Malaysia: New Reality Game Show Gains Popularity, Contestants Compete for Job as Imam

News article, posted 07.29.2010, from Malaysia, in:
Source:
New York Times

 

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Bright studio spotlights illuminated the faces of four nervous young men, arms linked as they anxiously awaited their fate. Cameramen stood poised, ready to capture the climactic moment. Finally, the chief judge broke the suspense.

 

Two of the contestants had been eliminated. The other two had taken a step closer to their dream. Winners and losers, each clad in crisp, dark suits and formal black hats, took turns hugging each other.

The competition is called “Imam Muda,” or “Young Leader” — a Malaysian venture into religious-themed reality TV.

The basic premise may replicate that of reality shows, but here, inside an auditorium at one of Kuala Lumpur’s largest mosques, are notable variations on the tried-and-true formula.

Before each episode, the contestants have gathered to recite a prayer, while the challenges they are judged on have included washing corpses in preparation for burial and ensuring that animals are slaughtered according to Islamic principles.

The prize pool, too, offers a clear indication of the detour the show takes from the usual reality show script. Cash and a new car are up for grabs, but the winner will also be offered a job as an imam, or religious leader, a scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia and an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

The show, which debuted in May with 10 contestants — whittled down from more than a thousand applicants with backgrounds ranging from banking to farming — has built an impressive following among young Malaysians. It is the most-watched show ever on Astro Oasis, a Muslim lifestyle cable channel, and its Facebook page has more than 50,000 fans.

Viewership is expected to soar on Friday, when the winner will be announced in a live broadcast from a convention hall. The two finalists have spent recent days in their hometowns, giving sermons and organizing community events. During the finale, they will be required to debate religious and news topics, as well as recite passages from the Koran.

Some political commentators say the show’s popularity reflects the increasing Islamization of this Muslim-majority nation of 28 million. The program’s creators, who are already planning a second season, say they are trying to provide an entertaining way of making Islam more relevant to the lives of the young and extending the role of religious leaders beyond the mosque.

A collaboration between Astro Oasis and a regional government’s Islamic affairs department, the show requires the contestants, ages 18 to 27, to master and demonstrate the duties of an imam through both practical and theoretical activities. In addition to preparing unclaimed corpses for burial, a task that some contestants said was particularly memorable, the men have also had to counsel wayward teenagers, console elderly people abandoned by their children and display their Koranic knowledge.

Izelan Basar, the show’s creator and Astro Oasis’s channel manager, said his aim was to find a way to make Islam more appealing to young people.

“In every religion, the toughest challenge is to attract the youth,” he said, noting that most of the country’s imams were older men.

In preparation for the show, producers surveyed young people about the type of imam they wanted to see in their mosques.

“They said, ‘We want someone who can talk on the same wavelength, who can be one of us, an imam who can play football, can talk about the World Cup, can talk about the environment and U.F.O.’s, for example,’ ” Mr. Izelan said.

While an imam’s main duties include delivering Friday sermons and leading prayers, Mr. Izelan said that contestants were also coached for the show in public speaking, suitable dress, how to talk with children, even how to hold their cutlery, as well as studying the Koran.

Malina Ibrahim, 32, a banker who watches “Imam Muda” at home with her parents, predicted that the show would encourage young people to follow Islam more closely.

“If you have a husband in your family with that kind of knowledge, people will look up to you,” said Ms. Malina while eating lunch with friends in a food court in the city center.

The judge each week is Hasan Mahmood al-Hafiz, a former national grand imam. He says he is looking for someone with a strong grasp of Islam, but also general knowledge and communication skills, “strong morality” and open-mindedness. There is a shortage of young men with the qualities to make a good imam, he said, something he hopes the show will help change.

Through most of the show’s run, the contestants have been confined to a hostel, cut off from family and friends, newspapers, television and the Internet. One contestant, Mohammad Taufek bin Mohammad Noh, was permitted to leave briefly for his wedding, but he had to return to the hostel after the ceremony.

So the contestants heard only snippets about the show’s success from the crew, and some seemed pleasantly surprised that their performances had gained such a following, especially with female viewers.

Ahmad Hazran bin Ahmad Kamal, 25, a banker who was eliminated in the semifinal last week, confessed that while he had no problem addressing a crowd, he became nervous when talking to girls.

“But if they want to marry me, why not?” he said, smiling shyly.

On Friday, the show’s fans will discover whether Hizbur Rahman bin Omar Zuhdi, 27, or Asyraf bin Mohammad Ridzuan, 26, will be named Malaysia’s first “Imam Muda.” Mr. Hizbur, a religion schoolteacher, said he hoped to “use ‘Imam Muda’ as a platform to become a model for teenagers and the community.”

“The benefit of this program — fame — is an asset to attract youngsters to live the religion,” he said.

Mr. Asyraf, who had already worked as an imam for four months, said he joined the show because he wanted to reach more people and improve his knowledge of Islam.

“I feel so happy and blessed,” he said after learning that he had made it to the finals.

Mr. Izelan, who said he had fielded inquiries from television stations in Turkey and Egypt about producing similar shows, seems genuinely taken aback by the success of “Imam Muda.”

“We have provided a platform and some level of fame,” he said. “Where they go now is up to them.”