BETHANY RIELLY reports on the launch of a new zine for Muslims to speak about their own issues and celebrate
the arts and culture
MUSLIMS are a constant topic of discussion in the British press, yet when do we hear Muslims given the chance to talk about themselves, their issues and their communities?
A lack of Muslim voices allows misrepresentations of the Islamic faith to go unchecked and proliferate, perhaps explaining why more than half of the British public consider mainstream Islam — and not fundamentalist groups — as a threat to Western liberal democracy.
In January this year, a group of young creative graduates grew so fed up with the distinct lack of Muslim voices in the public sphere that they decided to form their own space where young Muslims like themselves could take back their own narratives.
Named the Khidr Collective — after a mysterious man in the Quran who leads the Prophet Moses through difficult trials — the project aims to provide a creative platform by Muslims for Muslims.
I went to meet the Khidr Collective team in the British Library’s sunny courtyard in King’s Cross to talk to them about their new project and upcoming zine — a self-published magazine.
Twenty-five-year-old Cambridge graduate, linguist and writer Raeessah Akhatar tells me that the zine — a collection of poetry, illustrations, fiction, photography and analysis pieces — will not only act as a channel for Muslims to speak about their own issues but will also celebrate young Muslims’ creativity, which she says is largely overlooked in British society.
This made me think whether I could actually name any British Muslim figures in the arts. None immediately sprang to mind.
Zain Dada, a 24-year-old writer and poet from north London, explains that creativity is often stifled in Muslim communities because discrimination and negative stereotyping puts the arts pretty low down in their pecking order of priorities.
“There is a real rich cultural and religious history of creativity in the Muslim world,” he says. “The issue is that the first generation who came here before us, their priority wasn’t to make art, it was more let’s survive — whether that was reacting to racism, starting up their own businesses or employment.
“There’s a weird schism between the older and new generations. They would say don’t do art, become a doctor because grades don’t discriminate and you’ll get those four A*s and become a doctor.”
Mancunian Warda KhoKhar, the fiction editor of Khidr Collective, told me how her father was worried after she quit her corporate job to take up a career in writing.
“It’s not like they don’t think it’s worthwhile, it’s more that they’re worried about our futures because they came here in an environment where they’ve had to secure their futures and they simply haven’t had the luxury to write.”
Although Muslim communities in Britain are now two or three generations down the line, Zain says there is still a prevailing attitude that they must secure their existence in an environment that is hostile towards them — an attitude that doesn’t leave much room to experiment with art. This effect has been exacerbated recently by the government’s anti-radicalisation programme Prevent.
“It acts as an overarching intimidation tactic to muffle any sort of dissent,” Zain tell me. “It’s trying to morph people into the ideal liberal Muslim who fits in with the capitalist lifestyle. You never know if you’re on a list or not.”
The government tries to make Prevent — which encourages teachers to look out for signs of radicalisation among pupils — more palatable by presenting it as a scheme that combats all types of extremism, whether that’s white supremacy or even anti-fracking campaigners.
But Warda, who did the Prevent training herself, explains that it’s being fed to people with preconceived biases against Muslims.
Zain adds that less innocent-looking questions reveal what sections of society are really targeted by the scheme. “You’re asked things like ‘what would you do if you saw a book with Arabic inscriptions written on it? Do you a) report it, b)…”
At this point Warda exclaims with exasperation that the hypothetical teacher “should celebrate diversity, that’s what you do! That person’s bilingual!
“It’s like what do you do if you see John with Arabic … come on man! We know it’s not going to be John!” Zain laughs.
Though the group all joke about how blatantly the programme tries to hide its biases, behind the laughter is the very real concern that Prevent is silencing Muslim communities.
Earlier this year a 10-year-old boy was interrogated by the police for writing “terraced housing,” misread by a teacher as “terrorist housing” — an experience which left him scared of writing and using his imagination.
This brings the group back to emphasise the importance of having positive, encouraging and collaborative spaces for young Muslims to freely express themselves.
The group emphasised that anyone could send in entries to their zine, regardless of whether they have any qualifications or not, and were free to explore any issues through any creative medium.
With Prevent stifling expression and a lack of encouragement from the older generation, the Khidr Collective hope their zine — to be launched next month — will serve as a channel for frustration and a space of complete creative freedom for those whose voices are being ignored and silenced.