Abu Dhabi // Khaled Diab was moved by television pictures of the 2004 tsunami in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh and decided to throw himself into the rescue and recovery efforts. Unable to find a place with regional charity organisations that were heading to the disaster scene, he travelled on his own, eventually working for the Indonesian Red Cross.
Such spirit has landed Mr Diab - along with 15 other contestants - a place on what is being billed as the first Islamic reality TV show, Mujaddidun. Its producers say it is designed to promote "development through faith". "That is the spirit you find among the participants," said Khaled Barakat, the managing director of Right Start International Foundation, the show's producer. Mujaddidun (The Revivers) is the latest effort by Amr Khaled - an Egyptian televangelist described by The Independent, a British newspaper, as Islam's Billy Graham - to tap into youth and usher in a culture of "life makers" and productive members of society.
Mujaddidun, which is shown on Dubai TV and began on January 1, has been both well received and controversial from the outset. Twenty-five thousand young people applied to be on the show, which was criticised for encouraging the mixing of men and women. "I wanted to take part in the programme mainly because it was by Amr Khaled," said Mr Diab, 30, a scriptwriter from Egypt. "But also because we get to carry out development tasks on the ground, and generally because I like competitions and challenges."
In each episode, contestants aged from 20 to 30 are divided into different teams. Tasks typically address social issues, such as helping orphans, reintegrating prisoners into society or returning dropouts to schools. They must be completed within three days. On the third day, contestants meet with Mr Khaled in a room and discuss — in a style reminiscent of The Apprentice — their mistakes and achievements. As in The Apprentice, a contestant is eliminated every week until one is left. In Mujaddidun, however, 80 per cent of the 200,000 euros (Dh1m) awarded to the winner must go to a development project of his or her choice.
Mr Khaled does not shy away from pointing out the candidates' mistakes. He said the main aim of the programme was to help youths discover their potential and lure them away from extremism. "Young people are a great resource," he said. "They are the most precious treasure - more precious than oil, natural gas or the pyramids. "If we do not provide for them proper channels to discover their potential, we are afraid that this force will turn to behavioural deviations, such as drug addiction, or intellectual deviations such as extremism."
The Middle East is the youngest region in the world, with 60 per cent of its population under 25. Many observers fear that this avalanche of youth will be a destructive force in the region. This fear is reinforced by United Nations reports showing that only 40 per cent of young people in the region are employed, 14 per cent below the international average. Reza Aslan, the author of the two bestselling books No God But God and How to Win A Cosmic War, is more upbeat about the Middle East's demographics. He said the generation had great potential to change the equation in the region.
"The youth bulge in the Middle East is not as much a concern as it is an opportunity," said Mr Aslan, who also is the editor of Mecca.com, an online community for Muslim youth. "It is a population that is becoming increasingly literate, educated and, on top of that, very much plugged into the rest of the world, thanks to the internet and satellite televisions. "Like young people everywhere, they are looking at the world through fresh eyes, and as long as they feel as though their stories actually matter, then they can be the hope for the future. But if their dreams are stifled and have no avenues, then I'm afraid it could lead to a negative outcome."
Mr Diab said he would use the prize, if he wins, to launch an "intellectual" project as "there is a lack of such projects in the region". "We need such projects, commercial but also promoting a value, that address contemporary issues related to ideas in an entertaining and a beautiful way," he said. Another contestant, Zaina Awaydate, 23, from Lebanon, said her project would "involve reading and would focus on the young".
"Whether I win or not, we've learnt how to run a project and how to get funding for it," said Ms Awaydate, who is close to finishing a bachelor's degree in marketing and psychology. Ms Awaydate said she applied for the programme because she believed in the concept of "development through faith". The programme had made her see "how much suffering there is in the real world", inspiring her to make a contribution in the development of her society.
Another participant, Ethar el Katatney, 22, an award-winning journalist from Egypt, works with two Egyptian magazines, Egypt Today and Muslimah Media Watch. She is also pursuing two master's degrees. "But I've discovered through this programme that I can do so much more," Ms el Katatney said. She said the programme changed the perception of what reality TV could achieve. "It can change societies," she said. "Every episode, we get better. We've learnt how to negotiate, how to work under pressure and how to be leaders. People also learn from our experiences and how our thinking develops after every task."
The programme finishes next month. firstname.lastname@example.org