HOW YOUNG MUSLIMS ARE RESHAPING ISLAM
Cairo, Egypt — A play about an imaginary country grappling with foreign meddling recently opened on stage her/e. Combining comedy with serious words extolling the importance of faith and ethics, “The Code” was just the latest sign of a recent wave: Young, devout Muslims balancing a sense of fun and modernity with strict observance of the teachings of Islam.
They’re putting on plays, making sleek videos and even wearing bikinis at the beach — but all with an Islamically correct twist. The plays have a religious moral, the videos are for songs praising the Prophet and the swimwear is limited to segregated settings.
The trend is fueled by an Islamic revival that has attracted youths — many of them wealthy and exposed to Western cultures — in some Muslim countries and among second-generation Muslims in the West.
Instead of an outright shunning of all Western influences and worldly pleasures, the idea is to adopt the elements they can reconcile with their Islamic identity.
In rediscovering their faiths and striving to integrate Islam in their daily activities, some have become more religious than their parents were.
The trend also is a manifestation of how some of the young in different Middle Eastern countries are trying to reshape their societies in small ways that the older generations didn’t know.
In Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous country, which has grown more observant and conservative over the years — this Islamic revival was fueled by a group of young preachers who wear Western-style suits and communicate their religion in conversational language. Talking in mosques, homes and on satellite channels, these preachers — some using techniques that some feel are similar to Christian evangelical preachers’ — are a far cry from the traditional clerics who dominated the airwaves for many years in flowing robes and turbans and a sterner language.
“We can lead a happy life without committing sins,” says preacher Mostafa Hosni, summing up the approach. Mr. Hosni hosts a weekly religious program on the Iqraa satellite channel that tries to reinforce exactly this theme through conversations with young guests.
He says the old belief of some that being a good Muslim meant forsaking this world for the afterlife has unintentionally scared many of the young away from the religion for fear they would have to drastically change their lifestyles.
An athletic-looking 28-year-old who once worked for Swiss multinational Nestle, Mr. Hosni attended a two-year preacher-training program and now teaches “character building” at a private school in Egypt to help students live a proper Muslim life while preparing for successful careers. “We already offer them a high-standard international curriculum, so why not have this and as well as have an Islamic and moral identity?” he says.
“In 20 years, the shape of the Muslim world will completely change,” predicts Mr. Hosni. “The people are attracted to this form of moderate Islam.”
While supporters of the revival say it preaches moderation and can counter extremism, critics argue that it is superficial and is promoting a more conservative society behind a facade of modernity and tolerance.
“What we need is a true vision of modern Islam. This means formulating positions on democracy, human rights and dealing with others,” says Salah Eissa, a writer and self-described secular Muslim. “Modern Islam doesn’t mean that I be a Muslim and talk on a cellphone.”
The debate about Islam’s role in society and public life has generated tensions in Egypt with many liberals — especially in artistic circles feeling threatened. To offset the popularity of the Islamic opposition, the government has tried to project a more Islamic image of its own, allowing for the censoring or banning of some work deemed offensive to Islam, for instance.
“You see civil servants who spend a good part of their day praying in the mosque and another good part trying to put their hands on public money, for instance,” Mr. Eissa says. “The Egyptian society is suffering from a case of split personality.”
Many of Egypt’s young Muslims are exposed to Western pop culture. While some embrace it, others feel uncomfortable with what they see as decadence or promiscuity.
Playwright Ahmed Morsi was dismayed with the state of the commercial theater in Egypt, with its plentiful jokes, music and women dancing in skimpy clothes. So the 37-year-old former television correspondent founded a production company, “Luster of the East,” which adheres, he believes, with Islamic values.
“The Code,” their latest comedy, tells the story of a country whose people are grappling with a foreign invasion. A main character urges the others — and the audience — to speak up against corruption and reconnect with their morals and faith.
Any woman participating in the troupe’s plays has to wear the Islamic veil, and there’s no dancing, Mr. Morsi says. He expects the actors to live up to his vision offstage, too. “They have to be people in good standing. They cannot have immoral relationships. They can’t drink [alcohol].”
This sanitized theater has been criticized on the one hand by secular critics who complain that art shouldn’t be subjected to self-censorship and religious standards and on the other by some conservatives objecting to the music in some plays.