Islam: lifting the veil from media eyes

Fareena Alam,
editor of Q News, tells Julie Tomlin about her mission to explain –
inside and outside her own community -what a Muslim magazine should be

WHEN I
go with Fareena Alam to a café near Russell Square, the man behind the
counter strikes me as a bit gruff when he serves us. He looks even more
irritated when we then decide to order food as well – slamming the cups
on saucers and shoving our order at us.

He might just be having and off day, or perhaps I got up his nose by asking him to toast the bagels.

But
could all the huffing, puffing and cup slamming be due to the fact that
Alam, managing editor of the Muslim magazine, Q News, is wearing the
hijab, I wonder.

That strikes me as an even more likely
explanation when I go for more coffee. He’s on his mobile the whole
time, admittedly discussing plans for the midweek match, but I get a
far more easy-going reception – he even manages a smile as he hands me
my drink.

Whatever it was that brought on his earlier bad mood,
if I was expecting Alam to talk about how difficult it is being a
Muslim in this country and rail against the hostility she encounters
because of her headscarf, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t
what she – or Q News – is about.

Aimed at Muslims who are
“English-speaking, educated, quite forward-thinking and quite
comfortable being British,” Q News [ ‘Q’ because it’s unquantifiable],
prides itself on being “probably the only magazine that doesn’t
complain about the place we live,” she says.

Alam closely
identifies herself with Q News’ mission to think beyond the hardline
views which these days seem almost synonymous with Islam.

By
refusing “to pander to the stereotypes Muslims hold about society
around them,” Q News walks a very different path from other magazines
and newspapers: “They] tend to pander to our worries about Iraq,
Palestine and Islamophobia. There’s no vision – that beyond this, if
there was no Iraq, no Palestine, no Islamophobia – what would we talk
about?”

Editor-in-chief Fuad Nahdi has confidence enough in Alam
to practically hand over the running of the magazine to her. And
although devout, Alam shows a feisty determination not to submit to
beliefs that she believes are a distortion of Islam – no easy task
given that, even by doing the job she does, she’s been accused of
flouting her faith.

But when she was news editor of Q News and
Shagufta Haqub – another woman – was editor, one of the religious
leaders took exception to the fact that women were running the magazine.

“One
of the imams from up north called and said ‘the downfall of Q News will
be brought about by the women you have placed in leadership positions,’

she
recalls. “Fuad said to him: ‘If you can find me 200 bearded smelly men
like you who will do the job these two women do then I would accept
your point!” recalls Alam.

Although prepared to be critical of
it, Alam says she nonetheless has a strong sense of loyalty to the
Muslim community and understands the inclination people have to close
in on themselves when they feel under threat.

She understands
that some people view the magazine with suspicion, but believes it is
alone in having “struck a good balance between being critical of the
community and also loyal to it”.

Issues which don’t often get an
airing – such as mental health problems, teenage pregnancy and
sexuality – have all been tackled in the pages of Q News.

Vulnerable in society

This
month the magazine looks at the increasing phenomenon of young Muslim
girls who go to university and, free from parental restraint, throw
themselves into student lifestyle.

“It’s difficult because these are things a lot of people don’t want to hear,” says Alam.

“Most
people are so overcome by feelings of being vulnerable in this society
that they cannot understand how, especially as we look like practising
Muslims, we are speaking like we are outsiders.”

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks against the US, the pressure to protect your own has been even stronger, says Alam.

“But we felt it was even more urgent that we continue to encourage debate,”

she says. “We had to stop being quiet and come out aggressively and reclaim the agenda of what it means to be a western Muslim.

“After 9/11 we thought – how could we have allowed this to happen? I’m not saying it’s our fault.

But
I think part of the reason this happened is because we don’t put a stop
to that sort of discourse in our community. Hating the west, hating the
land you live on – it’s completely opposite to what Islam teaches. So
why have we allowed our faith to be twisted to such an extent that
people of our community can commit such a heinous crime?”

The
determination of staff at Q News to be open about issues such as
terrorism has led to it being criticised by some of the umbrella Muslim
groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

In a debate on
Radio 5 Live, Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain,
accused Alam and other Muslim journalists of perpetuating myths about
terrorism to further their own careers.

Out of touch

Alam
says she was furious when the MCB then issued a statement saying they
had instructed the mosques to expose any terrorist activities.

Criticising
it as a self-interested move, she also says it shows how far
organisations like the MCB are out of touch with the Muslim community.

“The
people who plan terrorism don’t meet in the mosques. If you spoke to
young people you would know that. They meet in the kebab shop, they
meet in private homes, they meet on street corners,” she says.

Like
many Muslims, she says, she is tired of the same old voices supposedly
representing her views in the mainstream media. In the same way that
everyone who professed to be a Christian wouldn’t necessarily want
their views to be represented by the Archbishop, there are Muslims who
are very frustrated that only the views of a few religious leaders and
organisations are sought out, says Alam.

“The media still goes to the most obvious figures.

You have the same talking heads all the time who drown out the other local groups and grassroots organisations,” she says.

Part of Q News’ appeal is that it reflects attitudes of Muslims whose voices aren’t often heard, she claims.

“A
lot of people are saying, enough is enough, I’ve let you speak for me
for the longest time, the mullahs, the imams, the extremists. I’ve let
you dominate the television screen for long enough. It’s my turn now
and I have a stake in this too.”

Alam has also been working hard
strengthening the business side of the magazine to ensure that as many
people as possible have access to it – at the moment it is subscription
based.

“The last three or four years have been very
hard,” Alam admits. “Production costs have gone up and we used to
have a patron who paid our rent. It wasn’t a hostile departure but that
made a big difference to our finance.”

After some years of
neglect of the marketing side of the magazine, Alam says it’s “really
exciting” that in the last three or four months the magazine is now in
150 Muslim bookshops. She is currently working on deals with two
international distributors that could mean Alam achieves her goal of
getting Q News outside Muslim bookshops and onto the shelves of Borders
and WH Smith, as well as overseas in North America, Western Europe, the
Gulf, North Africa and the Middle East.

“There’s a tremendous
demand there for something like Q News but we have never been able to
sort out getting the magazines there,” says Alam.

There are, she says, very few distributors who understand the Muslim market.

“Muslim
News is distributed by the owner who goes up and down the country every
month delivering to the mosques because there is just no distributor
who understands the market, who knows where the Muslims are, where the
bookshops are and how they work.”

Alam’s aim is to increase the print run from 10,000 to 25,000 within the next four months.

“By
far then we will be the largest-circulating Muslim publication in this
country,” she says. It would be the first Muslim publication to get an
ABC.

A link with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies will
allow them to reach students in universities across the country and
they also plan to distribute copies at regular events and talks.

“We
don’t think it’s a bad thing to give it away for free because it’s all
about getting the copies out,” says Alam. “We’re becoming aggressive
now.”

White, upper class and male

Alam
worked for The Observer from March 2003 when the US attacked Iraq. She
acknowledges that the editor Roger Alton sought out her views but says
it was a strange experience being the only Muslim working at the
newspaper.

“It was very white, very upper class and very male,”

she says. “I felt the atmosphere in the newsroom would change whenever I walked in.

At
the news meetings Roger would look at me as if to say ‘do you want to
say something?’ and I would grab the opportunity to say I think the
story is misdirected or we should do a particular story. But at the
same time I didn’t want to sabotage my career because of my opposition
to the war.”

Alam says as a journalist she has to face up to the fact that she is also likely to be biased.

“I
am trying to rise above my own bias and my own inclinations but it’s
very hard,” says Alam. “I have to admit that Muslims can also sometimes
refuse to examine an issue critically. They will never criticise their
own community and will always point the finger of blame outwards.”

But “no one is a value-free zone,” she adds.

“There’s
this impression that Muslims are somehow the ones with values and bias,
but there’s no such thing as value-free. Even if it’s
ultra-secularist. Everything influences you.”

Alam says
having worked in the mainstream press she is aware of the “constraints
and pressures” that journalists work under but is also frustrated by
“misreporting” that goes on.

“We know, because we know the
facts, and we see how so much is mis-represented. The media gets it
wrong and barely scratches beyond the surface of a story,” she says.

Alam
says she has “a lot of complaints” about the press and, like many
Muslims is also frustrated that it frequently focuses on “the
headscarf, ritual slaughtered meat and terrorism” and bypasses the real
issues.

Recently she was contacted by journalists from the BBC’s
Panorama , only to find that the subject of their investigation was the
headscarf.

“We told them you need to move beyond the headscarf,” says Alam. “Most Muslims don’t even wear it.”

At
one time she imagined herself as a tireless campaigner against
attitudes in the mainstream press towards Islam, but says for now she
has decided to focus on bringing about change from within.

“I
swing between the two because it takes a lot of energy to do both,” she
says. “There was a period when my main focus was to tell people that
Islam was not what they thought, to influence non- Muslims and the
press.

“But I am less into trying to change the mainstream media
now. I’m more about trying to bring about change in my own community. I
think after 9/11 it’s been more of a struggle for the identity of Islam
from within.”

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