"I Want to Move Arabic Youth!"
It's the annual meeting of the Islamic Community in Germany, and the sports hall in the small West German industrial town of Leverkusen is well attended. A man is standing on the stage: he's in his late thirties, he has a moustache, and he's neatly dressed in a grey suit and a tie. Amr Khaled speaks with an Egyptian accent. He is the most prominent guest speaker at this event, and he enjoys the status of a near-superstar.
Born in Egypt, Khaled lives mainly in Birmingham, but travels constantly in Egypt, Britain and Saudi Arabia; moving between East and West, as he says.
This evening, he is speaking about Muslim women in Germany and Europe, and about the tension between traditional images of womanhood and a contemporary understanding of Islam.
The good example of the prophet
He talks about the oppression of Muslim women; about the practices of "honour killings" and forced marriage, which he condemns as un-Islamic; and about the good example of the prophet Mohammed. His words are greeted with enthusiastic applause, particularly from the women and young people in the audience:
"We follow him on TV, especially during Ramadan," a young girl says. "The whole family is convinced by what he says. We hope he'll make more appearances in Germany, for the young generation above all."
Amr Khaled was born in Alexandria in 1967, and he is not a representative of the Islamic Establishment. Khaled never had a classical training as an Islamic theologian, and in fact he worked as a bookseller until he was 20. Nor does he possess any particular charisma; he has the air of a likeable man-in-the-street. And yet this man has an audience of millions.
He spreads his message via Arabic satellite stations and his own website, books, CDs and cassettes. His talks are also available in Western languages. He holds sermons on faith and morality, but also on family problems and the life of the Muslim minority in Europe.
Islam as a flexible religion
"Islam is a flexible religion," Khaled says. "We have to deal with the reality of people as they are. Islam is capable of coming to terms with society and promoting peace and tolerance amongst people from differing backgrounds. It is essential to respect the society in which one lives. I applied this example to the situation of Muslims living in Western countries today, and I said that Muslims in the West must respect the societies in which they live."
Amr Khaled is held in particular affection by youngsters and young adults. He has the ambitious goal of leading the Arab world towards a revival ("Nahda"). Yet, in doing so, he formulates no political demands.
In his sermons, he calls upon young Arabs to deal with such problems as unemployment by grasping the initiative themselves. He censures their passivity and calls on them to take their lives in their own hands by starting small projects and serving society.
"Lifemakers" in action
Consequently, he has himself launched an organisation called "The Lifemakers" (in Arabic: "Sunaa al-Hayah"). The Lifemakers collect clothes for the needy and organise food supplies for the poor during the fasting month of Ramadan. In one project, they beautified a university campus by planting trees and grass there.
"My message is not purely religious," Khaled says. "I also have a message of reform and development, which I call 'development through faith'. Faith is the motor of development and one can't do without it. I am not a Mufti, and I don't deliver legal judgments on what's permitted or forbidden under Islamic law. What I want to do is to move Arabic youth."
His call has long since been heard by young Muslims in the Western world as well. A few months ago, he formed "Lifemakers Deutschland". Young Muslims from immigrant backgrounds have built up a network of local groups that initiate projects and try to bring them to fruition.
"The idea is very simple – that young people, whatever society they live in, should make themselves useful", Saloua explains. "That means extracting themselves from this phase of laziness and passivity, tearing off their chains and taking an active role in society. And saying, 'Hey, listen, we can do something good!'"
Saloua is the press spokesperson for 'Lifemakers Deutschland'. She is 23 years old and is taking a degree in Islamic Studies by correspondence course with the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. At present, the German branch of Lifemakers is carrying out several projects, mainly in the field of community care. One example: the so-called "Winter's Tale Project" in Bonn.
Communicating a different image of Muslims
"Everyone cooks something at home and brings it with them," Saloua says. "Then we meet up and go off together to a well-known meeting point for deprived people in Bonn. Among them are a lot of homeless people, including junkies and alcoholics who have been cast out from society. We go there, share out the food and try to talk to them. We want to motivate these people, to persuade them that it's possible to escape this situation. And we also see this as a way of communicating a different image of Muslims."
Saloua and her friends want to practice their religion, and at the same time to be actively involved in German society and accepted by it. Amr Khaled is their great role model in all this:
"Amr Khaled embodies something that's really in danger of dying out: motivation and a way of being that comes from the heart. We young people call it "freestyle". He simply speaks from the heart."
© Qantara.de 2005
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan