London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, rings out as the screen fades to black. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar; God is Great. A man with a thick beard stares imperiously down the camera lens and then throws back his head and bursts into laughter. Not what you were expecting? This isn’t Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty or any of the other recent movies or TV shows that depict Muslims as shadowy terrorists out to get out you. Rather, you are watching Combinations, a film that aims to promote multiculturalism and challenge racism. This short film has been produced by Media Cultured, an organization that aims to use film and social media to challenge extremism, both by and against Muslims.
Media Cultured is a community interest company based in Middlesbrough in northeast England. The media company’s philosophy, according to its website, is to “promote community cohesion and harmony by using film and social media to teach tolerance and integration”. Combinations, made in conjunction with Thousand Yard Films, is one such project. It is a short documentary piece that examines a prominent member of a small-town British Muslim community, his views on and experience with racism, and perpetuated stereotypes.
The short film features Imran Naeem, whose imposing visage dominates the opening scene. Imran runs a boxing gym and works as a Public Health Officer—teaching Middlesbrough’s students about health and fitness—and is no stranger to the difficulties that the British Muslim community finds itself facing these days in terms of misrepresentation. He speaks of “the beard” as if this were a mask obscuring his features, stressing that “Muslims are not what they are always portrayed to be in the media.”
However, Combinations ultimately puts forward a positive message, demonstrating that there is no conflict between Imran’s Islamic faith and his British identity. The short film concludes with the image of Imran—beard flying proudly in the wind—carrying the Olympic torch through Darlington last summer in the run up to Britain’s celebrated Olympic Games. He says, “Being a Muslim is all about being a part of the community.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Media Cultured Founder and Director Amjid Khazir. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat he emphasized the importance of British Muslims being active in their local communities, particularly the online community, where he warned against the “dark attraction” that misinformation and extremist views can have on young and vulnerable minds.
Khazir started out in public relations before becoming an Internet marketing executive; it is here that he first noticed the “trend of misinformation flooding the Internet about Islam, to both Muslims and non-Muslims” describing this as the “pathway” to extremism.
He said, “The work and the experiences I have had were the bedrock of the initial epiphany of how media and especially film could be the key to promoting lateral thinking and common values without seemingly propagating a particular faith or ideology” adding “the aim is to use the media to find common ground and bridge the gap.” Thus, Media Cultured was born.
Khazir tells Asharq Al-Awsat that: “Extremists of all persuasions seem to be utilizing this medium to great effect and so we are providing the ‘other’ voice.” He also asserts that Media Cultured’s primary purpose is to “educate people about the dangers of online extremism and provide a counter-narrative to the peddlers of hate.”
This characterization of the media’s dealings with Islam and Muslims was confirmed by the Leveson Inquiry; a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. The Leveson Report confirmed that “The identification of Muslims. . .as the targets of press hostility and/or xenophobia. . .was supported by the evidence seen by the Inquiry.” The Leveson Report also quoted a brief issued by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies reviewing the representation of British Muslims in the press between 2000 and 2008. The university’s report concluded, “In sum, we found that the bulk of coverage of British Muslims–around two thirds–focused on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general).”
Combinations is set to play a big part in Media Cultured’s campaign to reverse this trend and celebrate British Muslim culture. The media group aims to show the short film in classrooms, lecture halls, and to local councils and organizations across the country in order to promote a better understanding of Islam and British Muslims.
Khazir describes the film as a “teaching aid”, saying, “Imran Naeem is a very positive role model, and I think it’s better to take him to every school and classroom than have a boring theologian reciting dull facts about multiculturalism or ideology.”
He emphasized that the aim was to produce a mainstream film that will “engage with and educate the youth who will make up the next generation.” The Media Cultured director was also keen to stress that the organization aims to walk “the middle path” between extremism on both sides, whether we are talking about far-right xenophobia or pseudo-religious radicalism.
Regarding his own view of British culture, Khazir said: “My identity, my joy, is to be a Muslim, and Islam calls for finding common ground with other nations and tribes.”
He added, “Yes, I feel proud to be British, I was born here, we speak the language, we adhere to the law of the land–as called for by Islam–and we participate fully in British life. I don’t feel any divided loyalties; I love my town and my country”
However not everything is perfect, as evidenced by the need for such a media company in the first place. Khazir’s journey to establish Media Cultured was born out of tragedy. It was the death of his uncle, Mohamed Zabir, in 2011 that persuaded him to quit his job and focus on Media Cultured full-time. Taxi driver Mohammed Zabir died of a heart attack just one month after suffering a brutal attack at the hands of a drunken passenger, with Khazir describing this assault as “race-related.” This attack took place on the eve of an English Defence League (EDL) march through the city, and Khazir is in no doubt that the march, attack, and his uncle’s death are related. Simultaneously, the Media Cultured Director was also keen to stress that the assault was the actions of a single individual, and those at the scene of the crime were quick to offer his uncle first aid and chase off his attacker.
He said, “I don’t have any misgivings about this country, but it has misgivings about me and those who look like me.”
Commenting on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2011 claim that multiculturalism has failed, Khazir expressed his vehement disagreement saying, “Multiculturalism has been a success. It just so happens that we all live here. We all came here—to Britain—from every part of the world, and we all live here together in harmony. There are some divisions and some suspicions but generally we all live together happily.”
He added, “To define multiculturalism and believe it has failed. . .is a misnomer. It wasn’t designed, it just happened and we aren’t forced to accept it or make it happen, we just get on with it—what could be more British than that?”
Khazir described Media Cultured as a “shining example” of David Cameron’s “big society”, particularly as it is part of the entrepreneurial “Fellowship programme” of Teesside University’s DigitalCity Innovation department.
Combinations is just the first of many films to be produced by Media Cultured. The media company is also in the process of developing a new film entitled Head for Cover, which will look at the history and contemporary views on the hijab. The film will focus on local “sisters” raised in the west but who identify with Islam and Muslim culture, as represented by the hijab.
Khazir highlighted the importance of such films, saying that it is up to the Muslim community to deal with their own issues, referencing the contention issue of honor killings in particular. He asserted, “This is something that is not in Islam. There is a mistaken understanding of true Islam and that is something that we must confront.”
Khazir ended the interview by issuing a call, inviting Arab and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs and media groups to get involved and “get the message out”, not for the purposes of propagating religion but to teach the world about the Muslim’s place in the modern world.
He declared, “We need to produce our own media that expresses our identity. . .and so far we have failed spectacularly, we have to have a voice. Communication is the key.”