New website combats Muslim stereotypes with info, humour

Summary

An online platform launched by two Flemish students offers a glimpse into the daily lives and experiences of Muslims around the world

Tackling taboos

When Muslims are mentioned in international news reports, it’s usually in the context of fundamentalism and extremism. A new English-language website launched by a pair of Antwerp students now wants to give a voice to the oft-overlooked group of tolerant, young and trendy Muslims around the world.

Mvslim.com, at a surface glance, looks like most young online publications with a mix of lifestyle and human interest stories, as well as an op-ed section and many social media plugins. However, as the name suggests, every article is related to the lives of Muslims. While the scope of the website is global, its origin is local: Antwerp.

Mvslim.com was born out of a brainstorming session about a year ago between Taha Riani and Hanan Challouki. Both are still students, Riani in computer sciences and Challouki in communication sciences.

Riani first came up with the idea for an online platform that would provide an insight into the daily lives and habits of young Muslims around the world and asked Challouki, who had journalism experience, to work with him.

“When you look for websites on Muslim topics, you mostly get details about the Islamic religion and on terrorism acts by fanatic Muslim organisations,” says Challouki. “This is not the kind of website that a regular young Muslim relates to, and they give non-Muslims a false image of what it means to be Muslim.” 

The Haram police

A little over two months ago, the new platform went live. Riani and Challouki started with a team of some 35 young Flemish contributors – both Muslims and non-Muslims. Since then, they have attracted the attention of dozens of contributors from all over the world, who all write for Mvslim.com on a voluntary basis. 

According to Challouki, the articles are also being read by people on different continents. In the US especially, readership is growing rapidly.

One of our dreams is to establish editorial teams in countries all over the world

- Co-founder Hanan Challouki

In short, a large section of the website offers insight into how the young Muslim contributors think about, for instance, fashion, food, health, art, work, education and spirituality. The op-ed section recently included pieces about the protest at a Mechelen school’s decision to prohibit girls from wearing long skirts and denouncing the prejudices around Muslims in mainstream media. Another recent op-ed tried to break the taboo around homosexuality.

The website also has a sizeable entertainment section that features articles that mock and criticise certain Muslim habits with titles like “Whoop, Whoop, It’s the Sound of the (Haram) Police”, “Awkward Things Muslims Do” and “Stupid Faces People Make When Their Cellphone Goes Off in Prayer”.

“One of our purposes is to show non-Muslims that our community is very diverse, and most Muslims can put their customs into perspective,” says Challouki.

The section also offers writers the chance to air their frustrations about the discrimination they often – but with a dose of humour. One article, for example, pokes fun at how Muslims are often picked for “random” additional security checks at airports.

With Mvslim.com, the founders also aim to give young Muslims more self-confidence and inspire them to set and realise their goals by highlighting past achievements by Muslims. An article in the history section, for instance, details how Islamic scientists played a defining role in the field of physics. 

Confronting the misconceptions

The platform also puts more recent role models in the spotlight, such as Europe’s first female Muslim pilot. “This way, we also present a more positive image of our community to non-Muslims,” Challouki explains.

Challouki herself can attest to the stereotypes non-Muslims sometimes have about Muslims. She often gets condescending comments about her headscarf. “There is a basic belief that women wear the headscarf because they are oppressed by men, but that’s not true,” she says. In one video message posted to the platform, British writer Hanna Yusuf argues that the headscarf is in fact a feminist statement.

Muslims also often get the same questions about religious customs, says Challouki, especially during the Ramadan month of fasting – which we’re in the middle of right now. “People often ask if we can’t drink water during Ramadan and even if we are in danger of dying because of the fasting,” she says.

In both fun and accessible ways, the platform tries to combat these misconceptions. In one series of articles, a non-Muslim youngster shares his experiences of participating in Ramadan for the first time.

While they are currently concentrating on expanding the reach of Mvslim.com, Challouki is also looking to the future. “One of our dreams is to establish editorial teams in countries all over the world,” she says.

Another big plan is to develop advertising operations as a way to generate revenue since the platform is currently entirely operated by volunteers. “The consumer market of young Muslims is still largely unexplored by enterprises,” says Challouki, “The food and fashion sectors could profit from reaching our target group.”

Photo: Taha Riani (left) and Hanan Challouki at a MVSLIM editorial meeting