Facebook Sheikhs: Egypt

Dec 11, 2012

By Garrett Nada

            Egypt’s Facebook sheikhs reflect the growing diversity within Islam. The new tech-savvy sheikhs range from rock-star street preachers to Salafi populists. Even the old clerics are finding they have to be hip to keep their flocks. Their television shows, broadcast on popular satellite stations, compete for viewers—generating new rivalries over who controls the Muslim message.

           Although there are now hundreds of Facebook sheikhs across the Islamic world, Egypt’s are the most influential. Four reflect the spectrum. Two represent the new-age preachers who have little to no religious scholarship but have strong moral messages and communication skills. Two are traditional clerics with doctorates in Islamic jurisprudence.

           Moez Masoud can recite both Bob Dylan’s lyrics and Koran verses by heart. A lay leader born in 1978, Masoud represents the vanguard of the Facebook generation in Egypt. He speaks in simple colloquial Arabic and dresses in jeans and blazers. His message of tolerance resonates with Egyptian youth. During the 2011 uprising, Masoud demonstrated with young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square against President Hosni Mubarak.

           Amr Khaled, a former accountant born in 1967, defies the stereotype of aged and long-bearded preachers. For his first television series launched in 2001 he wore trendy suits and high-end ties. Khaled was among the first to embrace the Internet as a tool to spread his message. He had more than 5 million Facebook fans in December 2012.

           But not all of Egypt’s Facebook sheikhs dress or speak like Masoud or Khaled. Ultra-conservative Salafis were relative late-comers to satellite television and social media, but they have scrambled to catch up in recent years. Sheikh Mohamed Hasan started hosting his own show on Saudi-owned Al Nas satellite station in 2006. The sheikh, who is bearded and wears traditional robes, had over 1.6 million Facebook fans by the end of 2012.

           Even Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who was born in 1926, has expanded his audience using Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and multiple personal and professional websites. Unlike many television preachers, Qaradawi is also a respected theologian. His positions are closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. He supports democracy and condemns extremism. But his conservative views on women’s rights, homosexuality, and Western culture appear outdated to many young Arabs. In contrast, preachers like Moez Masoud are putting a new face on Islam and even attracting secular youth.

           The following are profiles of the four diverse preachers, with their comments on key issues.

Moez Masoud

      Moez Masoud is one of Egypt’s youngest and most progressive new-age preachers. Since 2002, he has hosted a popular television show on Iqraa, a Saudi-owned channel that is one of the largest satellite stations in the Middle East. His message centers on “spirituality, interfaith dialogue, de-radicalization and Islam in the modern world,” according to an interview with Transnational Broadcasting Studies in 2005.

      Masoud is also one of the new generation of preachers who bridges the Islamic world and the West. He attended private American schools in Egypt and Kuwait and spoke English from an early age. But after a near-death experience in 1996, he gave up drinking and partying and turned to Islam to redirect his life. Being born-again is not uncommon among new-age preachers.

          His message transcends religion—and borders on the political. Masoud supported the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. He called on his supporters to join him at the Tahrir Square protests.

          “I can’t help but think of Bob Dylan…’Times they are a changing’ and that mood, that feeling…that everything beneath you is shifting and shaking is what we and the youth are going through since 2011,” he told American Public Media  in September 2012.

          He sees the uprisings as a turning point easing tensions between the Islamic world and the West.

          “The revolution of January 25 will bring a close to the era defined by 9/11,” he told AFAR Magazine Experiences in August 2012.

          But he also has warned the West to let the Arab world make its own decisions based on its own religious culture and traditions.  "First you have to let the Arab world be for a while,” he told the 2012 World Economic Forum. “Stop trying to impose secularism from afar.”

          Masoud’s shows deal bluntly with controversial issues, ranging from homosexuality to terrorism, drugs to pre-marital relations. Unlike his Salafi counterparts, his sermons emphasize practicing faith in the contemporary world rather than simply performing ancient rituals. Masoud emphasizes ihsan, or thoughtfully turning inward to understand God and improve one's behavior rather than expressing faith unquestionably through religious customs. He encourages viewers to be compassionate and seek peace—with all faiths.

          He rejects the “holier-than-thou” technique in religious instruction. “I’m against the word preacher. You know, ‘Repent now!’ That kind of approach is just not Islamic or Christian,” he said in the interview.

          Masoud’s first show on Islam was in English. His first Arabic-language show, “The Right Way,” debuted in 2007. He is now pursuing a doctorate in psychology and religion at Cambridge University.

          Masoud's YouTube channel programs have been viewed nearly 1 million times since 2010. More than 1.4 million users on Facebook have “liked” his page. He had almost nearly 450,000 followers in both English and Arabic on Twitter.

Mohamed Hasan

      Sheikh Mohamed Hasan, born in 1962, is one Egypt’s most popular Salafi sheikhs and television personalities. His ultraconservative message calls for recreating the purity of life after the faith was founded in the 7th century. Yet he has turned to the tools of the 21st century to spread it.

       Like his liberal counterparts, Hasan has also become more political since President Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. In the past, most Salafis were apolitical or “quietist.” Many were even prepared to accept autocrats as long as they were Muslims; they were marginal to the political process. But Salafis came in from the political cold after the Arab uprisings opened the door to everyone’s participation—and they reversed course.

       In crafting a new order, Sheikh Hasan calls for the application of Sharia—in absolute form rather than simply in spirit. But he says Christians and non-Salafi Muslims should not fear Sharia. “Islam should not be used as tool for intimidation,” he told Asharq Alawsat in April 2011.

          Hasan, like many Salafi leaders, spent significant time in Saudi Arabia. After receiving his doctorate in Islamic studies from Cairo’s Al Azhar University, he worked in Saudi Arabia as a preacher and lecturer at the University of Imam Mohamed bin Saud for six years.

          The sheikh’s career only took off when he returned to Egypt. In 2006 he became a host on Al Nas, an Islamic television station owned by a Saudi Arabian businessman.  He reportedly left the station after the management refused to ban Amr Khaled, a relatively liberal preacher. The sheikh then launched his own Salafi station, Al Rahma or “The Mercy,” in 2007. His show focuses on morality and strict observance of Islamic rituals.

          Hasan called the United States an enemy and encouraged Egyptians to donate money to serve Egypt’s interests, rather than accept U.S. aid in February 2012. He collected over 60 million Egyptian pounds or about $9.7 million within two days of launching the fund.

          “If America wants to cut military aid, very well. Egypt isn’t less than Iran, which is self-dependent when it comes to producing its own military equipment,” he told El Nahar television station. “The Egyptian people will not be broken anymore. I say to my enemy America that… we shall not bow to her pennies.”

          Hasan encouraged his supporters to vote for Mohamed Morsi in the May 2012 presidential election. He also demonstrated in favor of the draft constitution passed in December 2012, which was rejected by many liberals and secularists.

          In December 2012, he had over 1.9 million followers on Facebook from across the Arab world. His followers can access multimedia content on his official website. Recordings of his lectures and sermons and his books are widely sold in Cairo.

Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi

      Yusuf al Qaradawi has the widest following of all Egypt’s clerics. He was born in 1926. Qaradawi was a widely respected cleric by the time he became a televangelist in 1996. Since the late 2000s, an estimated 60 million people watched his show “Sharia and Life” on Al Jazeera. His approach—offering religious advice to personal problems—has led the press to dub him Islam’s “Dear Abby” in 2011.

       Qaradawi is a traditionalist but not as conservative as his Salafi counterparts. The sheikh called for democracy at least four years before the Arab uprising. “The Muslim world needs democracy,” Qaradawi said in July 2006. “It has saved humanity from despots and dictators who act like gods…Let the people decide for themselves.”

       His politics reflect his personal experience. He was detained three times—for a total of about two years—for suspected links to the Muslim Brotherhood during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule (1956-1970). After his release, Qaradawi relocated to Qatar, which is still his main base of operations. He is widely considered to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s main spiritual leader, although he denies any formal relationship.

            In February 2011, Qaradawi returned to Egypt to support the uprising against President Mubarak and lead prayers in Tahrir Square. He spoke in favor of establishing a civil state with a religious background. “I am totally against theocracy,” he told Al Ahram newspaper. “We are not a state for mullahs.”

          In September 2012, Sheikh Qaradawi called for restraint after an offensive film produced in the United States prompted anti-American riots across the Muslim world. He condemned the violent reaction in his Friday sermon.

          “Our manner of protesting should reflect sense and reason. We cannot throw the blame on the United States as a whole [for the inflammatory film]. Nor should we physically attack the U.S. embassies in our region,” he said from Qatar. “Loyalty to Islam and our prophet, may peace be upon him, is better done through explaining to humanity how tolerant Islam is--and not through surrounding embassies."

          Qaradawi’s audience extends to the West. As head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, he deals with issues confronted by Muslims living in non-Muslim societies. He is also chair of the International Union for Muslim Scholars.

          Despite his television popularity, he has a smaller following on social media than other younger preachers. He has over 230,000 followers on Twitter, and his website is a popular resource on Islam. Qaradawi maintains Facebook pages in Arabic and English, but has less than 50,000 followers, suggesting that his viewers are not regular Internet users.

Dr. Amr Khaled
      Amr Khaled, born in 1967, started his professional life as an accountant. But he became a new-age preacher in the early 1990s. He quickly evolved into one of the Arab world’s most influential religious voices, especially among the young, after his television show debuted in 2000 on Iqraa satellite station. At the peak of his popularity, he got more hits on his website than Oprah.

      His main goal is “to make young people love religion instead of fearing it,” in a 2002 interview with Al Ahram Weekly. Khaled rejects extremism and encourages interfaith dialogue. His primary appeal is the colloquial language and folksy topics. Khaled encourages females to wear hejab, but also to get advanced education and professional fulfillment.

      “Unfortunately for women in the Middle East, not only in Egypt, there is a lot of injustice…and unfortunately these injustices are also in the name of Islam,” he told Al Ahram Weekly in July 2011. “If we start giving women the option to become leaders and to undertake initiatives, I believe that many things will change in the Middle East.”

          In 2006, The New York Times Magazine named Khaled the “world’s most famous and influential Muslim television preacher.” After 20 years of preaching, he has both teenage and middle-aged fans attracted by his message of tolerance and reform.

          Under government pressure, he left Egypt in 2002, but he continued to record his programs from Britain and elsewhere on multiple Arab satellite stations. He launched a successful faith-based charity in 2003 to promote coexistence and build stronger communities. In 2010 he created a reality show in which teams attempted to solve social problems, such as unemployment, in 72 hours.

          “The energy of the youth is not being utilized…and they are not taking part in reforming their country,” he warned in Asharq Alawsat in March 2010. “If we put youth into the equation of reform, and charitable and volunteer work, we would be able to protect them from going astray and from the dangers of religious extremism.”

          Even though Khaled is a lay leader, the Grand Imam of al Azhar University and one of Egypt’s most senior clerics, Dr. Ahmed al Tayeb, has recognized his influence. In January 2011, al Tayeb received Khaled and discussed how to modernize religious discourse.

          In 2012, Khaled was ranked number 21 on The Muslim 500, a list of the world’s most influential Muslims. He has even been recognized by TIME as one of the 100 most influential figures transforming the world. Khaled had over 5.3 million Facebook fans and nearly 1 million Twitter followers. Since 2007, his YouTube channel had been viewed over 35 million times. 

 

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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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