- By Clare SestanovichClare Sestanovich and Sylvie Stein are researchers at Foreign Policy.
The latest reality TV sensation in Malaysia may strike Western viewers as an unlikely candidate to join the ranks of Ryan Seacrest and Heidi Klum: Hasan Mahmood, who wears a turban during each episode of his recently launched television series, "Young Imam," is the former grand mufti of Malaysia’s national mosque.
At first glance, "Young Imam" looks fairly similar to its Western counterparts (it is often described as a relative of "American Idol"): each week, Mahmood winnows down a pool of young Malaysians competing for a glitzy prize package. But the similarities stop there. Instead of vying for premium record deals or glossy magazine spreads, the eager contestants on this show are competing for a shot at becoming the country’s next leading religious leader. The winner will walk away with a scholarship to al-Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, a job at a Kuala Lumpur mosque, and a fully-paid Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. They are judged on everything from their musical chops (when reciting the Koran) to their academic credentials (when interpreting the Koran).
In a country where extremist strains of Islam appear to be gaining traction (the government has recently issued warnings over the presence of al-Qaeda recruiters, and controversies over Shariah law are attracting increasing attention), the show’s religious theme might be interpreted as another sign of the radicalization of Islam in Malaysia. "Young Imam," however, appears to project an intentionally moderate version of the religion. The content of the show was coordinated jointly by religious authorities and media producers and has gained a widespread following of Muslim viewers. One young fan credits the show with promoting a new and positive image of Islam:
These young imams are modern, and we need that. Muslims these days are very progressive… After 9/11, it’s good for us to show the true picture of Islam.
But for many viewers, the appeal of "Young Imam" seems to have very little to do with theology. Among the show’s most devoted fans are older Malaysian mothers, who are thrilled to have finally found the jackpot of eligible bachelors: the marriage proposals — sent on behalf of their daughters — are already flooding in.