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The antidote to terror- Amr Khaled

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Ms DD   

From The Sunday Times

May 14, 2007


The antidote to terror


Amr Khaled is a British-based preacher who is converting thousands of Muslims to the path of peace — and incurring the wrath of hardline Islam. Lesley White meets ‘the Arab Billy Graham’

Be honest. When you think of a Muslim leader addressing a flock of followers, what ?do you see? Wild-eyed Abu Hamza brandishing his hook? Muqtada al-Sadr furiously denouncing George Bush as “the greatest evil”, or ancient ayatollahs issuing fatwas? Scaring ourselves, we have carefully incubated the spectre of ranting clerics, the almond-eyed villains who haunt our dreams and, since one day in September six years ago, our travel plans.


So forget all that and meet Amr Khaled – Amr to rhyme with “charmer”, which is wholly fitting – who is smiley and familiar, so gentle that you strain to hear him when he speaks. He is, by repute, “Islam’s Billy Graham”, a televangelist who never asks his viewers for a penny, only that they study, keep fit, mend potholes, not as a penance but a public service. Were he a pop singer, his standing in the Muslim world would approach Beatlemania, and it is hard to imagine that his looks and charisma aren’t at least part of the reason for his devoted female following.


In March, Khaled launched a new show, An Invitation to Coexistence, the first time the four main Arabic cable and satellite stations, including the influential pan-Arab religious satellite channel Al-Risalah, have aired a programme in the same prime 9pm slot. The viewing figures are as yet unannounced, but there is talk of an unprecedented 50m record. Khaled’s shows are a revolution in Islamic broadcasting. On Al-Jazeera the esteemed cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, bearded and cloaked, pronounces from behind a desk; but Amr strolls through a bright, modern studio in a cream linen suit, smiling and chatting as if he’s just arrived for Sunday lunch in the conservatory. The opening of his show Life Makers even features cartoons: ?a wretched little boy wearing a chain and collar engraved “No goal in my life” is led into the sunshine by an enlightened friend who tells ?him to “look outside”. On one stone sits a Koran and on another a cog, representing self-transformation through industry and effort.


The 39-year-old lay preacher is no religious thunderer, but the leader of a section of youth not much considered, the ones who quite like us, who want to fit in, who would no more think of strapping bombs to their belts than eating bacon sandwiches on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Khaled’s name is known to few here, but in the Middle East it carries an iconic status. In 2005 in Yemen – one of his faith’s most hardline regimes, long suspected of harbouring terrorists – he addressed a vast stadium packed on one side with Yemeni women in burqas and niqabs with slits for eyes, like a convention of ghosts. “I’d be scared,” I say when I’m shown the picture. “I was too,” he giggles. “After such a big gathering you feel very hungry, in need of oxygen; I need to run.”


His assistant shows me laptop footage of the preacher at Sanaa University on that same trip, leaning out of a window clutching two microphones, addressing a throng that looks like Madison Square Garden jammed onto a village green. Present in all these images, hard at his shoulder, is a little man in a turban, his official minder. For while Khaled is lauded across the Middle East, he is also viewed with suspicion by both sides of the religious divide: President Mubarak’s Egyptian government, ever wary of forces that might re-ignite militant Islam, has banned him from speaking. In August last year he made a rare speech in Egypt, and with 48 hours’ notice, 15,000 turned up to pay homage. The police tried to stop him but the crowds in the city of Mansoura pushed them aside and, fearing a large-scale incident, the police relented.


For the orthodox mullahs, meanwhile, he is a mere showman, unqualified to preach and displaying too much tolerance, indeed passion, for a go-getting western lifestyle in which success and its fruits are viewed as tools for self-actualisation rather than sins. But Khaled is the star turn at any gathering of influential moderates – he is a great favourite of Jordan’s Queen Rania – and a sage and mascot to those who want their religion reinvented as positive, upbeat, on the side of the angels rather than Armageddon. A few months ago he was invited over by the Kuwaiti royal family, addressed the national stadium and played football with the national team. This month, Time magazine is expected to select him as one of the most influential people in the world. No wonder the western heart warms instantly to Khaled. Tense relations with our own Muslim communities have made us jumpy, wary of giving offence, ?but with his natty dress and honeyed smile, he looks, if not like one of us, how we once imagined the bons vivants of the old Lebanese Riviera: urbane, knowing, lovely manners, a twinkly touch of Omar Sharif.


It is unusual for a leader of Muslim youth, who brings tears to their eyes with his emotional ministering, to volunteer the name of his favourite footballer – Thierry Henry of Arsenal – but Amr Khaled makes a habit of subverting expectations. On the prophet Muhammad’s birthday, I listen to him telling a group of London acolytes that their brothers and sisters should stop complaining about life in this country and start contributing; they seem to lap it up. It is the sort of gentle pep talk you might give to an indolent teenager prone to treating the house as a hotel: loving but firm. “We have become used to taking from the West,” he tells them. “Ask the generation before us why they came here. They came for political freedom. They came for health care, for education, for job opportunities. That is what we took, but our religion says that just as I take, so I must give. We have a duty to contribute to society.”


Gathered today in a rented suite of rooms on north London’s Holloway Road is a group of young Muslims, maybe 150, meeting their guru, who seems to have nothing in common with the solemn-toned elders of Islam, with their apocalyptic messages and threats to the faithless. Here is a man in casual co-ordinates with a clipped moustache, out of whom shines not righteousness but humour, a curious quality in a religion largely reluctant to laugh at itself, and a predilection to banter about football and trivialities. These seem at first ordinary attributes to be offering his devotees, but turn out to be the very tools with which he wants them to change our view of their world. Just down the roaring thoroughfare outside is the Finsbury Park mosque, where Abu Hamza preached a doctrine of hatred and murder that saw him jailed for seven years. Out on these streets you could throw a net and catch plenty of disaffected young Muslims whose notion of Babylon is liberal democracy. But across the Arab world, and here on a London afternoon, they love this Arsenal fan with his jokes about how he wants their organisation, Life Makers, to be recommended by the Home Office: “No! Really!”


Khaled never studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s premier seat of learning. He is not a scholar. Indeed, to the outsider he might seem the equivalent of Cliff Richard on Christian retreat, a tame celebrity rattling his tambourine, but when you have been raised on an austere religion, he must seem thrilling. The theme song for Coexistence was supplied by Tamer Hosny, “the Egyptian Robbie Williams”, who went to jail for trying to dodge military service. “I was criticised for using him,” shrugs Khaled, “but he wrote to me from prison saying he wanted to do something for the Islamic world. Why not give him a chance?”


What Khaled offers is a happy compromise, a feelgood route to salvation, where piety and privilege are allowed to travel in tandem, but he is no liberal. He is credited with bringing a westernised youth back to its faith, and has no time for the mores that permit alcohol and smoking; he speaks against unmarried sex and endorsed the boycott of the Middle East’s Big Brother. He favours the hijab, or headscarf, over the niqab, seeing it as an obligation and he is allegedly responsible for the new wave of head-covering in Egypt and beyond. His own mother and sister took headscarves five years ago under his influence. “We don’t say covered women are better than uncovered,” he says. “I make sure I have both working on my teams so that people know Amr Khaled doesn’t only deal with covered women. It doesn’t mean Allah will not accept you: that’s down to the balance of the things you do.”


Struggling to re-engage Muslim communities, Tony Blair’s government is not ignorant of Khaled’s usefulness: a leaked memo in 2004 from the cabinet secretary suggested him as a man to back (he says he was never actually approached, but would be glad to help); and in the wake of London’s July 2005 terrorist bombs he held a conference on Arab youth and the drift to violence. What advice does he have now? “Only that words are not enough: you need to set up concrete ventures, real ways of helping.” Most of the young people at the meeting are of Arab extraction, educated, “the sons and daughters of hospital consultants”, as one of them puts it – quite different from the second-generation Asian Muslims (or Kosovan or Somali ones) in our own urban ghettos, who would not understand Khaled’s language, let alone turn polite ears to his message of winning the West’s respect. “You’ll notice,” says a woman beside me, “there are few Indo-Paks here.” She corrects herself. “Not a very politically correct term, sorry!”


It is worth considering whether his crisp message to the Middle East – self-respect through achievement – could change attitudes here. But how much harder would it be to preach the transformative power of beauty and fun to the poor of those decimated former mining and textile towns in northern England? What can he do for them? He answers that they are his future focus, that his new programmes will have English subtitles and be dubbed into Urdu. “We are going to reach them in English and in their languages: this is our project now.”


The Holloway Road event is a conference of Life Makers, a group he set up three years ago, whose message is that Muslims should labour to improve their environment. The show’s followers set up action groups to plant trees, grow vegetables, teach illiterate Arabs to read; when he instructed them to walk the length of a marathon, young people in Gaza could be found pacing out their steps at home. The big idea was to get the stagnating Middle East moving, even if the politics of the middle-aged and the hopes of the young had ground to a halt. There are now more than 500,000 under-25s involved – and 300 in the UK – all devoted to what he calls “development through faith”, an ethic of self-help, activism and Allah. Eager to make a tangible improvement, in 2005 he commissioned a survey asking his TV viewers if they were ready to start their own businesses. In two months he had a million positive replies. “I told the youth on television, ‘I will carry your voice to the world.’ ?I will say, ‘The youth of the Middle East wants to build, not destroy.’ If Bin Laden and such people want to destroy, they are very few. The majority want something positive, and here is the proof.”


He set about approaching companies like Nike, and Saudi billionaires, and charities like the International Business Leaders Forum, which is backed by Prince Charles, to help before the surge of goodwill was lost. In Lebanon, for example, they funded courses in car mechanics and carpentry – as a chance to own a business – for unemployed young men whose frustration was fermenting dangerously. “I said why are we talking about prayer and hijabs when the youth cannot find jobs? If you give them nothing but Islamic speeches, you will turn them into fanatics, or turn them off and towards drugs. You have to start with their practical needs.”


Khaled bows his head when I ask if the promise of a carpentry business, years down the line, is enough to deter a Palestinian suicide bomber, an insurgent in the next intifada, as if the answer is obvious. “We are not only talking about the Iraq war and the Palestine question: these kids feel they haven’t freedom in their own countries. They have no jobs. So no hope, no freedom, no justice. My job as a motivator is to give hope. You need concrete projects. Listen, they know that bombs aren’t right, but they don’t want to analyse their actions and think, because they haven’t hope. Sometimes young people want to listen to the loud, strong speeches, even if what’s being said is wrong: they want to feel proud and part of something big and dramatic. But I won’t give them speeches like that.”


When a Palestinian teenager asks why he has no homeland, what does Khaled say? “I say you must give value to yourself if you want to solve the problem. You must have success in your life, to make a civil society.” Does he categorically denounce violence? He nods. “We are going to make a huge conference and then a television series at the end of the year on violence and injustice, neither of which is acceptable. If you talk about one, however, you have to talk about the other, because one of the reasons for violence is injustice. No to violence and no to injustice.”


In the West, Khaled’s mission is different, of course: focused on promoting coexistence. Life Makers are encouraged to work with local communities and mainstream organisations like the British Red Cross, Islamic Relief, Friends of the Earth, whose projects they can join and whose publicity bandwagons they can hijack. So far they have collected clothes for disaster areas, organised an “anti-drug awareness” camp; their Eid project was simply to make foster kids happy, not just Muslim ones, for the point of every enterprise is integration. Khaled’s other paternalistic obsession – another facet of his belief that the courteous will inherit the Earth – is good behaviour, a list of rules including not dropping litter, being nice to your wife when she has her period, not honking your horn. If it sounds patronising, remember there is little cynicism in his audience, which is quite different from a group of middle-class English kids schooled in scepticism; his followers seem easy to move and inspire, their respect for male authority and the wisdom of elders ingrained, even for the “chic sheikh” before them.


Make no mistake, Amr is the hot ticket, a halal celebrity complete with megawatt smile and a CBS news crew in tow, kissing everyone and holding their hands for an eternity of fraternal warmth, cuddling the children. When others speak he sits on the floor with his arms wrapped tenderly around a boy of about 10. (He tells me later: “You have no idea how much I miss cuddling my son.”) His Arabic is colloquial, peppered with slang, easily understood across the classes. Is the rampant hugging sort of spiritual transport, I ask the young doctor translating for me. She laughs: “We Egyptians are Mediterranean.” But it is more than that: Khaled seems to brim with a visceral happiness, his eyes screwed shut in a mime of ecstasy when he talks of his disciples’ achievements, laughing as if he had been told the funniest joke in the world, but still sincere; unlike most visiting stars, he doesn’t look as if he wants or needs to be somewhere else. Doubtless his ego is in mortal peril: he has that disconcerting habit of referring to himself in the third person (“Amr Khaled would never say this!”), but he tells me that he asks himself every day if he is enjoying his fame too much. In Cairo he can’t walk down a street, visit a restaurant, or even be private at his home, which is known to all. “Let me show you something,” he says, reaching for his silver BlackBerry. It received 1,235 messages last week, most of which are along the lines of a teen-mag problem page: “I love a girl and I don’t know what to do.” He will get round to answering them all personally. “Yes, yes, why not? I like to know their lives.”


Khaled’s oratory is intense and beguiling, its cadences rising to little shrieks and falling to a mere whisper. “God created us to develop the Earth and make it beautiful,” he begins today. “I ask myself why I was created. To plant a tree, to build a building, make a smile, anything to enrich this world. If you make happiness on people’s faces, you will have achieved your goal and Allah will let you into paradise and make you happy. Every practical act of goodness counts, from picking a piece of paper from the ground to praising your kids. I want England to be beautiful. God created nations and tribes so they could get to know each other. There are other groups who go around promoting Islam, but our job is not that, it is to make things beautiful. For many years Muslims thought that all they needed to do to make the world better was to promote Islam. But no! If you want to serve Islam, do something tangible for the UK.”


Like every evangelist worth his halo, Khaled has a “dream”, but it is not of a promised land or a chosen people fleeing oppression: it is of Muslims kneeling before Her Majesty in morning suits. “Will you let me have a dream?” he says. “I will imagine Life Makers in 10 years’ time having a huge project across the UK, maybe countering drugs or protecting the environment or working for children with special needs. ?I can see Britain knighting our members for their contribution. I can hear people saying, ‘We respected Islam when we saw Life Makers.’ Think how much reward you will get from ? God, how proud you will be.”


A woman stands to tell him they already have the heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, an Egyptian star of whom they are proud. Khaled nods; eminence is the path to respect. More Magdis to win gongs and inspire the young is precisely what he’s hoping for. “Work day and night!” he entreats them. “Sleep an hour less! Integrate!”


His message of closer integration is radical for a culture that appears to fear the corrupting effects of assimilation, whose diaspora defines itself in stark contrast to its host countries, in which difference and otherness are articles of faith (and where 40% want sharia law for Muslims in the UK). As a rule, Islam’s devout immigrants worry little about appeasing the dominant culture, dwelling instead on celestial judgment. I ask the 15-year-old girl sitting next to me, bespectacled with jeans and trainers under her robe, why she is here. “I like to believe that we can join together, share nice feelings, serve the society we are living in,” she replies sweetly. “Mr Amr Khaled is more than amazing. He cares about us, he shares our feelings.”


At the end of the talk, she walks to the front of the room to ask him an earnest question. She is having trouble studying, she tells him, falling behind because she is so sleepy. What should she do? Her hero smiles as he might at his own child, and says she must persist; through study comes achievement and through achievement, respect. “You study to be able to co-exist with others. We must find common territory. Have something ?to offer and you’ll find that the West wants to ?co-exist with you. You need a language, a skill, and invention to offer. If you have nothing, why would others want to co-exist with you?” She bows her head and, grinning, returns to her seat.


Khaled attended the 2006 World Cup final in Germany, not because of his passion for the game but because it was a chance to “co-exist” with other Arabs. “You have to have something to talk to them about,” he says. “In the Middle East these kids are crazy about football. I am not only going to tell them about faith and development, I’m going to tell them about being at the Cup final. Then I am one of them.” He plays football, tennis and squash. He watches TV, including the music and celebrity shows that would be condemned by the scholars. He took his five-year-old son Ali to see The Lion King in London to give him the “common experience” of theatre. “This is the way to think. If we have nothing in common with them, find out what they like and be part of it.”


When I meet Khaled a couple of days after the meeting, it is in an apartment in Holland Park belonging to his uncle, a modest place with retro furniture, a huge abstract painting on one wall, a few framed photos in which the women have uncovered heads and the men are clean-shaven, members of a sophisticated Egyptian family. There are no noticeable religious artefacts; you might even assume it was a secular home. He jumps up and shakes my hand, normally an unacceptable intimacy but – as he says – “When in Rome?” (or London or Bradford?) He is as spruce as a Lebanese cedar, immaculately groomed, smelling faintly of citrus cologne. I say that his audience on the Holloway Road had seemed educated and middle-class. He laughs, a wheezy little giggle: “Is that a good or a bad thing?” Back home and all around the Gulf states, his appeal is broader. His speciality, he beams, is reaching “everyone” from the villages to the wealthy private houses of Cairo, where he began his preaching. His references are daringly off-message in a morally scrupulous religion. “I talk to people about the poor, the divorced woman, the young men on drugs.”


He says that his own background helps. His grandfather was a prime minister of Egypt during King Farouk’s reign – “They put him in prison and took the money” – but he came from a humble village. “Our family roots are in a poorer place.” The son of an Alexandrian doctor, Khaled and his sister attended co-ed French schools, which means, as he puts it, he knows “how to deal with women. In Egypt most of them don’t. Nobody else has talked to Arab Muslim women in the last century-and-a-half. Even the women here feel that no one talks to them. I talk to them. I respect them”. He had a born-again return to Islam at high school, when the pursuit of girls and sporting honours suddenly felt hollow, but he never imagined a life preaching a modern version of redemption.


He began in 1997 by standing in for a speaker at Cairo’s elite Egyptian Shooting Club, graduating to its mosque, to the city’s houses and then – after unsettling the government – was relocated to a place on its outskirts, called ?6th October City. His weekly talks attracted 40,000 fans, three-quarters of them spilling out into surrounding streets listening via microphones, causing traffic mayhem and an ever greater fervour for his opinions.


“It was a surprise for me that I could do it,” ?he recalls. “I had no ambitions to be famous, to ?be on television: it came by chance. I felt very ?sad because a lot of youth in Cairo had no jobs, sat in cafes all day, all year. I became unable to go to my job and enjoy my family life seeing that. I could have stopped with TV, but I started Life Makers. I can’t just give speeches and then walk away. I can’t respect myself like that. By profession he was an accountant at KPMG, respectable but unfulfilled, and continued number-crunching until he could make a living from TV; he took no money for lectures, and has never had a personal backer. In 2002 he was forced to stop speaking in Egypt, though the nature of the threat is unclear. The petition supporting him mobilised Egypt’s first big internet campaign, with 10,000 signatures, while the ban only boosted sales of his tapes and CDs. He was based in Lebanon for two years, acquiring a fugitive glamour, and then settled in Birmingham (“cheaper houses”) with his wife, an expert in glass for the perfumery industry, and his son Ali, recently joined by a baby brother, Umar. “I came to the freest of free countries.”


His PhD at the University of Wales, on Peace and Coexistence, is still in progress. His wife has moved back to Cairo, where he is not permitted to preach or record his programmes, so he splits his life – mostly lived in the air anyway – spending 15 days a month at home. He has been linked with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, though when I ask, he apologises that he cannot discuss Egypt, adding enigmatically: “You are asking the wrong question. Tell me, are there political parties in our country?” Like American TV preachers, Khaled knows the value of the juicy headline, and a hot, but not scalding, controversy. When those provocative Danish cartoons were published in 2005 (one showing a Muslim wearing a bomb-shaped turban), he saw it as a test: did he really believe his own message? In March 2006 he organised an interfaith conference in Copenhagen, where young Muslims and Danes debated while the wrath of the muftis, scholars and sheiks, including the venerable 79-year-old al-Qaradawi, who insisted on an apology before dialogue, was unleashed. But Khaled insisted on talking at any cost. “Unfortunately, some Muslims see all the West as an enemy. Why would we want that? Let’s stretch the overlap between Muslims and the West until the common area is bigger and bigger and bigger.”


And British Islamophobia? “I read about it in the papers,” he shrugs. “I’ve never experienced it.”


How religious is the man who promises Allah will reward integration? He prays five times a day and visits the mosque, but his faith is also his strategy, his weapon in a crusade, the only way he can reach his audience. “I’m proud of my religion but I’m not a scholar or a sheikh. People try to put me in this box, but it’s not me.” Why no beard and robe? “I’m an accountant from KPMG. I’m not going to change my clothes – it’s who I am.”


His son attended a secular state school in Solihull, and while he is not against Islamic schools, Khaled admits they “scare” him. “If they aren’t broad-minded, when he gets to university he’s not going to know what’s going on.”


Khaled wields his celebrity ?with finesse, making himself available to all, running one of the most popular Arabic websites, He lets the media see him playing football and swimming, connecting with a light-hearted relish of life instead of its intractable confrontations.


He obviously loves being adored. “I don’t know – maybe it’s my body language, or my clothes, or my charisma, or the new content of my talks – all these things make people want to listen.” Are the message and charisma divine gifts? “Yes.” He claims he has no idea what he will say before he steps on stage, though I noted at the London meeting his careful scanning of the room, his double-checking that interpreters were in place, a well-planned spontaneity. It is rare to meet a public figure with such personal openness, that willingness to give away a little of himself to every single person he meets. The great common-touch politicians have always had it. And the genuinely spiritual. And maybe the old-school showbiz performers who knew the price of fame. Amr Khaled, the accountant, certainly does. He takes out a picture of an adorable boy with huge, melted-chocolate eyes. “My message is important enough that I can bear to be away from him. Ali is my son, yes, but he is only one, and there are millions of boys I want to make happy.”


As I leave, he leans towards me and picks a minute piece of fluff from my jacket: maybe a gesture of friendship, maybe a show of his relaxed interpersonal style, and maybe just doing his bit for a smarter London this afternoon.

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That was a very good read DD, thanks. He is one of the very few people who actually had an influence on my life, and I was never the same person again after watching "Calaa khuta-al-xabiib" (the siirah of the Prophet saw) more than a year ago..


Do you watch his lectures D&D?

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Does he have lectures in English, I think he only have in his website..


He has this programe on Abudhabi TV, I can't remember the name of the programe. Such an influential figure...

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Am always suspicious of anyone that the west 'adore' especially if they are islamic preachers. Think about it they don't like islam to be successful, so you know they wont be backing anyone heading towards that goal.

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Ms DD   



Dont you think we should make our own mind up after paying attention to what they say? I think Amr Khalid is good speaker. He says himself that he aint scholar.



I dont know whether he has English audio speeches but the His Arabaic programmes are translated into English.



I didnt know he has DVD out. If it is in English, a lot of people would have been interested. he is remarkable man. He brings the stories of the Prophet (saw) and his companions (ra) to life.

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I was thinking who is this guy? So i typed up his name on Google. And yes that brother from Iqra t.v, his lectures on the seerah of the prophet are beautiful. I think he has the charisma to speak to the heart of the ordinary person. Rather than the lecture type Sheikhs, which do serve a purpose.I remember one time he said: " Abdullah Masuad had skinny legs like some of our Somali brothers"lol

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Amr Khaled may just be remembered not only as an antidote to terror but a general anaesthetic for an entire generation of hopeless Arab and muslim youth.


Funny how his fabricated story about being out of favour with Egypt's powers is seeping bit by bit. Young men his age who are disliked by the establishment fill prisons, detention camps, and graves by the tens of thousands. Puuleeeze! He is the darling of the rich, a gigolo for the powerful, presidents of poor/restless nations or heads of TV stations.


Mr. Khaled seldom preaches against robbed resources and rampant corruption but urges Arab youth to open small businesses and clear dusty roof tops. He speaks not of political oppression and stolen futures but pushes the young into the past, deifying very ordinary people who lived at the time of the revelation.


I suppose he is offering them something, the past is at least assured (no matter how fabricated) and no one, not even energy-hungry Western nations, can rob them of that.


Personally, I like the man. He is very likable. Funny, great story teller, intelligent, and ambitious. I do admire him for preaching the value of hard work.

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