Engaging with Islam – with an agenda of peace, reconciliation and truth seeking

Here’s something you probably won’t hear at church, but should: Jews and Muslims are not “the enemy”.

I wrote yesterday about the need to engage appropriately with skeptics of the Christian faith. It’s also important for Christians to engage with people of other faiths and religions. The most important route to lasting global peace right now is for the three major monotheistic religions to find ways to peacefully engage with each other.

It is amazing to me that the Christian right wing in the United States has so easily and quickly engaged – even integrated – with Judaism (and especially Zionistic Judaism). I don’t want to comment on that issue in this blog entry, but it does indicate that major religions are able to find ways to engage with each other when they share a common goal (like the protection of the State of Israel). What better goal for all religious leaders to have than world peace?

So, it was with interest that I read about Amr Khaled in the (very conservative) Spectator magazine Christmas edition. This is a Muslim cleric who seems to be gaining the kind of reputation in the Islamic world that Billy Graham or Bill Hybels have in the Protestant Christian world. Although there would be obviously be significant theological differences between us, I nevertheless support his efforts to bring about a calmer, more rational, more engaging Islam. That can only be a good thing, and should be supported by all Christian everywhere. Maybe this is a common space for all religious people (and those of no faith, too) to play.

But read the article for yourself (at The Spectator website, or an extract below) and make up your own mind.

Can this man defeat al-Qa’eda?

The Spectator, 18 DECEMBER 2010

Amr Khaled’s TV preaching has made him Islam’s answer to Billy Graham – and he’s mounting a direct attack on the terror camps of Yemen

Aden, Yemen

There’s a new weapon in the war on terror, ladies and gentlemen. Never mind drones and spies, surgical strikes and covert ops, they’re old hat. There’s a time and a place for them, of course, and we must thank our spooks and soldiers for helping to keep us safe, for foiling plots and knocking off the odd wayward beardie in distant deserts and freezing mountain passes. But that’s not really draining the swamp.

For those of us who would prefer not to live under sharia law; for those of us who like drinking and dancing and freely consorting with the other sex; freedom of expression, democracy and Test Match Special and all the other accoutrements, however decadent, of the West, there is good news to report. It turns out we have a supremely sleek new armament in the arsenal, it’s home-grown within the Islamic world, is long-term and sustainable, doesn’t cost squillions, has nothing to do with foreign infidels or armies and it — or rather he — has just stepped on to the battlefield in Yemen. Al-Qa’eda, prepare to meet your nemesis. He is the telemufti.

Amr KhaledAmr Khaled, to give him his proper name, is a hugely popular preacher man from Egypt. He’s Islam’s answer to Billy Graham and rapidly becoming famous throughout the world. His website, amrkhaled.net, is an institution from Morocco to Oman. In a 2008 poll to determine the world’s top public intellectual, in which more than 500,000 voted, Khaled came in sixth. The New York Times has called him ‘the world’s most famous and influential Muslim television preacher’. We should also call him a godsend: a Muslim celebrity who is a proponent of inter-faith dialogue and who urges hundreds of thousands of young Muslims, who might otherwise be swayed by Osama, to rub along peacefully with the West.

The government of Yemen has been taking action against al-Qa’eda and knocking out terrorist cells. We now know, thanks to WikiLeaks, that the Americans have been doing the same. Khaled’s programme, officially endorsed by Sanaa, is a non-lethal supplement and, if properly supported, looks like the best bet for a long-term solution to radicalisation. It bears no harmful Western fingerprint or funding and aims to defeat ignorance through learning.

I met Khaled in Aden during Yemen’s hosting of the Gulf Cup 20 football tournament. Conventional wisdom had suggested this was an al-Qa’eda spectacular waiting to happen, that it was foolhardy in the extreme to stage the tournament here at all. As a headline in America’s Foreign Policy magazine put it, ‘Al-Qa’eda bombings, drive-by shootings, and penalty kicks… what are they thinking?’ And yet, as is so often the case, conventional wisdom, at least as expressed by the media, was wildly off target. Sorry to disappoint the doommongers, but there were no bombs. It was a rousing success.

Dodging the Yemeni football team, I made my way to Khaled’s suite in a swish resort hotel that overlooks the Gulf of Aden. Ragged mountains reared up on the horizon beyond an aquamarine sea. Aides came and went, scrutinising their mobile phones. Eventually, Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled strode into the room, immaculately blazered, crisply shaved, poised and smiling. The very model of a charismatic televangelist.

Khaled was in Yemen to launch his latest project, A New Hope, which is aimed squarely at Al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — widely seen as the greatest growing threat to the West. These are the beardies, you may remember, who brought you the failed underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the failed cargo plane bomb, the one that never detonated over America. But what AQAP may lack in experience and professionalism, they make up for with deadly enthusiasm. One of the articles in their internet magazine, Inspire, is headlined ‘How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom’.

So how do you plan to persuade Yemen’s youth that AQAP isn’t the right path to take? ‘Yemen is a country of peace and moderation. That’s how it’s described in the Koran,’ Khaled said. ‘Our project is to pull out the roots of extremism in Yemen and the Arab world, it’s to show the true beautiful colours of this country.’

The plan in Yemen is reassuringly straightforward, so obvious, in fact, one wonders why no one has thought about it before. It doesn’t involve missile strikes. ‘Violence does not succeed in confronting violence,’ Khaled said. The only army involved is Khaled’s phalanx of 100 clerics and 5,000 youth volunteers who will descend on every city in Yemen to confront extremism, preaching the ‘true, merciful Islam’ uncontaminated by talk of slaughtering infidels, imagined caliphates and a laundry bag of grievances. It will be a mix of some of the oldest technology known to mankind, including the pulpit during Friday prayers, and the latest wizardry on the internet. It started in late November and Khaled is convinced that before 2011 is out, AQAP will be beating a snivelling retreat. ‘We’ll show the whole world within one year that Yemen is bright and beautiful,’ he said with a smile.

Can he do it? Well he’s certainly had an impressive trajectory so far. He graduated from Cairo University in 1988 with a degree in accounting but soon discovered a taste and a talent for preaching. He became so popular that the Egyptian government grew nervous about his influence and banned him from speaking. Exile led Khaled to his vocation. He decamped to London where he discovered that far from being entirely corrupted, the West was a place where opportunity thrived. ‘I lived a wonderful life in freedom,’ he said. Khaled returned to Egypt with a dream: ‘to build a bridge between the East and the West’. And so far he’s done remarkably well. He has advised the British government and the UN, worked with Nike, Queen Rania and the Saudi royal family. But Khaled’s Yemen venture is by far his boldest move yet. It involves a three-pronged attack. First, there will be a high-profile media campaign, backed by the Yemeni government, making use of print media, television, mosques and the internet. This Khaled describes as ‘a battle for hearts and minds’, a concept that sounds a little more credible coming from a Muslim preacher than it does from a foreign army of occupation.

Next, Khaled’s UK-based Right Start Foundation will identify and train a new generation of youth leaders from across Yemen, placing them on the frontline of the battle of ideologies in an overt operation to undermine extremism. ‘To defeat the extremists we have to make the people very positive. We will focus on the majority of the youth who want to build not destroy.’

Lastly, Khaled’s team has chosen 100 of the Muslim world’s most respected clerics to preach moderation from pulpit and podcast. ‘Who gave the extremists the authority to speak on behalf of Muslims?’ Khaled was fired up by now, asking rhetorical questions in the manner of an evangelist.

‘All the world is asking, what is the Muslim world doing about this problem of extremism and terrorism? The truth is, Muslim scholars and preachers haven’t done enough. We need to move beyond just words, saying this is not Islam, this terrorism, it’s haram [forbidden]. We must actually do something.’

I asked him: why do you think you can succeed in defeating Islamist terrorism when so many brilliant minds have failed? ‘In 2007, I said to the youth of the Arab world — send me your dreams. I received 700,000 dreams in one month. They wrote to me talking about education, health, co-existence and peace. So I can speak on behalf of Muslims.’ Khaled does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence — it’s something he has in common with many successful Egyptians — but he needs this confidence to be persuasive.

And for those of us with more than a passing interest in history, the choice of Yemen for this bold, potentially dangerous experiment is irresistible. This is the birthplace of Arab civilisation. The Prophet Mohammed referred to it as ‘the land of faith and wisdom’. Why Yemen, I asked Khaled? ‘Yemenis represented 30 per cent of all the replies I received when I asked for the dreams of Arab youth,’ he said. What does that mean? ‘It means Yemen is ready.’

To win any war it is essential to know your enemy. As Yemen’s foreign minister Abu Bakr Abdullah Al Qirbi observed in the Huffington Post in November, ‘If underestimating one’s enemy is a disaster waiting to happen, overestimating him is also a mistake.’ Khaled won’t fall into either trap. He understands Muslim youth — and their limitations. He prefers to mock Osama, to belittle his understanding of the Koran rather than portray him as a warrior. He knows that talking up the threat of Islamism will only make it seem a more glamorous proposition to desperate young men.

‘Arab civilisation is currently going through one of the worst moments in its history,’ said Khaled with some urgency. ‘The West looks at us — Muslims and Islam and the Arab world in particular — like we’re the cause of the world’s troubles. But God described our prophet, and the religion he revealed, as mercy for the world. We want to prove that the Koran is right — that we are the world’s mercy.’

I left Khaled’s hotel thinking that we could all learn from his approach; wondering whether perhaps we all need to be both braver and less hysterical in the face of the unpleasant but frankly limited threat al-Qa’eda represents. Writing in the New York Times recently, Roger Cohen offered a rare glimmer of common sense when he advised Americans to show ‘inat’, the word coined by besieged Sarajevans during the Bosnian war to describe their ‘contempt-cum-spite’ for the gunners on the hills, which they expressed by carrying on as usual under fire. Cohen described the unfettered growth of the American security bureaucracy as ‘a greater long-term threat’ to the US than a few ‘madmen’ in Yemen. Let’s show ‘inat’, as Khaled does, and remember that ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a decent guide to dealing with al-Qa’eda, too.

Source: The Spectator, 18 DECEMBER 2010

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