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The Americanization of Islam Is Marching On

Thus far, the Arab Spring has been a disappointment for those who expected that the Arab world would immediately embrace western-style democracy and the secular rule of law. In another way, however, Arab culture seems to be following a decidedly American path. The Economist reports:

SCREAMING hordes of teenage girls are a common sight at pop concerts and film premières. They are less usual when waiting to hear a religious preacher. But such girls—one gasping “I can see him, I can see him” through the folds of her niqab—awaited Moez Masoud, an Egyptian televangelist, recently in Cairo. He is part of a growing band of Islamic preachers who are true celebrities, says Yasmin Moll, a researcher at New York University, who attended Mr Masoud’s talk. […]

The new breed of televangelist has proved hugely popular with young viewers uninterested in traditional religious programming. But the Muslim religious and political establishment is uncomfortable with these new celebrities: none boasts traditional training as a cleric. In an odd alliance, secularists are also chary, worried that the brand of moderate Islam they peddle could prove to be the gateway to a more extreme version. But stuffy religious authorities are now being forced to acknowledge these stars’ pulling power. In January Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of al-Azhar, the Cairo-based font of Islamic orthodoxy, met Mr Khaled to discuss how to renew religious discourse in Islam. […]

The appeal of such preachers lies in large part in their very lack of official religious credentials. They present themselves as ordinary Muslims who have overcome personal struggles to discover their faith. Many say they were not religious when they were younger. Ahmad al-Shugairi, a Saudi preacher, describes a misspent youth in California, going to clubs with women and even drinking alcohol, before he returned to Saudi Arabia and Allah. Mr Masoud lost friends to a car accident, a drug overdose and cancer and he endured surgery and his own car crash before deciding to commit his life to God. The disappointment among Mr Gymnastiar’s followers at his second marriage—legal but widely frowned on in Indonesia—lay in the fact that it was at odds with his image as a devoted husband and family man, to many of his female followers at least. Sincerity and personal integrity are crucial to their appeal.

Until relatively recently, televangelists had been a uniquely American brand of Christianity — taking advantage of the mass media and modern technology to appeal to a broader audience than traditional forms of preaching. American religion has been sharpened by centuries of competition in a free religious markets; preachers and denominations have had to compete for converts and in (perhaps ironically) a Darwinian competition, the most efficient and effective competitors are increasingly dominant.

In the American religious competition, showmanship and the sophisticated use of the most modern media available have been hallmarks of successful religious entrepreneurship since the 18th century revivals.  American religion over the centuries has tended to remain intense and personal while denominational structures and traditional authorities have been weakened — and the United States has been a fertile seedbed for religious innovators like the Latter Day Saints, the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the greatest spiritual movement of modern times, Pentecostalism.

An American style religious market seems to be developing in the Middle East as Muslim televangelists appear strikingly similar to their American counterparts. Their use of the media, their lack of formal training and their populist take on religion — all of these are hallmarks of American-style televangelism. And just like in America, success and popularity have followed.

The rise of Islamic televangelists (teledawaists?) is potentially a very big deal.  While Sunni Islam does not have a clerical hierarchy like the Catholic and Orthodox churches, religious authority in the Sunni world has historically been linked to powerful and established networks.  Famous universities, Sufi leaders and in some cases quasi-dynastic groups have shaped the way Islam is understood and practiced.  The rise of populist religious authorities who short circuit the traditional sources of Islamic authority and guidance could well open a new era in Islamic religious life.

The revolutionary impact of the US on the Arab and Islamic world has always been more about culture and ideas than about formal political structures.  The rise of an ‘Americanized Islam’ based on popular TV preachers is yet another stage in an apparently unstoppable and unpredictable process.

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