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Beach, BBQ and the Koran

Imam Mostafa Hosni wins a following with a repackaged, softer Islam that focuses on worldly problems of Egypt's young adults.

December 31, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — The Islamic preacher slipped on a pair of shorts and talked about the Koran while playing beach volleyball, eating barbecue and joking about hot cars and palaces in paradise.

If the West were to dream up its version of an ideal imam, he might look and sound like Mostafa Hosni, a 30-year-old former Nestle accountant who's comfortable in argyle sweaters and hip to self-help. A video of his seaside sermon posted on his website was a cross between a travel brochure and a spiritual quest for the BlackBerry generation.

"We decided to leave the city and go somewhere with a sea, clear sky and mountains so that we can meditate about almighty God's greatness," Hosni says with a gentle surf behind him. "It is hard for one to meditate about that in the crowded city. In fact, we want to draw some link between the beauty of the Earth and that of paradise."

The West's picture of the Muslim preacher is often caricature: a bearded man in a tunic bellowing ancient verses and spinning asides about American imperialism. But that icon is changing as the image and message of mainstream Islam are softened to appeal to upwardly mobile, twentysomething followers less concerned with dogma than bleeping out life's annoyances on the way to success.

"I try to preach with simple language, not the language of scholars," said Hosni, who has a weekly TV talk show and whose sermons are sold on CDs in front of Cairo University. "People are attracted to new preachers like me because they want religious solutions to daily problems, not someone talking to them about the afterlife."

Hosni's path is similar to that of other popular TV preachers, such as Amr Khaled and Moez Masoud, charismatic men who started in commerce and were eventually drawn to religious fervor and a desire to repackage Islam. This brand of preacher has not eclipsed the influence of imams and clerics, but it has forced traditional holy men to reckon with the power of the Internet and the allure of simplifying centuries-old texts to fit modern times.

The new preachers are an intriguing blend of enthusiasm and calculation. Hosni is casual but pious, answering questions with schoolboy earnestness, careful about how he might be perceived. He is as adept at deciphering the market penetration of satellite TV as he is at weaving metaphors with verses of the Koran.

"People want to change their lives in the way they are devout," said Hosni, who sat the other day with his head newly shaved from a recent hajj pilgrimage. "We are in a defining time in Islam, and this will help us open ourselves up to the world."

Unlike the radical Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist clerics, Hosni doesn't blame the state for the problems arising from Egypt's corruption and troubling economic transition from national industries to open markets. This suits his followers, upper-middle-class professionals who came of age during the country's Islamic revival and have largely abandoned politics to seek fulfillment in a compliant religion that speaks to the frustrations of jobs, marriage and family.

Islam, he said, should not deprive people of "the different pleasures of life."

This broadening of religion beyond the austere rhetoric and walls of the mosque appeals to Mai Hafez, a 19-year-old university student who turned to Hosni after finding puritan sheiks too detached from her lifestyle and far too constricting.

"Those conservative preachers always tell you: 'There is no time. The Judgment Day is coming. When will you wake up?' You feel you are doomed," she said. "Hosni understands what we talk about and what problems we face and how we think. In colleges, we talk about dating. We don't talk about the Koran or religion, and Hosni talks about our issues. . . . He has a very simple style that allows him to reach our minds and souls."

Such praise can draw a wince from Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah. He does not wear chinos and there probably is no argyle sweater in his bottom drawer. Abdullah is a hard-line Salafi sheik, a man who dresses in gray tunics and whose wife is veiled from head to toe, including black gloves on her hands. Although he admires their stagecraft and concedes that old-school imams could learn from their marketing, Abdullah condemns modern televangelists, such as Hosni, as demeaning to Islam.

"These new preachers are nice and pleasant, but they follow the line of the government. They are not preaching Islam. It's a sham," he said. "They are an extension of the Western conspiracy to influence the region. . . . It doesn't impact the spirit. The girls in their audiences wear veils, but they also wear lipstick and tight clothes. They think they're religious because the modern preachers tell them so. They're deceived."

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