As concerns mount that atrocities perpetrated by ISIL may lead to Islamophobia in the West, efforts to halt the spread of warped portrayals of the Muslim world were being kick-started both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., a website tracking anti-Muslim hate groups was launched, while in Britain, a new digital television channel hopes to showcase the best content about Muslim life.
"Because of the avalanche of negative comments about Islam and Muslims that we see in our daily lives, any initiative that offers a positive and accurate portrayal of ordinary Muslims ... can have a positive impact,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
His group on Wednesday launched a website, Islamophobia.org, that tries to reveal U.S.-based Islamophobic groups.
“Unfortunately we are seeing a tremendous spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Hooper said. “I think that the recent phenomenon can almost exclusively be tied to the ISIS issue,” he added using an alternative acronym for the extremist Islamic State and the Levant.
CAIR has long been trying to alter perceptions of Islam in the U.S., through public service announcements, library campaigns, condemnation of terrorist acts, "but one act of violence overseas can bring us back to the starting point," Hooper said.
Though it also aims to change people’s perception of the Muslim world, Alchemiya, which will launch in the U.K. in December, is not a religious channel and has both Muslim and non-Muslim staff.
“We’re a lifestyle channel, but we have a spiritual outlook on the content,” Akhtar said. “We’re filling in the gaps between ‘too secular’ and ‘too religious.’”
The website will work like a Netflix video-on-demand platform, offering viewers a wide range of content in genres ranging from education to arts, culture, food, design and fashion.
“When you want to learn what something is, you don’t tell me what you’re not. You tell me what you’re about,” said Navid Akhtar, Alchemiya founder and chief executive officer.
Akhtar said it's been 13 years since the Sept. 11 attacks and until recently, he still felt obligated to apologize for the actions of extremists and explain that that's not what Islam is — but now he's tired of it.
The project was born out of frustration, Akhtar said. During his decades of work in British television, he said his pitches that aimed to show the Muslim world in a positive light were rarely approved. Four years ago, Akhtar began traveling the world and meeting people who shared his desire to produce content that portrayed ordinary Muslim life.
“I spoke to people in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul and San Francisco — everybody gets this. They said do it, make it happen,” he said.
The channel has attracted subscribers from the U.K., Japan, Sweden, Australia and the United States. Hamza Yusuf, a prominent American Muslim scholar, and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic and writer from Oxford University, have endorsed the project.
At least 10 percent of subscribers to the channel so far are not Muslim. The channel, Akhtar said, hopes to attract the type of people who eat hummus and couscous and read poetry from Rumi but haven’t connected those things to their Islamic roots.
Alchemiya will commission music, poetry, documentaries and more from Muslim artists around the world. Akhtar said there are many documentaries already produced in the Islamic world that haven't found a platform yet, and the site will source content from among those filmmakers.
Though its full content has not launched yet, Alchemiya recently supported the production of a music video by American Muslim hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue that was released last week.
“We feel his stuff is in the same space we’re at. He’s come from a classic hip-hop background and now he’s spiritual,” Akhtar said.
The video, entitled “Love and Light,” includes lyrics that represent a western take on a traditional Islamic prayer, or Dua:
“May your lovers be loyal/May your soil be fertile/May your khakis stay creased/May your locks stay oiled/May your plans never get foiled/May your plot thicken/May your chicken be halal/May your style be sufficient.”
Baraka Blue said that Alchemiya seeks to highlight the beauty of the Islamic world, adding that he felt that too few people associate Islam with beauty, "which is ironic because it is the civilization that birthed the world's greatest mystical poets like Rumi, architectural marvels like the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, perfected calligraphy and wove geometric forms into its places of worship to encourage reflection on the elegance of the universe," he said.