CAIRO: Amr Khaled is nervous. He is pacing up and down the studio set. He looks at his watch and smiles at the audience. “It’s 6:30 now; we were supposed to start shooting at 5. We sincerely apologize.
He turns to his crew as they scramble around trying to overcome some technical difficulties.
“Make sure you get a shot of the campaign logo on my mug . I will start the show standing up then I’ll sit on this chair, he says.
On the set of his show “Al Janna fi Biyotna (Paradise in our Homes) Khaled isn’t just the host. He’s also the director. Once again he explains to the crew the order in which the participants will speak, gives a brief of the episode to the audience, leads Maghreb prayers, then the film starts rolling.
This episode by the popular Muslim preacher is the third of six episodes dedicated to “Hemaya, (Arabic for protection), the massive anti-drug campaign targeting the entire Arab region.
In a one-on-one interview with Daily News Egypt, Khaled says that he’s man with a simple message: development through faith. He explains that this campaign as well as all his projects and satellite TV appearances fall under the umbrella of youth development. “I am merely using them as a medium to reach the same goal, he said.
Hemaya, which was launched in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Right Start Foundation and the Dubai Police, is now in its second phase, which entails organizing initiatives supporting the cause. So far, over 17,000 events have been organized all over the Arab world, 50 percent of which in Egypt.
Khaled had just returned from a trip to Aswan, where he participated in a match with Al Ahly players who all wore shirts promoting the campaign, after which every player took the microphone and spoke about the dangers of drug abuse.
Its first phase – which was dedicated to publicizing the campaign logo – surpassed Khaled’s expectations with over three million posters and stickers distributed. He accredited volunteers in two universities in Egypt, namely the American University in Cairo and Ain Shams University, who organized a march through their campuses holding up posters and wearing the campaign shirts.
The green apple and red hand of the logo have now become familiar images all over the country.
“I just received a phone call from someone last night who was in Sharqeya, says Kahaled. “He told me there are stickers and posters hung everywhere, in youth centers, even in bus stations . which means that the campaign’s success is not only limited to the capital.
His campaign even prompted 10-year-old children to participate and use their allowance to buy shirts and posters.
Hemaya’s objective is to reach 5,000 drug abusers in the region and offer them proper care. This number may well be exceeded, with over 2,300 addicts so far coming forward asking for help.
“The fact that drug abusers themselves are the ones who came forward and filled out the applications is very important. It proves that the campaign is a success, he told Daily News Egypt.
Khaled says the campaign’s budget did not exceed LE 500,000, which is a relatively small figure compared to previous campaigns, given its success so far. A large number of the material was printed pro bono.
He attributed Hemaya’s success to community participation, as well as the approach it is using with drug abusers. He explained that other campaigns depended on frightening drug abusers into seeking treatment as well as making them feel isolated from society.
“This is the first time we use a different approach with an addict. It is like saying, ‘I want to help you, you are not a criminal,’ and acknowledging the fact that it is a disease . They responded to love, not warnings. We gave them hope, Khaled explained.
Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, it is no surprise that Khaled’s initiative is a huge success. But such a categorization can prove to be a double-edged sword. It has been argued that the government sees Khaled as a threat due to his popularity, resulting in his ‘exile’ to London in 2002. He is also forbidden from appearing on local television channels.
So how does the government feel about his initiatives now?
“We called on all Arab governments and asked them to participate in the campaign, a lot of them responded, like Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen. We sent a letter to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif requesting that he sponsor the campaign, as well the interior ministry’s anti-narcotics general administration, but we have yet to receive their response, Khaled said.
When asked why some of the campaign’s events were abruptly cancelled and some posters were torn down, Khaled said he believes this to be the “the work of drug dealers’ invisible hands.
Other Arab government officials like the Jordanian health minister, for instance, were quick to express solidarity with Khaled’s cause. The president of Algeria offered to support a conference focusing on the issue of fighting narcotics.
The Dubai Police’s role was not only limited to sponsoring the campaign, according to Khaled, it is the first Arab police force that went so far as printing stickers and brochures and distributing them.
But fighting drug addiction comes in the Muslim preacher’s agenda merely as a tool to attain a higher goal – youth development. “There is a much bigger cause than fighting drugs, which is encouraging youth to be proactive, Khaled said.
He explained that Arab youth is neglected and has a lot of energy that is not utilized to its full potential, which leads them either to religious extremism or to drug addiction.
His strategy is simply: to make young people work together. Indeed, participants volunteering in Hemaya are working to help their less fortunate counterparts, thus reviving the positivity in both groups.
“I am treating the origin of the problem, which is that youth have become passive because they are neglected.
Through his campaign, Khaled said he is promoting social peace. He is encouraging people in the community to serve one another. “This campaign is proof that social peace and love exist within our communities.
Ever since he started preaching in mosques, Khaled has always focused on the younger generation, an issue that was used against him by some.
“The youth are our hope.They’re the Arab world’s greatest treasure, that is why I am investing in them, he explained. His initiatives like “Life Makers and the “Right Start Foundation are dedicated to “rescuing the younger generation from passivity.
Khaled denies that religious awareness was only revived a few years ago, a phenomenon for which he was credited by some, and blamed for by others.
He explained that people are innately religious. However, he believes that the information revolution has exposed young people to many things. The younger generation is now more alert and more aware of important issues on account of the internet and other tools that have made it convenient for them to search for information on any topic in whichever field, be it religion, economics or politics, he said.
“My role is merely a motivator. I help the youth to focus on the beneficial aspects of those fields, he said.
His huge following has made Khaled one of the most controversial figures in modern day Egypt, with his detractors questioning his very authenticity. But he has managed to make peace with the fact that not all people see eye-to-eye. Over the years he has learned to accept others’ opinions and to take their criticism into consideration.
“It is very important to see how others view you. You have to take constructive criticism into account, it is a very healthy phenomenon . but you still have to keep on moving, no matter what.
Even religious scholars have criticized Khaled, specifically for his stance towards the Danish cartoon controversy. When he agreed to attend a conference in Denmark he was attacked by some for compromising the Muslim position.
Although he acknowledged the gravity of the offense, he stressed that it is the duty of Muslims to be “wise
in expressing their anger in a civilized way.
“There are extremists on both sides, the East and the West, unfortunately those extremists’ voices are usually louder than those of the more moderate groups who are calling for coexistence, and I hope I fit that category, he said.