I’ve been taking an informal survey of the audiences I speak to in America.
How many of you have heard of al-Qaeda? Every hand goes up.
What about Amr Khaled? Maybe one or two people know who he is.
Many of them were still quite happy to tell me what they thought of the Middle East.
Imagine if people in the Arab world knew who the Crips and the Bloods were, but had never heard of Barack Obama, and still acted like they were experts on America.
In my last column I wrote about how the intersection of four trends will shape the Middle East: the youth bulge, the religious revival, the breakdown in traditional socio-economic patterns and the increased interaction between people of different backgrounds.
These trends can lead to a generation of angry young people with a faith-based oppositional stance towards modernity, or help spur a generation of business and social entrepreneurs who reimagine and remake their region, their religion and the world.
I asked the question, “Who is speaking to this volatile energy – this restless generation – in the Middle East?”
Al-Qaeda gets a boatload of sensational media attention in America – which makes us think that they are the only social force in the entire Arab world. But far and away the most powerful voice speaking to Arab youth is Amr Khaled. And that bodes well for people there, and people here.
In a survey conducted by Akbar Ahmed and Hadia Mubarak and published in Journey Into Islam, Amr Khaled stood out as the top contemporary role model in every country they visited in the Arab world. He regularly sells out stadiums, whether in Alexandria or Copenhagen. He hosts various shows on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel, and his website gets more hits than Oprah’s does in the US. My colleague Zeenat Rahman traveled through Europe visiting Muslim communities and said that she heard Amr Khaled spoken of as a hero from young Muslims in every country she went to.
When I met Khaled a month ago at the Alliance of Civilizations conference in Madrid, I was struck by two things: he is genuinely passionate about helping young people become powerful and productive members of their societies, and he genuinely believes that Muslims can and should make major contributions to modernity.
My colleague on this website, Katherine Marshall, wrote recently about Khaled’s mobilization of young people to serve their communities in the Middle East.
I’ve been just as impressed by his insistence that Muslim youth in the West need to be active citizens of the countries they live in. In a 2006 New York Times Magazine profile, he is quoted as saying, “The Prophet respected the right of citizenship…Muslims living in the West should similarly respect the rights and duties of citizenship. Your parents came here a long time ago, and they had other priorities. That is fine, but your priority is to make sure we are a part of this society.”
In 2007 he launched A Call for Coexistence. In the first program, he says about Islam and to Muslim youth: “Our religion orders us to coexist. We must learn how to respect, accept, and work with each other. Coexist, but never forget your roots.”
He is critical of contemporary Muslim communities, optimistic about their transformation and passionate about young Muslims living up to the ideals of their tradition as agents of that change.
Al-Qaeda sees young people as powerful destroyers. Amr Khaled sees them as powerful creators.
And because we were made to create and not destroy, Amr Khaled is gaining a huge following of young people, and is going to change the Middle East, and the world.