'Here comes the story of the world today," sings the young man with the gentle voice, oblivious to the stares he earns from passing gaggles of tourists. "A world in which religion has learned to hate, a world in which justice has become a cliché."
The young man crooning in the lobby of Cairo's Marriott hotel is Moez Masoud, and he doesn't mind the attention. He wants as many people as possible to hear his message: that religion, specifically his own Muslim faith, is being dangerously abused in the modern world.
The lines Mr. Masoud sang were the lyrics of a song he penned about Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher jailed in November in Sudan after allowing her students to give a teddy bear the name Mohammed. To Mr. Masoud, the absurd case proved how far some interpretations of Islam have drifted from his own reading of what's in the Koran.
Though you might miss it if you were reading only the headlines out of the Middle East these days, Mr. Masoud's more tolerant version of Islam is on the rise. In addition to being an aspiring pop star, the 29-year-old Egyptian is one of a new wave of Muslim "televangelists" who are reaching wide audiences across the region, converting many to an interpretation of Islam that encourages social contacts between men and women, compassion toward gays and lesbians and a rejection of the anti-Western fundamentalism.
It's a message that's reaching millions of people via television shows broadcast on satellite channels across the Middle East, and many more through Mr. Masoud's slick website and a Facebook group that has more than 10,000 members.
Critics call his message "Islam lite," but Mr. Masoud sees himself as helping reclaim a religion that for too long has been controlled by angry fundamentalists, people he says preach in the name of Islam without following its basic precept of loving other human beings.
"These people have presented views that are just blatantly wrong about women, about homosexuals, about Jews, about jihad," he said, sipping at a cappuccino between fielding calls on his mobile phone. "There's been a misconstrual of some [Koranic]verses and a decontextualization of others."
Dressed in Western clothes and sporting a stylish goatee, Mr. Masoud hardly looks the part of an Islamic preacher. Nor does he have the traditional upbringing.
Raised in an affluent family and educated at the American University in Cairo, he said that as an adolescent, he drifted a long way from his current path. At university, he said, he distanced himself from his family, dated the wrong girls and "ingested too many substances."
It's those experiences, he said, that help him connect with young, Westernized Muslims who often are put off by what they see as Islam's strictures. "It's not about the rules, it's about the love. The rules are supposed to save you, not harm you."
That's something he said he learned the hard way. He rediscovered his religion only after a series of scares that included a friend's death in a car accident and a cancer scare. He woke late on the day of Jan. 1, 1996, not quite sure how he'd made it home after a night of heavy drinking at a New Year's Eve party, and decided he needed to change.
From that day, he observed the Koranic proscription against alcohol and made a point of praying five times a day. He memorized the Koran, discovering that reading its passages gave him the same high he once got from drinking and partying.
After graduating, he took a marketing job with an American pharmaceutical firm and moved to the United States. One day, he was invited to lead the prayers at a mosque in Rochester, N.Y. By the time he finished speaking, it was apparent to everyone in the room that Mr. Masoud had found his calling.
"I didn't preach, I shared my experiences," he recalled of that night. "There was something happening."
Someone made a videotape of the talk he gave, and soon afterward Mr. Masoud was contacted by a Saudi Arabia-based satellite channel about taping a series of shows. He agreed on the condition that he could do it his way.
His first series was called Parables of the Koran, a groundbreaking show because of its laid-back tone, in which a panel of young men and women chatted with Mr. Masoud about the issues of the day and the role of religion in the modern world. While some of the women on the show wore the Islamic hijab, others left their heads uncovered.
"Some people are afraid of new things. I'm not," Mr. Masoud shrugged. "There's no Islamic law barring [men and women]in the same place, though some people think there is. The only way to change things is to just do it."
Parables of the Koran was a hit around the world and a staple on some Canadian cable channels. At first his shows were all in English, as Mr. Masoud was trying to appeal to Muslims living in the West. He warmed up his audience by telling his life story and kept them engaged by mixing quotes from the Koran with Bryan Adams and Aerosmith lyrics. More recently, he's begun preaching in Arabic to get his message out to Muslims across the Middle East.
Abdallah Schleifer, a specialist in media and Islam at the American University in Cairo, said the new style adopted by Mr. Masoud and other Islamic televangelists like Amr Khaled is drawing the quasi-secular middle class - people put off by what he calls "nutty fundamentalism" - back to their faith. Many of today's youth, he said, feel like they live in "another world" from the old-style imams in their traditional garb. Mr. Masoud's style bridges a gap for them.
"We live in a world of television and lifestyle changes. Young people, young Muslims, want to be part of that world. Into that void have come people like Moez and Amr Khaled," Prof. Schleifer said. "The message of these guys is very different. Being decent and compassionate, and at the same time being faithful to the tenets of their religion."
Mr. Masoud personally rejects the "Islam-lite" label, insisting that he hasn't added or subtracted anything from the Prophet Mohammed's message. "All I'm doing is reading the faith in a contemporary way," he said. "I'm just removing the extra baggage that extremists have put in."
His message is a simple one: It's all right for a Muslim to have fun, to enjoy life, to appreciate art and members of the opposite sex. "Engage in art, appreciate beauty. Don't believe that if you commit to your faith, you're going to be a depressed person," he said. "If Islam says kill your neighbours, I don't want to be a Muslim."
It's a message Prof. Schleifer, himself a convert from Judaism to Islam, appreciates. "You could say the style is light, which it is in the way TV is light compared to a newspaper. But the content isn't. I certainly wasn't attracted to Islam because it had hard edges, quite the contrary."