Lifestyle Islam

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The theme of our next guest voice explores two concepts not usually associated with each other: Islamism and consumer culture.

Islamists – those who believe the Koran is a political manifesto as well as moral guide – often chose to live differently than the rest of society, and as an increasing number of enterprising businessmen are now discovering, where there are choices, there’s money to be made.

Ursula Lindsey is an American journalist who has spent the past five years in Cairo, the self-styled seat of Middle Eastern culture, and writes a blog on Middle Eastern art and culture. Here she explores this brave new world of Islam as a lifestyle choice.

Moez Masoud is a young Egyptian TV preacher who’s getting an increasing amount of attention in Cairo and beyond, offering Islam’s version of American televangelism. He started out doing programs for expatriate Muslims, in English – a niche market – but he’s now a rising star among Arabic language preachers as well. He is probably the second most popular preacher after super-star Amr Khaled. As you can see from the clips available on YouTube, he has a very heart-felt, enthusiastic delivery, and a progressive (not to say New Age) outlook. He once explained his relationship to God to me during an interview in terms of a Bryan Adams song: “Everything I do, I do it for you. I would die for you. I’d cry for you. Walk the wild for you. etc.” He concluded, “That is submission to Allah.” The message of someone like Masoud–globalized, pop-culture heavy–isn’t anti-Western or anti-modernity. His real message is, “You can have everything the West has, just the Islamic version of it.” Masoud is a representative of a larger trend of taking Western trends and concepts and re-branding them as Islamic. (Islamist TV executives who founded an Islamic satellite channel once told me their number one role model was Oprah.)
 Today you have Islamic fashion, Islamic real estate, Islamic recreation, Islamic soda, Islamic banking of course. You have veiled aerobics instructors that give classes only to women. You have magazine spreads on the latest most fashionable way to pin your hejab. You have tens of thousands of kids going to the concerts of Sami Youssef, who sings pop songs about the Prophet Muhammad and Allah. In today’s Cairo, there is a large section of the population who express their religiosity through consumer choices. And there is a growing industry that capitalizes in a myriad ways on the “Islam” brand. This kind of “lifestyle Islam” is mostly devoid of political content. Masoud and Amr Khaled avoid any comment on domestic Egyptian politics–they certainly don’t advocate for the overthrow of the state, or for any form of violence. In fact, when I interviewed Masoud I was struck by how naive his political views were–basically, that if everyone were to become “a good Muslim,” all the country’s problems would be solved. The preachers and the businessmen who support various Islamic ventures also aren’t generally anti-Western. They want to beat the West at its own capitalist game–present Islam in a sleek, competitive, appealing package (and make a bit of profit along the way). Of course they are socially conservative by Western standards, and may have aspirations of eventually changing Egyptian society. But it seems to me that the middle class Egyptian who are fans of Masoud and who buy into an Islamic lifestyle just want progress and luxury with an Islamic coating. This movement, which Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni has labelled in his brilliant book as “Market Islam,” is strikingly reminiscent of the Christian conservative movement in America, which also has gone into aggressive merchandising, and has its own media, TV stars and motivational literature, and an emphasis on material success.

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