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Modernity and Islam go together

Samer Shehata

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: I was sitting outside eating dinner tonight when this woman walked by wearing a full hijab. Covered in black from top to bottom, including her face. With hot pink Stilettos heels on her feet. It's tempting, when things like that happen, to assume some kind of disconnect between Islam and the present day.

Commentator Samer Shehata says that's not the case at all.


SAMER SHEHATA: Americans commonly assume that Islam and the Middle East for that matter is anti-modern or at the very least, in conflict with modernity. The reality is more complicated. Islam is no more in conflict with modern life than other religions. And Muslims of all stripes find themselves thoroughly enmeshed within the modern structures of states, markets and technology.

Today, teenagers from Morocco to Syria and beyond are addicted to Facebook. They're enthralled by video clips of scantily-clad women gyrating to modern, commercialized Arab pop music. Fatwas, or religious opinions, are now delivered to Muslims over the Internet on request. And Muslim scholars and preachers have hit the airwaves where they connect with millions across the globe.

Modern Muslim preachers have taken to the air as well. Take Amr Khaled, the most famous televangelist in the Middle East. Khaled is a middle-aged Egyptian accountant by profession. He's thin and nerdy looking. He dresses in a business suit rather than a traditional robe. Khaled sits on an empire that includes a wildly popular TV show, CDs, tapes, and one of the most visited Arab web sites. Khaled preaches a kind of modernist, Protestant-ethic version of Islam. He encourages worldly success as a means of achieving spiritual peace.

In front of a live studio audience, television viewers listen to his accounts of early Islamic history. Khaled's devotees glean from his interpretations how to live their lives today. The lessons are simple: hard work, perseverance, good manners and self-reliance. Khaled markets this version of Islam like a self-help manual to middle and upper class Muslims searching for both salvation and success. Because like us, Muslims in the Middle East and beyond are coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. And Islam, like other religions, provides comfort as well as answers to many of life's questions.

KAI RYSSDAL: Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University.

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