by Yasmin Moll
Many commentators both inside and outside Egypt have focused on the anticipated role of the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt. In many of these analyses, the Brotherhood is used as a metonym for the projected role of Islam in the public sphere. However, while the Brotherhood will certainly play a formative role in post-revolutionary politics and governance in Egypt, it does not have a monopoly on Islamic discourse in the country.
Indeed, self-described moderate Islamic televangelists (al-duaa al-mutawasitoon) – figures such as Amr Khaled, Mustafa Hosni and Moez Masoud – enjoy a popularity and credibility with ordinary Muslim youth in Egypt that is hard to match. While the official religious establishment of Al-Azhar shied away from supporting protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere on the eve of the January 25th Revolution, many of Egypt’s most prominent televangelists were vocal in their support of thawrat al-shabab (the youth revolution). And throughout the uprising and after, their catchwords have been religious tolerance (tasamuh) and religious co-existence (ta’ayush).
In Mubarak’s Egypt, these televangelists’ credibility and authority with their primarily youthful publics derived not from a mastery of the authoritative textual canon of the Islamic tradition a la Azharite scholars, but rather from their projected status as “ordinary Muslims” struggling to lead an Islamically-correct life in a world where it is manifestly difficult to do so. They had authority not because they were different from the youth they preached to, but because they themselves as just like them.
Islamic televangelists capitalized on this source of authority in the weeks leading up to the crumbling of Mubarak’s regime to reach out and lend their support to revolutionary youth. Indeed, many Islamic televangelists were eager to publicize their physical presence in Tahrir along-side protestors, a presence which was amplified a thousand-fold through its mediation on a variety of platforms – interviews on news channels, appearance on talk-shows, videos on Youtube, Facebook posts and press conferences.
Appearing on state television — for the first time in his career — after the fall of Mubarak, Amr Khaled, undoubtedly the most famous Islamic televangelist in the region and beyond, told the program host that, “I saw God in Tahrir…. When you entered Tahrir Square you immediately noticed a different spirit,” he said. “It is as if God was with the people there – Muslim and Christian, young and old, men and women, the people and the army.” Along with other televangelists, he framed Tahrir Square as an exemplar of a “New Egypt,” a utopian space of tolerant faith and positive action.
Following the success of the revolution, televangelists, again utilizing a diverse array of media platforms, called on youth to “build Egypt” (ibniy masr) with the ethos of Tahrir as a template. So far, such calls have not acquired specifically Islamic content, but rather revolve around nationalist notions of good citizenship and neo-liberal notions of economic productivity.
At the same time, the call to “build Egypt” articulates with the televangelical stress over the past decade on Muslim youth as agents of societal change (taghyeer igtimia’ii) and positive energy (taqaa mugeeba), characteristics enjoined, according to Islamic televangelists, by an Islam “correctly understood.” Within this understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim, moderate Islamic televangelists view their task as instilling in Muslim youth not only faith (iman), but also ethics (akhlaaq).
Although for televangelists these ethics spring from a specifically Islamic referent – with the Prophet Muhammed and his Companions hailed as timeless moral exemplars – they are universalistic in their scope. In other words, to be a good Muslim it is not sufficient to fulfill the ritual obligations of the faith – it is also necessary to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a good son or daughter and a good citizen.
Such an understanding of Islam is by no means the only one in Egypt. Indeed, moderate Islamic televangelists have been attacked by their more conservative counterparts for allegedly prioritizing ethics over creed (aqeeda). For their part, moderate Islamic televangelists counter that sound ethics spring from sound belief.
In an interview late last year, I asked a prominent televangelist for his thoughts on the label “multazim” (Islamically-committed, pious) often attached to the youth who follow him. He said that he actually doesn’t like this label because it is divisive and judgmental.
“It has become applied to outward appearances of religiosity, ignoring the inner dimension of ethics. The definition of multazim should be a person who loves God and tries,” he said.
For this televangelist, the space of tolerance extends not only to Muslims of differing levels of piety, but to non-Muslims as well. And such tolerance is fast becoming an important cornerstone of what Amr Khaled called, in the interview mentioned above, “akhlaaq al-thawra” (the ethics of the revolution). When the host pressed Khaled to elaborate on the task of religious discourse in the future of Egypt, Khaled replied: “to build Egypt, secure its national unity, as well as push us to accept the Other and a plurality of discourses.”
Indeed, whereas Islamic televangelists invoked such ethics prior to the revolution towards apolitical goals, they are now harnessed to democratic political change. And with millions of viewers and fans, their voices and views will no doubt be important forces in shaping the role of religion in Egypt’s public sphere.
Yasmin Moll is a Ph.D. student in socio-cultural anthropology at NYU and a documentary film-maker. She is in Cairo doing field-work research on Islamic televangelism. Yasmin is Egyptian, Swiss and American.