A Call for Muslims in the West to Serve Their Societies
Egyptian-born Amr Khaled may not have had much formal theological training, but his influence in the Arab world surpasses that of many traditional scholars of Islam. An accountant-turned-preacher, the "Islamic Billy Graham" wears immaculate suits rather than flowing robes, and often talks to his audience about everyday issues like dating or flirting, always connecting them with the exemplary life of the prophet Muhammad. While his critics chastise him alternately for promoting a kind of "Islam light" or for merely giving conservatism a modern appearance, Khaled maintains that he is concentrating on the fundamental values of the one Islam, which he stresses offers much flexibility within its wide framework.
In recent years, he has increasingly taken on a global outlook, initiating a dialogue between Arab and Danish youths during the cartoon crisis and speaking out against religious extremism. Today he lives in Birmingham, UK. Christoph Dreyer met him in Berlin.
Mr. Khaled, you keep saying that your main purpose is development, a kind of renaissance for the Arab and Muslim world, and you have named education as a major problem of this region. Why, then, should religion be the solution?
Amr Khaled: We are talking about faith because this is the language people in the Middle East understand, the way to motivate them. There are many languages to motivate people, and without motivation people will not move. So in each part of the world you have to look how you can motivate them. Maybe if I was in another part of the world, it would be sports or arts. But in the Middle East, the language that can motivate people to build our countries, to build our future, to dream for the future and create development is faith. So my role is to show how faith can lead to building something and not to extremism.
So you are just choosing the most powerful tool available?
Khaled: Yes. Maybe if I was going to motivate Muslims here in Europe, faith would not be number one, because it might not be number one in their minds. Their number one might be sports, or arts – but in this case it is faith.
Which is the best instrument to motivate Arabs and Muslims here in Europe to integrate?
Khaled: Serving the community, because they are part of it. You take, and you have to give – this can motivate people. Looking at what society requires to be a respectable man. Maybe respect is the word of motivation for Muslims here.
You emphasize faith as a positive factor. But Arab youths in the West are often looked upon negatively, especially if they stress their faith. What can they do to gain respect and further their integration?
Khaled: We have to find projects. For example, in the United Kingdom we are doing a football tournament. Each team from each city has to consist of Muslims and non-Muslims. This tournament did a great job for integration. So we have to think about projects to establish a platform for them to put their energy into these areas and projects for a better future.
One criticism against you, especially in Egypt, is that you are considered to be one of the reasons why so many women now wear hijab. So you are accused of promoting a very conservative form of Islam. How would that serve integration?
Khaled: That is not correct, because I did a lot of things – and promoting the wearing of hijab is not one of them – for example on how to serve the community in our countries, how to be positive in society, how to dream for the future of your country. What is the meaning of faith? Faith is building, faith is development. I did all these things, and lots of charities from all over the world called my youth activist network Life Makers to build up something, to make micro-finance projects, anti-drug campaigns, protect the environment. So I am not just talking, I am doing something, and what I am doing is clearer than "they said". Some people ask what the difference is between me and the traditionalists. The difference is that I do something and don't just talk about co-existence.
Still, would you say it is a good or bad thing that there are many more women wearing the hijab now than ten years ago, for example, in Egypt?
Khaled: The hijab is part of Islam. But I refuse to say the whole thing about women is the hijab. Who said that? It's just two verses in the Qur'an – and lots of verses talking about women's rights. I refuse to make my respect for a woman dependent on whether she wears the hijab or not, or to say this is good and this is bad. Some of the women in my team go without hijab, and I deal with them. I respect women without a hijab. I refuse to make this separation between women because of the hijab. Yes, it is part of Islam, but don't focus on it to make people feel that I isolate women without hijab – that's not correct.
What would you advise Muslim women living in the West to do about the hijab? Should they wear it or not?
Khaled: Women in Europe have to respect their society. Even if they don a hijab, they have to be part of society, to love this country, to work for the sake of this country, to get involved and serve.
What, on the other hand, could Western societies do in order to be me more welcoming to Muslims?
Khaled: We have to find projects to work together, to find role models of Muslims who serve their societies, and show them to the Muslims to get a platform for them to work for the sake of their society. But I dislike saying: They have to do something for us. We as Muslims have to start to believe that we love the countries we live in. We as Muslims have to find projects and partners.
You have described your work as being composed of different stages: first a return to spirituality, then development, and now co-existence...
Khaled: What I am doing is like a jigsaw puzzle consisting of three pieces: We need co-existence for development, because without Western partners who have knowledge, we will not succeed. So we need co-existence, we need development, we need faith. And it is all one puzzle, one chain. This is to make the youth in the Middle East more positive and keep them away from extremism.
Wouldn't politics have to be another part of this puzzle?
Khaled: It depends on what you mean by politics. If you mean parties and going to elections, that is not my role. But if you look at what I am doing as part of political issues – yes, I am doing that. I work to make the youth positive, and this is the first stage for democracy. So I am doing politics, but from my dimension. I don't have to do it from your dimension.
Interview: Christoph Dreyer
© Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de