Younger Muslims Tune In to Upbeat Religious Message

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post, December 2, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Moez Masoud is a Muslim televangelist, 29, who preaches about Islam in youthful Arabic slang. He says imams who outlawed art and music are misinterpreting their faith. He talks about love and relationships, the need to be compassionate toward homosexuals and tolerant of non-Muslims.

Television preaching in the Middle East was once largely limited to elderly scholars in white robes reading holy texts from behind a desk and sometimes inciting violence against nonbelievers. But as TV has evolved from one or two heavily controlled state channels to hundreds of diverse, private satellite offerings, Masoud and perhaps a dozen others have emerged as increasingly popular alternatives.

Masoud is fast becoming an influential star among youth. And as a product of American-founded schools in the region, Masoud is able to speak with authority about Western values in a way many others can't. His most recent show, a 20-part series that aired this fall on Iqra, one of the region's leading religious channels, attracted millions of viewers from Syria to Morocco.

The new Muslim televangelists are riding a satellite TV boom that began after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the region's elites were shocked by the power of CNN. The Middle East now has at least 370 satellite channels, nearly triple the number three years ago. Among them are 27 dedicated to Islamic religious programming, up from five two years ago.

On a recent Monday night in Alexandria, the ancient Mediterranean city on Egypt's north coast, more than 1,500 people poured into a huge hall to hear Masoud speak. The crowd divided by sex, as is customary in much of the Muslim world. They were mostly in their late teens or 20s, university students or young professionals.

Masoud, tall and trim, wearing corduroy pants and a maroon, open-necked shirt, descended stairs at the back of the stage to loud applause. "Salaam aleikum," he said, urging his audience to bow their heads for an opening prayer. For the next 90 minutes, Masoud worked the stage like a seasoned performer, his voice rising and then falling to a whisper, mixing Koranic verses with jokes and parables.

"We will be responsible to God on Judgment Day," he said, arguing that violence against non-Muslims violates God's will. "He will ask: Did you represent our religion correctly? If you feel happy that non-Muslims are being killed, this is wrong. They are our brothers."

Many Muslim preachers say it is sinful for unmarried women and men to mingle without supervision. But Masoud told his young crowd that while sex before marriage was wrong, it was important for men and women to get to know one another.

As soon as Masoud finished, dozens of young people pushed toward the stage to talk to him. "He's better than Brad Pitt," one woman said. For nearly two hours after the end of the lecture, Masoud took people aside and listened to their problems, some told through tears.

Masoud speaks like an advertising executive because he is one. His day job is producing and directing commercials. He grew up in Kuwait and attended American high school there, later graduating from the elite American University in Cairo. His easy fluency with English and American culture adds to criticism that Masoud and others are pushing a sort of Westernized "Islam lite."

In an interview in his Cairo apartment, where he lives with his wife and young son, Masoud said he has memorized the entire Koran -- he recites long passages with ease. He said he has spent the past six years in intensive study of Islam with renowned scholars, including Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt.

As fundamental teachings, Masoud advocates adherence to prayer five times a day, peace toward all and abstinence from alcohol, sex outside of marriage and violence. Beyond those principles, he said, Islam is suffering from a "crisis of interpretation."

In recent years, the Arab world has been increasingly "Westernized" by Hollywood movies and sexually charged music videos. Some Muslims have reacted with extreme, fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, while others have turned secular. Masoud offers a middle-ground solution, balancing religious devotion with an acceptance of modern life.

Relaxing with a cup of Nescafe, Masoud picked up his acoustic guitar and strummed a catchy tune: "There is no contradiction between real Islam and the modern world."