Yemen: Islam's Billy Graham takes on Al Qaeda

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ADEN, Yemen – Marking a shift in strategy, the Yemeni government has launched a coordinated media campaign aimed at countering the message of an increasingly active Al Qaeda offshoot, recruiting one of the Arab world’s most popular televangelists in the process.

Amr Khaled, a charismatic and moderate Egyptian preacher, is known as the Arab world’s Billy Graham. Khaled, together with the Yemeni government and numerous local media outlets, this week launched a full-scale media blitz to protect the country’s large, and often disenfranchised, population of young people from Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology.

“The purpose of this project is to uproot extremism and spread moderation, to show the true face of Islam, and show a bright picture of Yemen to the world," Khaled said at the campaign's opening ceremony here in the southern port city of Aden.

An entourage of icons from the world of Islamic preaching will also embark on an extended media campaign over the next few weeks, delivering a string of speeches propagated through Yemen’s media outlets, forums, websites, mosque pulpits and television channels.

Today in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, Khaled is scheduled to deliver a sermon to about 30,000 people at the city’s largest mosque.

The campaign represents a shift in the Yemeni government's ongoing fight against the country’s Al Qaeda branch, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Until recently the government has favored a military strategy, which has seen little success against a particularly sophisticated Al Qaeda group that has developed its own robust propaganda campaign.

“Yemenis need to be convinced that AQAP is bad for them and bad for Yemen. But at the moment Al Qaeda is the only one doing the arguing. It puts out statement after statement that depicts the group as some sort of Islamic Robin Hood defending Yemen's oppressed and weak people against western military attacks,” said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University.

“While largely unnoticed in Washington, these unchallenged and baseless claims are carrying the day in Yemen’s hinterlands,” Johnsen added.

While Khaled’s sermons have done well in Egpyt, there is concern that the televangelist’s charm might not resonate as well in Yemen, a country with no sizable middle class – his usual base of support.

“Gathering the moderates is a good idea, but what about the hundreds of more radical clerics who won't be participating in the program?” said Abdullah Al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sanaa University. “They're the ones we should be worrying about.”

Khaled, however, remains confident.

"We have a long experience in confronting intellectual and behavioral deviations of Arab youth. With Yemen's youth on our side we will be capable, God willing, of managing this project so that the great land of Yemen regains its bright, moderate image," he said in an interview.

Khaled has fashioned himself into the anti-Osama bin Laden, using the barrier-breaking power of satellite television and the internet in his attempts to turn around a generation of lost Muslim youth.

He defies the stereotype of the Islamic preacher. He trades clerical robes for a sharp suit and his slickly delivered sermons, known for referencing popular topics like soccer and the internet, have helped earn him vast popularity in Egypt, especially among young people.

Forty-six percent of Yemen’s population is under 16 years old, many of whom are poor and thought to be susceptible to Al Qaeda’s rhetoric. Five thousand young Yemenis have so far volunteered to contribute to the country’s media campaign, two hundred of which will work with Khaled and his U.K.-based organization to establish youth projects that confront extremism.

“We wish to establish a public movement that is self-assembled by Yemeni youth to confront extremism,” Khaled said. “Our campaign will have delegates confronting extremism in every city and governorate in Yemen.”