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Beach, BBQ and the Koran

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.

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“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.”

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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.”

One need only spend a morning with Hosni and an afternoon with Abdullah to understand the struggle within Islam over modernizing a religion that for centuries has resisted change. This is an era when fatwas can be called in on talk shows and onetime village sheiks dab on makeup and practice enunciation for global broadcasts.

Religion, like sports, has become a competitive arena of buzz and marketing.

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“Sheiks used to yell and shout because the prophet himself spoke loudly,” Abdullah said. “But TV teaches you not to scream, not to yell as if the microphone is stuck deep in your throat. You’re trying to win people over. Our scholars, God forgive them, used to say the media was haram [forbidden] and Muslims should not even have TVs in their homes. The media was held up as a sin, and even three years ago, sheiks would meet and say, ‘Should we go on TV?’ The problem is, we started too late.”

Abdullah’s first television venture went bankrupt when donations dried up in 2007. The show was a defense of Islam against Christianity. It epitomized the views of fundamentalists that Islam should be a buttress against Western liberalism. With his laptop open in a sparse apartment at the edge of a train track, Abdullah is planning to launch an online video program and website that he said would reach 500,000 households in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

“I believe very soon there will be an awakening, and we will see true Islamic programming,” he said.

Hosni, who is married and has two children, is not concerned with Western conspiracies or leading his flock through thickets of Islamic laws. He preaches in conversational tones, using pragmatism that speaks less to a global resurgence of Islam than to themes such as honesty, frustration, dating, working women and redemption.

“One of the devil’s famous tricks is to instill complete despair that God will not forgive a person for committing a sin,” Hosni said in a recent sermon that sounded very unlike the more brooding teachings of conservative preachers. “Even if one commits a sin, there is a very wide gate for repentance. We are not encouraging sins, but we are talking about God’s unlimited mercy.”

Hosni did not grow up in a devout home; he graduated from college with a degree in business and worked in the financial departments of Nestle and the Saudi-owned Iqraa satellite TV channel. He described himself during those years as a man concerned with the accouterments and fun of the secular world. In 1999, he began regularly attending mosques and in 2006 received a degree from a two-year school that trains preachers.

“God chooses you,” he said. “There wasn’t one seminal moment in my life that turned me to this. It was more like signposts along the way. . . . When I started preaching, there was mockery, sarcasm and rejection from friends who had known me before. But eventually their resistance faded.”

For all his modern inflection and openness to the West, Hosni does have a bit of tradition in him. In two interviews at the New Generation International School on the sand-blown outskirts of Cairo, where he teaches morals to elementary school students, Hosni never made eye contact with an unveiled female interpreter.

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Some believe an unveiled woman can be a temptation that could nudge a man off the true path. Hosni’s eyes darted from wall to window, fixing on a point, darting again. He steeled himself in practiced piousness.

In one of his sermons, Hosni had urged men to -- instead of fantasizing about their girlfriends wearing bikinis -- imagine them veiled and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Such an anecdote might appear old school, too righteous for a preacher like him. But Hosni said that being modern does not mean contradicting Islam; it means finding a way to be devout in a modern world.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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