how our online world is changing what it means to be a muslim in 2019
i-D talks to Hussein Kesvani, author of a new book that explores the online world of memes, influencers, Muslim dating apps and alt-right Islamophobes.
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What does it mean to be Muslim in Britain today? That’s the question posed by Hussein Kesvani in a new book, Follow Me, Akhi (Akhi is Arabic slang for brother), which is released this week. Like many young Muslims growing up in Britain, Hussein used the internet to navigate teenage life — developing romantic relationships with girls online, using peer-to-peer music services to access rebellious music like Rage Against the Machine or Wu Tang Clan — and also to speak to his own community, a minority at places like school or work.
The sense of freedom and anonymity that the online world — from Myspace to TikTok — has provided, allows for exploration of identity without many of the preconceptions that surround our discussions of race and religion IRL. In turn, that ‘freedom’ online has also facilitated the spread of extremist ideology and xenophobia; creating a mood of disenfranchisement and polarisation.
Follow Me, Akhi provides an important first case study into these struggles of British Islamic identity, exploring how a new generation of young Muslims are using the internet to determine identity on their own terms. Here, Hussein speaks to i-D.
Congratulations on the launch of your debut book! Where did the idea for it come from?
I've been writing about Muslim experiences in Britain since I started working in journalism in 2014. What I noticed was that editors really only wanted two kinds of content. First, would be about extremism, either someone joining ISIS, getting killed in battle, or joining a terror cell, or the "inspirational" Muslim story, someone who raised a tonne of money for charity or gave free hugs on Tower Bridge. I kept a diary of stories, anecdotes and ideas about things I found in the gray areas, that I felt were better indicators of how young Muslims lived and navigated the world, which were way more telling of their experiences, but things that largely secular editors didn't see as valuable. Those stories informed the thinking behind the book.
Something that was particularly poignant was the diversity of stories in the book. How did you begin to find and connect with these people?
In most cases it was just spending a lot of time on Twitter, in Facebook groups, on WhatsApp networks. I'm an internet obsessive and pretty much grew up on obscure online forums and chatrooms, so I've always had a good idea of where the weirder parts of the internet are. So for me, it was taking that implicit knowledge and applying it to reportage. It's worth noting that there were plenty of stories I would have really liked to explore, that I couldn't because of my lack of access to some online spaces.
You make reference to ‘Sheikh Google’ — the phenomenon whereby Muslims are turning to Google for Islamic knowledge. Do you think the internet provides an alternative to say a mosque or an Imam?
The internet can't replace physical acts of worship, namely, prayer, for which mosques are required. What the internet can provide is an alternative space for Muslims to express their identities and in ways that places of worship can't facilitate. For example, online, Muslims are able to debate about theological points that would be impossible in a mosque, where the Imam would be the ultimate, absolute decision maker. Online environments can also facilitate conversations between men and women that wouldn't be possible in most mosques because they are gender-segregated. The internet has been able to provide alternative platforms for Muslims to enhance aspects of their identities, rather than to assert new ones.
I was taken by the plight of Samira Khan, who used the internet for her own jumu’ah (congregational prayer) and also the Tumblr ‘Side Entrance’ which parallels male and female places of worship. What does the internet offer in these circumstances that the offline world can’t?
These stories show how simple things like forming a prayer space works to try solve a practical problem that would be really hard to do in real life settings. Women like Samira tried to lobby their mosque committees to expand prayer spaces for women, or provide spaces for women to congregate and worship, and more often than not, they were unsuccessful. What the online platforms did was gather a group of women from across the world, to express this common experience, and have a dialogue that would have otherwise been marginalised. I was really keen to spend as much time with practising Muslims as I could, because one of the under-reported stories are how religious communities are adapting to new technologies to try improve their existing communities, rather than abandoning them.
I was moved by the story of Abdul getting ready for his first Pride festival and how he would store imagery from such events on a secret USB drive.
For people like Abdul the internet was really important in allowing him to find out he wasn't alone in occupying both a devout religious identity and being proud of his sexual identity, which he had spent so long figuring out. One of social media's most powerful effects is the way in which you can find your people, in, for the most part, judgement free spaces. And it's also an environment where there aren't any obvious power dynamics. For Abdul, coming out in real life is still something he'd never consider doing because of his relationship with his parents. But online, where you have people who are going through the same experiences, have the same kinds of conflicts, you end up being able to create healing spaces — spaces where you can occupy multiple identities without being questioned about their legitimacy.
You draw on experiences within the book where the internet provides both a space of solace and a space of abuse for British muslims. What, from the stories and experiences you have drawn from, can be done to counter the latter?
The problem with these platforms is that more often than not there is very little accountability, and the understanding that 'you can be abused online' is still very much in its infancy. As long as the execs of social media platforms are straight, white secular guys, it will be a long journey to get to a place where we can talk about what constitutes abuse and the realities of experiencing trauma online. Much more damage will take place before any meaningful action happens. And of course it's not just Muslims who experience this.
I was interested in the story of Egyptian American Activist Mona Eltahawy who spawned the #MosqueMeToo campaign — and #TraditionallySubmissive, a reaction to statements made by David Cameron in 2016. Can you tell me a bit more about how the hashtag has been used for conversation by Muslim communities?
The #MosqueMeToo hashtag was interesting because when it first emerged a lot of Muslim men I knew dismissed it as an example of secular liberalism. So when Muslim women started telling their stories about being groped, leered at and sexually harassed in holy spaces, it was this big revelation for a lot of men. And for younger women, some felt like the hashtag was the first time they could actually speak out about it. For a long time they had felt that trying to tell these stories would have no effect, or worse, that it would actively bring shame on their families because they might be blamed for being 'promiscuous'.
Because these platforms allow you to be both anonymous and part of a bigger community, it means that assertions of oneself can be made more explicit, and that male orientated mosque committees have to decide whether to act on it or ignore it. These platforms have facilitated another means of accountability.
I want to ask you about radicalisation and extremism.
The truth is that it is a big part of the British Muslim experience. The growth of the surveillance state after 7/7 has impacted minority groups, drastically changing their relationship with the state itself. The opening story of that section focuses on Muslim parents who are meeting because of stories going around the internet about children being questioned on grounds that they may be vulnerable to extremism. It was interesting to see how this local community meeting was facilitated by WhatsApp, and was informed by this broader context of the War on Terror and young British people going to Syria to join ISIS.
This surveillance climate has become more pervasive, and for a lot of Muslims, living their lives and reconciling aspects of their faith themselves was difficult because of this. It means that Muslims all felt some vulnerability from the state as a result of being characterised as "Muslim" without any real regards to the nuance of what that actually means.
At the start of the book you parallel yourself to another young Muslim man, Abu Antaar, whom you met as a journalist, and who later moved to Syria. You ask yourself why you followed such different paths. Are you any closer to finding the answer to that?
Speculatively, and based on what I know and the people I've met, perhaps the answer might be about timing. Growing up post 7/7, during my teens, the hot social media site was Myspace, which was clunky, hard to use, and difficult to communicate with people outside of friendship circles. Most of the young people who went over to Syria were native to more advanced forms of social media — Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, where encrypted communication is normalised, and it's easier to access communities of people based on your interests. Advanced versions of social media can provide much faster pathways to identity.
It's worth remembering that the internet isn't a vacuum, which may sound obvious, but the way pundits speak about it almost feels like the online world is separate from lived experiences. I try to argue that the internet doesn't provide an alternative Islam, but influences existing Islamic identity, which is a lived experience in the first place. In the same vein, my own material circumstances — ranging from living in a suburb with few Muslims around, having familial obligations and having an uneasy relationship with faith itself for a long time, probably contributed to the decisions I made later in life. I guess I could answer better if I knew more about his growing up — so I'm also comparing my own, very messy lived experience with a clean cut, and heavily curated narrative he had spun to me.