When he speaks he attracts large crowds. He does not talk to them about their political worries, nor does he extol the national football side's latest exploits. His message focuses on religion and a fresh perspective on how to interpret it. His audience is mesmerised, because he is able, without diverting them from their core belief, to make practising religion simpler and more logical. He strays from the hard line approach of the traditional antiquated sheikh, with an emphasis on making Islam more acceptable in contemporary global perception. His impressive oratorical powers have made him a superstar, his influence spreading to other Muslim countries.
Amr Khaled is a good-looking, well-dressed, articulate young man. He has a university degree but does not make much use of it in his professional career. The reason is that he has discovered a far more lucrative way of making a living.
The authorities, sensing his growing popularity, first had him move his place of gathering outside the centre of Cairo and then decided to ban him completely, boosting his following immensely and turning him into a national hero. Paranoia with political threat potential is one of the overriding policy guidelines in official circles these days and Mr. Khaled was certainly not to be taken lightly. Ignored, he could easily have converted his hold on people to unstoppable political power.
The most potent trump card Amr Khaled holds is being portrayed to his vast base of admirers as a devout practitioner, someone who uses the cover of Islam to convey his message. That cover has become a useful disguise under which minds can be subverted and targets realised. It is sufficient to invoke a verse from the Koran, no shortage there, and you can tell the masses anything. The problem is that the vast array of topics and the wide disparity between them makes the Koran a rather elastic basis for finding the right direction. Mr. Khaled's success, comparable to American evangelists who end up being exposed for the swindlers they are, reflects a huge gap in society. The grip of Islam is so powerful and its influence so widespread that people are petrified of analysing any issue outside its shadow. Yet they, especially the young tempted by the material attractions of the West, do not wish to watch the bandwagon of fun and modernity go by without them. So Mr. Khaled offers a tempting compromise: you can still go to heaven while enjoying this life. That contrasts sharply with: the only way to get there is through holy war, austere lives and hardship.
In both cases, however, religion is the umbrella under which everything must be done.
Creeping stealthily into the mindset of Egyptian society is an ominous ghost. Religion is becoming a major force, covering a broad spectrum of life from dawn to dusk and from the cradle to the grave. It is a phenomenon that imposes itself on many aspects of people's existence: what they eat and drink, what they wear, what they learn at school, how they answer the phone, how they talk, how they think and how intolerant they have become to anyone not pertaining to their creed. At times, one gets the distinct impression that people have become zombies, guided solely by a pre-ordained fatalistic approach to life and harbouring a totally impractical sense of whatever control they have over their future and their fate.
The harsh living conditions the vast majority of the population are facing have fostered an enormous boost in religious allure. Denied the chance to procure the minimum needs of sustaining a decent life, many people have given up on ever being able to find justice or comfort in this life and have decided to rely on the afterlife instead. Religion is thus a placebo conveniently available to millions and has, consequently, turned into a powerful instrument of manipulation and control. It has assumed dimensions totally out of its league and has become a political force with dangerous tentacles and horrendous implications.
Another boon for religion is purely political. The Egyptian regime has performed a top notch demolition job on all its non-religious opposition. Puppet political parties have been decimated by a concerted official propaganda campaign and by systemic infiltration by the regime's party of every party perceived as a threat. Devoid of a secular alternative, exactly what the regime has shrewdly engineered, the mosque becomes the only avenue in which the masses flock to seek solutions. Any discussion on Egypt's future under democratic colours is immediately dismissed as counterproductive by invoking the very argument the regime has so skilfully instilled in even the most intelligent minds of most Egyptian intellects. Religion, they stubbornly maintain, would quickly jump in, and who wants that?
Owing to the method by which religion has assumed such prominence, meaning out of need more than genuine faith, it has turned quite commercial and has had its spiritual side heavily denigrated. Society is littered with the Egyptian version of evangelists luring thousands with articulate sermons and enriching themselves in the process. Amr Khaled is the most prominent example. He is also a clear anomaly: most preachers are bearded men in jalabiahs who do not exude appeal and who mostly engage in bigoted dialogue of the type that reminds the whole world just how unappealing and anachronistic their faith is.
Religion, after decades of unrelenting infiltration, has truly split up society and has generated much cause for suffering and dismay in the process. Islam, the hard-line vindictive version of it, as opposed to its more docile side, has assumed centre stage. Its guardians, people you wouldn't trust with cleaning your car, let alone instructing dozens of millions with the rules of how to live, have become role models and have cast an extremely regressive shadow on all of Egyptian society. They issue their fatwas in abundance and have managed to purge common sense from their agendas. Some are able to virtually hypnotise their audiences with nonsense you would be ashamed to have your young children hear. They move insidiously and spread their venom all over. The authorities pretend to resist the influx of religiously-clad ideas and habits, but are effectively assisting the religious movement by turning a blind eye and, in some cases, providing outright support. Strong and flagrant discrimination against the Copts of Egypt is a clear example.
At any rate, religion has become a lucrative business and has managed to change the way of life of an entire society. Even the well-to-do have developed widespread and ostentatious habits of religiosity, with the showing-off side of it being far more pronounced than actual spirituality. Wearing the head scarf in some circles is a must. Women can be stoned for shunning it and some do it just to stay out of trouble, with no real conviction. What is astounding is that the headscarf has extended to many who do not need to be intimidated into wearing it but do it out of what is ostensibly true belief, while actually being no more than a trend-following experience.
That segment of society has been lulled into a bizarre make-believe world of pagan dimensions, in which superstition and mythology reign supreme and in which the world of freedom and technological marvels are the work of the devil. Never mind that luxury and the fruit of western technological success are savoured when affordable, the core belief is that Islam must eventually rule the world for true salvation of the soul and cleansing of the mind.
What is truly grave is the totally unfounded belief that the way of Islam is the only way to a fulfilling afterlife and that anyone not espousing the same faith will definitely burn in hell. That has resulted in disdain for other faiths and intolerance at an unprecedented level in all of Islam's history. Over-zealousness on the part of a few self-employed defenders of the faith -and we're not talking terrorists here- has led to an odious air of coercion and intimidation towards anyone not practising the same faith. That has generated an aura of trepidation in the mind of anyone not born into the faith. Non-Muslims are careful not to ruffle any feathers, so mosques sprout up everywhere and the din of their speakers is rarely contested. During prayer time, especially the main weekly prayer at noon on Friday, prayer mats are spread in the corridors of buildings and on the streets, deliberately blocking free passage, as though daring anyone to challenge their presence. The practising of religion is exercised at such a provocative level that one cannot avoid the feeling that the general attitude is one in which the practitioners are defying the world and longing for anyone to express annoyance, for that would provide them with a convenient target to which their wrath can be directed with the loyal support of an angry mob and with the guaranteed backing of a grateful God.
In trying to understand the worrying rise of religious intolerance in Egypt, I am frequently informed that even in the United States the tendency to express excessive zeal in the practice of religion is growing. Many blind defenders of the Islamic faith refuse to acknowledge the ominous spread of religious intolerance in Islam, preferring to mitigate the effect by drawing skewed comparisons. They point out that all religions have their flaws and that Islam is no more inflexible than the others. A clear example is the burgeoning church-going trend in the United States that reminds many of the blinkered Islamist zealots, albeit at a far milder level; they have increased significantly in recent years, both in numbers and in fervency.
In America they do have many pockets of preachers and dogmatic practitioners who do not take kindly to being criticised or pressured into decreasing their rites or any form of religious practice. Under the last Bush, the inclination to invoke religion in many areas in which religion hitherto had no business became quite scary. Albeit a typically warped and superficial argument, it was so easy for the Islamists to deflect critics simply by mentioning the Bush religious antics.
That comparison is a grotesque act of distortion.
The most outrageous aspect of it is that coercion is almost absent in America and quite ubiquitous in Egypt. Sure, you will find small communities in America in which the young are taught religion in a pervasive manner and in which contempt is showered on church avoiders. You will also find a few politicians heavily imbued with hard-line religious ideology. But you will never find intimidation driven to the point of frightening people into submission at the risk of being physically attacked. You will not find American towns rising in defiance of a member of the Christian religion converting to Judaism or even to Islam. Indeed, the famous pugilist, Cassius Clay, converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali with no great fuss being raised. I wonder how an Egyptian Muslim football superstar would fare in Egypt, were he to declare his intention of converting to another religion.
It is certainly extremely worrying to contemplate a religiously-dominated political system. That leads many to incorrectly conclude that, if given the chance through political freedom to accede to power, a religious force would quickly embark on a 'cleansing' operation to purge the nation of its unholy baggage: headscarves for all women, no drinking, no tourism, forced visits to the mosque, Sharia legal system and a host of unsavoury rules that would make life in Egypt similar to Taliban Afghanistan.
What is overlooked in that picture, if such a dreaded scenario is so abhorred, is where the solution is to be found. There are two questions by way of an answer. The first is: if we do not allow democracy to hold sway, is the existing regime able to take us out of the quagmire it has so clumsily thrown us into? The second is: can you think of any example in which a democratically-elected religious government turned tyrannical?
I suggest you think hard: your children's future may well depend on the outcome.