Moderate Muslim voice falls silent

Charismatic young leader leaves Egypt as his popular sermons come under government scrutiny.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Outside the massive mosque, triple-parked Mercedes clogged the street. Inside, thousands of prosperous Cairenes vied for an open spot, their numbers forcing the crowd to spill outside as they waited for Amr Khaled to give his weekly sermon.

But instead of the moderate former accountant with the Western-style suit and soft voice, a government-sanctioned prayer leader took the stand - and the crowd's mood quickly changed.

"All the people started shouting, 'Where is Amr Khaled? We're here for him!' " says Mohammed Ragdy, a young man who traveled an hour by bus on that late summer evening to reach the mosque. "It was like a revolution."

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It also may have been the charismatic leader's last speech in Egypt for the foreseeable future. While Mr. Khaled finally spoke that night - delivering an impassioned, four-hour speech that touched on the usually off-limits area of politics - he did not appear again in public, sparking intense speculation as to his whereabouts among supporters and detractors alike. Finally, it was confirmed last week on his website (www.forislam.com) that Khaled had moved to London to pursue doctoral religious studies.

Khaled's supporters say he was forced out by an authoritarian administration that feels threatened by uncontrolled Islamic expression. A government spokesman denied that Amr Khaled had been forced to stop preaching in Egypt. But for almost three decades, Egyptian officials have been fighting a militant movement that assassinated a president and scores of tourists, and once threatened to topple the government in an Islamic revolution.

The militants were crushed. But worried by an Islamic revival that continues to gain strength, Egyptian authorities are scrutinizing even relatively moderate religious leaders as they struggle to control a message that is reaching broad swaths of Egyptian society.

"Mass crowds, people in the streets, those manifestations in a state like Egypt are frightening to the government," says Patrick Haenni, a sociologist at the Center of Economic, Legal, and Social Studies, a French-funded institute in Cairo. "But Amr Khaled is the beginning of a new age of Islam in Egypt, and around the world. You can stop the man, but you can't stop the trend."

Khaled has little in common with tpolitical Islam\t in Egypt of the late 1970s and '80s that emerged from the Cairo slums. His base of support comes from the elite, and he is more flexible than some of the stern traditionalists in turbans. Khaled convinced several movie stars to cover their tresses under head scarves and choose less lascivious roles, but he didn't insist they quit acting altogether.

Salma Ashraf remembers her surprise at seeing Khaled playing racquetball in the company of women on a beach, dressed in shorts and a Nike shirt. "He told me, 'Being a good Muslim doesn't mean you have to abandon your regular life, as long as your instincts are pure,'" the young woman says.

Khaled's delivery is evangelical and emotional, but the message is morally conservative and legitimizes wealth. "Amr Khaled is introducing a new way of living Islam, but his message is neofundamentalist," notes Mr. Haenni.

In one typical Khaled story, two young women head to the mall, but the more religious one insists on visiting the mosque first. As they listen to the sermon, the unveiled woman starts to cry, and asks for a head scarf. Later that day, she is killed by a car. Fortunately, she has renewed her commitment to Islam.

Khaled's call, "Turn to God while you still have the chance," has resonated with young women looking for spiritual fulfillment to augment material wealth. Darea Kamaleddine was an instructor at a fitness college when she ditched her spandex for Islamic dress after listening to Khaled's tapes. The capri pants and spaghetti-strap tops still hang in her closet, "But thanks to God and thanks to Amr Khaled, I took the veil," she says.

Khaled's influence on men is not as obvious. Ragdy, an accountant, owns more than 40 of Khaled's tapes. He was something of a party boy, but now, "I look at women differently, not in a sexy way," he says.

Khaled was not a revolutionary, despite the outcry when he was silenced. Stifling peaceful Islamic voices is shortsighted, says Mamoun El Hodeibi, acting head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed political party.

Khaled still appears on satellite TV every night during Ramadan, but it's unclear how much longer his sermons will continue. The government "requested [an end to] all his activities calling people to Islam," the article on forislam.com says.

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