Help is on the Way: The Self-Help Industry in the Middle East
The self-help movement spreads to the Middle East.
May 22, 2009While the self-help movement has traditionally been characterized as a uniquely American phenomenon—an $11 billion industry in 2008—it is also burgeoning in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, self-help books like Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus are bestsellers; the Farsi translation of The Secret, a renowned (and Oprah-endorsed) book about the power of optimism, is in its 10th printing in Iran, and independent self-help magazines such as Iran’s Happiness Magazine dot the shelves of bookstores and newsstands throughout the country.
Oprah Winfrey has a huge following, showing twice a day on pan-Arab television. Yet a surprising entry into the self-help field is Muslim clerics, who are increasingly assuming the roles of charismatic self-help gurus. Increasingly, they are generating bestselling books and popular television shows that embed the notions of success and self-improvement within a framework of Islamic values. In Stop Worrying, Relax and Be Happy, Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali directly cites Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Adopting Carnegie’s metaphor of a flexible twig that resists snapping in the wind, Al-Ghazali encourages Muslims to bow to Allah’s will so as to avoid “snapping” in difficult times. Saudi Sheikh Aaidh al-Qarni has become another “motivational sheikh.” In 2007 he claimed his book Don’t be Sad has sold two million copies, but bloggers complain it is merely an Islamicized version of Carnegie’s message. As this ethic of personal growth and self-improvement continues to spread, it’s hard to imagine how the desire to “win friends and influence people” could ever be uniquely American.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.