to coexist,” he told the AP. “It also made clear the common values as well as the differences that can’t be overcome.”
Khaled’s program on the Iqraa channel continued, and now Egypt — perhaps seeking to encourage a moderate Islamic voice — has been more welcoming, allowing him to hold a large conference in Cairo last month. He is back in Egypt for good.
Many clerics criticized Khaled in the past, particularly for his lack of religious training. The controversy heated up with his campaign for dialogue, which represents a new foray into the realm of politics. Egyptian newspapers have been sharply divided over his visit to Copenhagen.
But Khaled’s supporters appear to be sticking by him.
“I loved the idea of the Denmark conference, and I don’t know any of Amr Khaled’s admirers who don’t,” said Riham el-Demerdash, 35, a veiled mother of three in Cairo. “Those who are against the conference are those who don’t like Amr in the first place — or are clerics who are jealous.”