by Zain Dada and Zainab Rahim
You got a lot of societies and governments/
Tryin’ to be God, wishing that they were God.
– Mos Def
We emerge from within the fumes of a burning London building which has ripped into our sense of home. The criminal state neglect that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster last Wednesday and the post-traumatic aftermath have re-defined what it means to live in safety, to have a community, to hold onto faith.
Where grassroots communities have stepped in to do the work of the authorities, and to undo the long-term damage caused by their supposed protectors, these events have now entirely submerged the rhetoric of ‘British values’. “They’re like pigeon holes,” one woman said. Pigeon holes that were allowed to burn for 36 hours – now housing scores of dead people instead, their life’s possessions obliterated with them.
Not long after this, during our most sacred month and in the serene hours before dawn, we witnessed a violent attack on worshippers leaving a mosque. This news did not get the ‘critical’ terror alert treatment and slipped out of prime television debates, making it clearer to us that we must make space for ourselves, or otherwise remain nameless.
Consider other segments of our society who have been made nameless. Look at how we celebrated the homeless man who cradled a dying woman at the scene of the horrifying explosion in Manchester in May. We identified him repeatedly using this confining ‘homeless’ label, meanwhile failing to ask why homelessness is rising at an unprecedented rate, or why even working teachers are falling into this societal ill fate.
Prime Minister Theresa May has, up until now, been focused on giving her attention to the “single evil of Islamic extremism”. Stepping out of her Downing Street abode earlier this month, she elaborated in vague, yet pointed, language – the effect of which can only be described as toxic – by asserting that we need to have “some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” and that we must not be “separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom”. Her words have inevitably fuelled the negative sentiments that have characterised the experience of British Muslims from across the spectrum for many years.
Indeed, government policy has pressed on with failing counter-terrorism schemes, even against the warnings of officials. UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai recently released a statement, saying: “The lack of definitional clarity, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public. It appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population.”
For anyone who identifies as a Muslim in Britain, these events and conversations have highlighted the rising need for cultural and media spaces for our varied communities. Actor and musician Riz Ahmed summarised the embattled feeling of being a young Muslim with the chorus from his 2009 song, ‘Sour Times’: “I’m losing my religion to tomorrow’s headlines.” His words have only gained more poignancy in the past few years.
Fascists, presidents, prime ministers, LBC presenters, the Guardian commentariat and even brands have had something to say – from blatant scaremongering to more subtle modes of alienation. The Sun’s erroneous piece on a Muslim bus driver “accused of fanaticism” cost the newspaper £30,000 in damages, and has been succeeded by almost a weekly stream of inaccuracies. Katie Hopkins’ now infamous diatribes against Muslims, minorities and migrants have come to define her career as an attention-seeking extremist with a mainstream platform.
There are more subtle forms of exclusion at play. Cultural industries continue to be woefully unrepresentative, paying lip service to ‘diversity’. A City University survey in 2015 revealed that 94% of journalists are white, as against 70% of the UK’s working population. Figures in London are even more stark, where 40% of the population is BAME, but just 5.4% of journalists according to Creative Access – and London is where 36% of the whole country’s journalists work.
In addition, the 2015 Writing the Future report investigating diversity in publishing found that more than 74% of those employed by large publishing houses and 97% of agents, believe that the industry is only “a little diverse” or “not diverse at all.” Muslim artists face specific difficulties, for example, the play Homegrown about the radicalisation of young Muslims was suddenly shut down during rehearsals in 2015.
In the face of these challenges, there have been inspirational individuals and groups coming together to provide important spaces for Muslims and wider marginalised communities. From the pioneering work of OOMK Zine and the powerful platform that is Numbi Arts to the transformative Voices That Shake, the unseen, often unpaid, labour of these organisations have done huge amounts for Muslim youth.
Inspired by their work, the Khidr Collective is our intervention. A group of young Muslim artists and organisers looking to facilitate a space for communities, particularly young people, to speak and be heard. Named after ‘Khidr’, the wise ascetic in the Qur’an who leads the Prophet Moses through various difficult trials, Khidr’s symbolic presence as a source of wisdom remains ever relevant as a reminder to seek and unveil knowledge in places we might not expect.
“As a collective we want to explore and celebrate our shared heritage as Muslims,” said Raeesah, aged 25 (writer and member of the Khidr Collective). “It’s about re-defining our histories that are so often narrated for us and clouded by ulterior motives in the process, be it within our communities or beyond. Being a channel and a means to educate Muslim youth of histories they might not be aware of or have access to, is at the core of this project.”
Our elders and the first generations to arrive in Britain weren’t offered space, but created it themselves. They found themselves in a foreign land working together as communities to build mosques and businesses. Today, much to the chagrin of many, from Wembley to Bradford, these communities are thriving. We hope to imbue this collective with those same values: if there isn’t room, you make room.
“That’s what this zine is all about. A community of outlanders,” said Warda, 22 (writer and member of the collective). I may not get space to pray in a masjid peak jama’at time, but I got a two-page spread to show what being a Muslim woman means to me.”
We are producing a bi-annual magazine “for young Muslims, by young Muslims” seeking to re-address the imbalance. There is an urgent need for young Muslims to have the right resources and platforms of cultural production. This will not only be a chance to rightfully take our place in this exploited space and speak truth to power, but to also celebrate the joy in our communities which is so often unexplored. Beyond that, we recognise how exceptionally valuable our stories and experiences are, and we wish to enable conversations.
We hope to make this a sustainable space of reprieve, joy and, inevitably, resistance.
So far, we’ve put together an incredible first issue, but we need all the help we can get to print it. That’s why we’ve decided to crowdfund for the project. Your donation will get you an edition of the zine and a ticket to our launch night on Friday 7th July 2017 at the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, London.
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Zain Dada is the co-founder of the Khidr Collective and poetry editor of the Khidr Zine. He is a writer and poet based in North London. His poetry can be found on www.wordsapart.blogspot.com. Zain is also a member of Decolonising Our Minds Society.
Zainab Rahim is a member of the Khidr Collective and the non-fiction editor of the Khidr Zine. She is also the joint editor-in-chief of a comment website called The Platform. Her writing focuses on arts and culture, local history and global politicsi. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @zainoted.