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Before becoming a household name all over the Arab world, televangelist Amr Khaled had humble beginnings as a young preacher struggling to reach Egypt’s youth. His rise to fame has, however, been mired in controversy.
Born in 1967 in Alexandria, Khaled did not study religion at al-Azhar University in Cairo, like most other preachers do. Instead, he studied accounting at Cairo University and worked as an accountant for several years before being asked to give a sermon in his local mosque. His sermons became popular, and he was asked to give more and more of them.
His audience, which was mainly young, middle class and female, was distinct from other preachers at that time. “He looked normal, like us, clean-shaven and wearing a suit instead of a jalabeya,” said Ahmed Momtaz, who as a student travelled more than 50km to hear Khaled speak. “The other preachers all incited fear and made people feel they were not good enough. His message was one of hope, and he simplified things and talked about how people can live their lives better.”
Khaled’s following continued to grow as he tapped into a segment of population that had been disenfranchised by hardliners and proponents of political Islam. Khaled offered an attractive alternative: a pious figure dressed in modern clothes talking about good manners, reform and how young people can live their lives fully within the notions of Islam.
“Many people opposed him because he had not studied religion at al-Azhar University, but I found that he always talked about good manners and habits. I think he is responsible for guiding many people or helping them read more about religion,” said Marwa Ibrahim, who started following Khaled in 1999 when she was an art student and would listen to him in every mosque he went to. “He was the first to show young people that they can get engaged in charity work even if they don’t have money.”
While young people flocked to his sermons, older people were more sceptical about his age and lack of formal religious education. “My parents never liked him and they are almost certain that he’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” explained Eman Fouda, a young pharmacist living in an upscale part of Cairo. Many parents did end up accompanying their sons and daughters, though, and he started gaining followers in new segments of society.
As Khaled’s popularity soared, he began to attract the attention of security forces who were irked by his ability to mobilize young people. His presence became less welcome and his sermons were eventually moved from central Cairo to the outskirts to make it harder for his followers to gather. When he filmed the first episodes of a television programme in 1999, no Egyptian channel would air it. A year later, however, the Saudi-owned Iqraa channel gave him his own show, propelling him to new levels of celebrity across the Arabic-speaking world.
In 2004, Khaled moved to Birmingham, United Kingdom with his wife and young son. There, he launched the Life Makers programme, which mobilized young people across North Africa and the Middle East and beyond to establish charitable development and literacy initiatives. The programme’s website became the third most popular website in Arabic, attracting 26 million hits in 2005. At the peak of his popularity, Khaled became a symbol for moderate Islam and a way for Muslims to coexist with others, especially in the West.
In 2006, a Danish newspaper published controversial cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Instead of joining the chorus of anger that ensued, Khaled chose to travel to Copenhagen and try to build bridges by hosting an interfaith conference. This angered many Muslims around the world, including the prominent Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Over the next few years, Khaled had a new show almost every Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. His audiences grew and he became a household name. When the protests against President Hosni Mubarak erupted on 25 January 2011, led mainly by Egyptian youth, Khaled decided to fly back to the country and eventually sided with the revolutionaries, joining them in Tahrir Square.
The rise of political Islam after Mubarak’s fall, coupled with a period of political instability, left many young people critical of Islam and its role in political life. Khaled became more politically vocal during his television appearances and interviews. Shifting away from his preaching, he joined forces with other political figures and, in 2012, formed the Egypt Party, which he described as a development-focused political party seeking to empower the country’s youth. The move lost him many supporters, however, especially as the country became increasingly divided.
After the popularly backed military coup on 30 June 2013 overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, Khaled resigned as president of the Egypt Party and later apologized for having dabbled in politics, vowing to stick to development in the future. The apology came too late, however, as many of his followers accused him of hypocrisy. After security forces killed hundreds of Morsi supporters at a sit-in Rabaa Square, Khaled refused to comment, stressing that he had left politics before the event. This further angered his supporters from Islamist groups.
Khaled had supported Morsi when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, but he withdrew his support after the coup. Later, photos released on social media of Khaled voting for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the subsequent election angered young people further.
“I always thought he was a hypocrite, and after everything that has happened this was proven further to me. He wanted to brainwash people using the media to keep people ignorant and he’s harmed generations of young people,” said Dalia Kandil, a young Egyptian who grew up in the United States before moving back to Egypt several years ago.
Ahmed Momtaz, who used to listen to Khaled’s lectures, also feels he is a hypocrite. “In the past he used to talk about morals and manners, but now he’s completely moved away from that. I don’t believe him when he speaks anymore.”
“I used to like him a lot,” added Ahmed Bahaa, a young engineer. “Like everyone in the media now, I believe there are ulterior motives to what he’s saying – or not saying.”
His shows do not attract the same audience they once did, and he no longer gives lectures to packed auditoriums. Other young preachers have overshadowed him in reach and popularity. Eman Fouda has stopped watching him completely. “I personally don’t know anyone who still listens to him. Even Life Makers isn’t as popular as it was. He paved the way for new preachers.”
Try as he might, Khaled regularly fails to be completely free from politics. When he tweeted recently about a story about Prophet Muhammad from his latest show, mainly people accused him of supporting Qatar during the political confrontation between the Gulf nation and four other Arab states, including Egypt. He had to write a follow-up tweet specifically stating his support for Egypt’s government and its fight against terrorism, which Egypt has accused Qatar of supporting.
Although he continues to preach and promote his brand of development to young people, he has fallen a long way from the dizzy heights of 2007, when Time magazine voted him one of the most influential people in the world.