There's a lot of talk going on about Muslims and their place in Britain. Type "British Muslim" into Google and you'll be swamped with stories about Muslims cheating the benefits system, or harbouring – and even condoning – grooming gangs. Some of Britain's major newspapers have accused Muslims of tacitly supporting ISIS – a claim that was quickly disproved, but still frequently used by far-right websites and street groups. It's not just blatant Islamophobia that's irked Britain's young Muslims, though. Many young Muslims feel that even when the media comes to their defence, they roll out the same figures and personalities who, while being a welcome change from the likes of Anjem Choudary, aren't that representative of British Muslims either.
It's the (sort of) age-old question: who really speaks for – and represents – Islam in Britain today? The founders of Khidr zine certainly don't claim to fill that gap, but they do think their publication, named after the historical figure Al-Khidr – a figure who, according to the Qur'an, gave guidance to Moses in a time of need – could be a platform for Britain's wide variety of Muslims to express themselves in their own terms. The 55 page issue consists of essays, poetry, illustrations and photography, all of which explore the nuances of existing as a Muslim in Britain today, taking on topics like race, gender and sexuality to examine issues that can often be seen as taboo, even in Muslim communities themselves.
The team, known as the"Khidr Collective", launched the zine last month to a packed-out audience in the Rich Mix centre in east London. I caught up with the zine's founders, Hadi Abbas and Mohamed Zain Dada, to find out more.
VICE: Hi guys. Tell me about the origins of the zine and the reasons you launched it.
Hadi Abbas: There's about seven of us working on this project, but we were initially doing different things. Some of us were doing poetry, others were writing. Some of us went to SOAS and were part of the "decolonising our minds" society and went to zine fairs. So we knew each other just by attending lots of similar events and being interested in similar issues. It made commissioning pieces in the zine a bit easier. We did a couple of callouts online, but most of the things we commissioned were from people we knew from our networks.
Zain Dada: The idea for the zine came intuitively. There was a feeling of frustration we felt since we were teenagers. Not just about the representation of Muslims in the media, but also the actual acts of violence inflicted upon Muslim communities in Britain, from right-wing street groups to the state itself. I felt it from a young age, but I was awakened to how ingrained it was after reading Moazzam Begg's autobiography about his time in Guantanamo Bay, and I realised there needed to be somewhere that talked about these issues, which there wasn't at the time.
How is Khidr different from other Islamic media – places like the Islam Channel, for example?
Hadi Abbas: I think, because we're young and from a different generation, we look at issues that affect British Muslim communities differently. When we started up back in January, we wanted to get as many voices – from all areas of British Muslim society – into the zine. We also operate in a different space to Islamic TV channels, for example. We come from the creative space and operate in creative spaces, so we approach things differently. For example, while the media, on all sides, look at Islamophobia and think it's a problem, we go further to interrogate our sense of belonging. We can't do that unless we look at our own religious and cultural histories. History is very important to us, and it's why we named the zine Khidr and have a profile of him in it.
What things are in the zine that you think capture the experiences of the young Muslim living in Britain today?
Zain Dada: We wanted to show, in part, that Muslims face the same issues as everyone else. For example, we have pieces in the zine about the housing crisis, unemployment, the experiences of working class Muslims and black Muslims. Those are issues that aren't examined by our communities as much as they should be. Alongside that, there's the issue where histories don't really get looked at when talking about Muslims in a contemporary sense, so even young Muslims don't know much about them. So the zine is also there to expose Muslims to histories that they may not have been sure they even had.
What do you think it means to be a Muslim living in Britain today?
Hadi Abbas: It's hard to define! And more importantly, we're not really in a place to define it. There are some groups who'll say that true Muslims have to act a certain way, and there are also certain organisations who'll say that you can't be a "British Muslim" if you pray too much or observe certain religious practices. We want to facilitate a space where all sorts of Muslims can tell their own stories and be themselves. We want to make space where each and every Muslim is just as valuable and important as the other – whether you're rich or poor, or if you have different [theological] beliefs.
Parts of the zine look at cultural, as well as religious, experiences – do you think there's a distinction between the two?
Zain Dada: The interesting thing about our generation is that we have to think a lot about our parents and where they came from – we have to think a lot about our culture and what it means to be a diaspora. In the zine, that tends to come through with poetry. For example, there's a rich cultural history in Pakistani culture around poetry, so you'll find young people in the diaspora will explore their identity using that format. There's something that comes through in poetry and the slam poetry format, which attracts young Muslims to that, as a written medium. It's very accessible, and it also allows people to speak truth to power. The zine also, I think, captures the intersection between religion and culture. If you look at each contributor, they all have their own identities that come from their diasporas, and they also carry their own paths and traditions to Islam. You're not really religious or cultural. In reality, both feed off each other.
How do you hope young Muslims respond to the zine?
Hadi Abbas: There'll be a lot of Muslims who can relate to this – Muslims who've been told what their identities are, who've had labels put on them by individuals and institutions. We hope that this zine will provide a space where Muslims can be more comfortable with themselves – whether you're practising or not, or if you come from a minority group. It's a zine for everyone, really.