Documenting the Diverse Stories of Muslims Throughout the UK

We spoke to the photographer behind a new project, "Reclaiming Muslim".

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Feb 15 2018, 10:48am

Ruwaydah and Steven. 

There are almost two billion Muslims in the world, but – in the majority of western media – they're rarely treated as individuals. A cursory glance at mainstream media representations of this group would have you believe they share identical experiences and views, from Leicester to Lahore, like "hating Christmas" or secretly fostering sympathy for terrorists.

This has led to increasing resentment from certain sections of the UK population, with Muslims coming under more scrutiny and hate crimes surging. There has been a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks since the London Bridge attack in June of 2017, while crimes targeting mosques have doubled over the past year – statistics that to have be attributed in part to the right-wing British press tarring all Muslims with the same brush as the tiny minority actually responsible for the the attacks. This is particularly dangerous when many living in the west – where there’s a comparatively small Muslim population – know very little or nothing about Islam.

A number of photography projects in recent years have sought to dispel myths and put a spotlight on the multifaceted identities of Muslims the world over. Lia Darjes looks at how Islam intersects with queerness in her project "Being Queer, Feeling Muslim", while Samra Habib’s "Just Me and Allah" documents the lives of LGBT Muslims in North America and Europe.

More recently, London-based creative Charlotte Bibby has launched Reclaiming Muslim, a photo and interview series which aims to document the diverse stories of Muslims in London and beyond, while challenging our preconceptions of what Muslims "look like". Subjects so far have included an interracial Muslim couple and a trans Muslim woman – identities erased not just within the Muslim community, but in the wider world. As one girl in the series laments: "I’d love for people not to see me as someone to hate, but someone to have a conversation with."

Ayman Al Hussein is a 24-year-old Syrian who moved to Turkey to study as a dental prostheses technician in 2012 after the war in Syria began. He’s currently in the process of claiming asylum in the UK as a refugee. Find him on Instagram.

Undertaking a project based on faith might seem at odds with Charlotte's own status as a self-identifying "firm atheist", but she says she wants to help humanise a community that she sees being dehumanised on a daily basis.

Charlotte has met some opposition from people who don't believe an atheist has the right to photograph such a project, but says the response has been mostly positive and that – in some respects – being atheist is an advantage. In a community that has long grappled with colourism and a 1,400-year-old Shia-Sunni divide, she claims to have a less biased perspective on different interpretations of Islam, enabling her to feature a broader range of British Muslims that other projects are yet to.

I spoke to Charlotte about the challenges of striking up a conversation with a stranger, the power of photography in dispelling myths and what it means to be a Muslim in 2018.

VICE: Hi Charlotte. So, how did "Reclaiming Muslim" come about?
Charlotte: I noticed over the past few years that Muslims were becoming progressively more vilified in the media, as stories about them were almost always revolving around extremism and terrorism. The voices of Muslims themselves were being completely ignored, so I wanted to start a project that offered a platform to challenge the stereotypes that unfortunately a lot of non-Muslims believe.

Why do you feel there’s a need for a project like yours?
I think that, until people stop saying "Muslims are…", there will continue to be a need for projects like this. There are almost two billion Muslims in the world, spanning pretty much every culture, so how can anybody speak like they’re one hive mind that all think and act the same way? I also feel like more "controversial" Muslims, like LGBTQ+ and non-hijabis, don’t tend to be offered as much of a platform as others. I want there to be the same opportunities for them to have their voices heard as well.

Kiku Basu is a trans-woman and political and social activist. You can follow her page here.

Could you tell me a bit more about how you approached people in your project – do you strike up conversations with Muslim strangers?
At first it was really tricky, because apart from my Syrian friend [Ayman Al Hussein], I didn’t actually know any Muslims when I started working on this project. I realised I was probably going to have to deal with a lot of no's and a lot of people challenging me over why I was doing the project, so I just took it on the chin and carried on. I visited an open day at a local mosque and Finsbury Park Mosque on a normal weekday, and again got a lot of no's. It was only after I attended a prayer session at an inclusive mosque in London that I found people. I then started to reach out to people I found on Instagram, in Facebook groups and online and, from there, it began to grow.

Your work has featured identities that often face double discrimination. Was it a conscious decision to include people who are not just rarely heard in the mainstream but silenced in the Muslim community?
Yes, absolutely. I think, sadly, there’s a lot of judgment coming from some Muslims who even go so far as to challenge LGBTQ+ Muslims for even calling themselves Muslims, and so they’re voices that either get silenced or attacked. I wanted there to be a platform for people to say, "I am Muslim and I am gay, and yes those two things can go together," because how can anybody else try to redefine somebody like that and treat total strangers so venomously?

Ferhan Khan is a civil engineer from Glasgow who has been living in London for the last 14 years and believes that the UK is the best place worldwide to be Muslim. He’s openly gay and came out on the BBCs Muslims Like Us, and, despite feeling at odds with his religion when he was younger, has now come to terms with Islam while still believing faith is a personal matter that doesn’t necessarily inform identity.

Mainstream media representations tend to focus on how Muslims are a monolith, rarely spotlighting how diverse this group really is. Does that feed into your work?
Definitely. So many people seem to think of Muslims as all being either Arab or South Asian, and forget that there are not only Muslims in countries in Europe, but also in countries all over the world, from Korea to Brazil. Even within one culture, there are all sorts of perspectives. It seems some people need a reminder of it.

How powerful do you think photography can be when it comes to dispelling myths of British Muslims?
I think with the way my generation and younger generations find and absorb new information, imagery is absolutely vital to capture people’s attention. You can write and write and write, but without a picture to make people stop scrolling they won’t even get to the point of reading. I think people also need to see that Muslims aren’t all one ethnicity and they don’t all dress and look the same, and this is much easier to portray in a photograph than it is via text.

Ruwaydah is a 24-year-old British-Ghanian, who in July of 2017 married Steven, a 33-year-old Brit born in Newcastle. Ruwaydah was brought up Muslim in London and Steven converted after they began their relationship in 2014.

You describe yourself as a "firm atheist". What attracted you to project about faith? The idea behind it is to prove that there are so many things that connect us as human beings, and you don’t have to share a religion to see that. The reason the project is about Muslims is because they’re the ones who are so often dehumanised. They’re the ones who are being reduced to stereotypes and expected by some to answer on behalf of a tiny, tiny minority of people who share that label and are doing awful things. This isn’t some far away problem in other places. This hostility is happening here in this country to people I encounter on a daily basis, so I wanted to at least try to do something positive to change it. I like trying to understand different perspectives, and I care about how people are treated. It just so happens that, right now, it’s Muslims who seem to be being treated the worst.

I know a lot of people in the UK don’t have the same opportunities to have these kind of conversations with people with different beliefs, and so they have a very narrow perspective of what it means to be Muslim. I’m more than happy to meet people and have those conversations for them if it opens people’s minds up a little bit, and that’s the hope at least: that it will open up people’s minds.

What’s the response been like so far?
It’s been received really well so far. At first, there wasn’t really a way for me to let people know I wasn’t Muslim. It only came up when people messaged me, and it really surprised a lot of them. Most were curious to know why I’d started it and were happy that somebody who wasn’t Muslim was noticing the issues they were facing. But one or two had issues with the fact that I was doing this project despite not being Muslim. I got one "how dare you try to reclaim Islam". It's mostly been really positive, though, and I love getting messages from people from all over the world.

@its_me_salma

All photography courtesy of Charlotte Bibby. You can find more of Charlotte's work here.

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