For better or worse, our lives are lived increasingly online. While there have been hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to this phenomenon, few people have looked at the impact this has had on religious communities in general, and British Muslims in particular.
In his book, Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims, journalist, editor, VICE contributor, excellent tweeter and host of the Trashfuture podcast Hussein Kesvani explores how the internet has intersected with Islam, and how it has impacted what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today. I had a chat with him about all that.
This interview has been edited for length.
VICE: First of all: what made you want to write the book?
Hussein Kesvani: There are two answers to this. The first is the professional one, which is that I was reporting on Muslim affairs at a new media start-up, and a frustrating thing about my job was that the audience I was mainly writing for were white secular people. The stories that would make it out would be things either to do with terrorism, or these silly super "inspirational" stories about Muslims raising thousands of pounds for charity. In the meantime, I'm finding all these really interesting small stories – stuff that ordinary Muslims in Britain are doing to make their lives easier, or to challenge particular forms of power.
The second thing was I also had a lot of questions myself about what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain. A bunch of books came out in 2017 trying to define that; they all kind of took the approach of trying to define what Muslims in Britain are by referencing geography only, or referencing physical politics. The people they were mainly talking to were boomer generation, first-wave immigrants, mostly South Asian. When reading those books, I was like: not only is this a very limited experience of what British Muslim culture is, it's also one that's not really reflective of the generation that I grew up in, where so much of our selves and our identities are informed by the technology that we use every day.
Islam is so often portrayed as this backwards, anti-progress religion, but as you rightly say in the book, Muslims have been using technology since it first appeared. My dad had an adhan [call to prayer] app on the computer in, like, 1996. So this kind of stuff shouldn't be surprising, especially when, you know, you factor in the fact that Muslims are just people. Of course we use technology!
I went in on that premise as well – Muslims use the internet too. And then, as I was working through the project, I was like, well, religious communities tend to be the first adopters of technology anyway! There's a guy I interview in the book who runs a YouTube channel. When home internet started to become a thing he had a really successful channel where he was uploading Islamic prayers from cassette types, and people around the world were contributing and adding their own prayers. They were getting thousands of listens a month, which back then was a huge deal. If you look at religious organisations, and religious groups as a whole, the way that they've been able to use the internet to propagate, to give dawah [religious advice], to proselytise – this isn't just Muslims, but religious communities in general – they are often at the forefront of looking at how this technology can be used to utilise their mission. And that's why you've got some really savvy organisations, not just in the Muslim space, but in religious spaces generally, who are able to harness the power of online communities to spread their messages. I think that's something that they haven't really got a lot of credit for.
In the book, you look at the idea of social media and the internet being an area of concern for religious people – the idea that young people are going to be tempted by pornography, or tempted away from religion. But actually, I think what you show is that the internet has actually strengthened a lot of young Muslims' faith, and given them a way to navigate their religion on their own terms.
I think this is a core thing. There was always this premise that I remember hearing when I was growing up: that you should keep your kids away from the internet, because there's, like, pornography on there, or depictions of violence and stuff like that – things that will take them away from the traditional teachings of Quran. That was a futile thing anyway, because the internet is an inevitable thing. Now, Imams know it would be insane for them to be like, 'Keep your kids away from the internet.' It's become such an inevitability that the conversations have had to become, 'How do you keep your kids safe? What are the best practices? How can adults engage in online culture in order to provide that safety?' But I think the second part of what you said was the most interesting, because it's the common thread that unites all these characters that you see in the book.
In some ways, it was more reflective of the questions that I had. Part of the reason I decided to do this was because I'd spent a long time struggling with my faith and identity and growing up in multiple worlds – where, on the one hand, I grew up in a religious family, but in an environment where there wasn't a huge Muslim community. Trying to navigate between those two worlds, and your cultural obligations, your religious obligations, and also just growing up. What the internet does is provide you a space to explore those identities. One of the main conclusions was that this is a machine that, rather than taking people away from faith, is allowing people to ask their own questions and find their own answers. That idea of choice that didn't really exist even a decade ago is suddenly part and parcel of growing up as a Muslim in the Western world, or at least Britain anyway.
You can see lots of examples of that kind of variation. Sometimes that doesn't always end up in the best way – there are people who followed that path and ended up in Syria, but that doesn't mean that that's the ultimate conclusion. One reason I think that's important is that a lot of think-tank people had always attributed access to the internet as being a radicalising force that was taking away from the local community style, an organisation that they assume Muslim communities had. Firstly, that’s not true, and it's also a pretty simplistic and inaccurate position to say that you can only have that sort of binary – especially when, in this context, what the technology has done is disrupt the idea that that kind of binary even exists in the first place.
Something that was really interesting to me was the section on "alt-right" Muslims. When people talk about Muslims being radicalised on the internet, they're worried about them joining ISIS, not necessarily about them becoming Jordan Peterson fans. How do you think we can help to ensure that any young Muslims who feel lost or confused find these open and supportive Muslim communities, rather than ending up radicalised?
Part of it is understanding. This section was inspired by stories I'd heard from friends of mine about their cousins who were starting to post anti-feminist, anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ stuff. And they were doing it under this guise of "I want to be a traditional practicing Muslim, in the same way as the companions of the Prophet" – and that also means keeping people on the right path, taking them away from "sin". But they're also following a map of these other online subgroups who are looking towards traditional masculinity as a way of trying to combat liberalism.
One of the central themes of the book is the idea that, with internet and digital culture, things develop really quickly, the networks forge really quickly, and it often takes a very long time for Imams and mosque committees to realise what is happening and what kids are actually listening to, or reading. It's really difficult for them, because for this older generation their view of "bad things" tends to be, like, pornography. If your kid is browsing quite dark places of Reddit, a lot of these parents won't get it. If their kids are going to the masjid and they're praying and fasting and not saying anything that's overtly anti-Muslim, they're like, 'What's the issue?" I think it's up to people who are more internet-savvy who can see the bigger picture – which is that these spaces aren't confined to particular conservative opinions, but are networked to other conservative groups that might legitimise more sinister views, maybe legitimise more sinister actions. You need more online-literate people on your mosque committee and in leadership positions in Muslim organisations. I feel like that's the only way you can at least kind of combat it.
There's a prevalent idea of the internet – and social media in particular – being an echo chamber. But in your book you show that a lot of these spaces have actually had the opposite effect, and forced Muslims from different backgrounds, sects and cultures – of which there are many - to confront Muslims who are not necessarily similar to them. So Sunnis having to talk with Shias, or straight Muslims being confronted with Muslims who identify as LGBTQ.
Yeah, Twitter is the best example of this – a big open space where everyone can join and, as a result, you can be a conservative traditional Muslim, and you have no choice but to exist in an online space with a liberal Muslim woman who may not even practice – and there's not really anything you can do about that. Sometimes you end up in this situation where liberal Muslims and more conservative ones end up having to unite to tackle external problems like online groups which are oppositional to Islam as whole. And as a result, you end up having more engaging conversations. The most obvious thing is gender – in traditional masjid spaces, men and women are separated. But being in an online space, where you have to recognise that Muslim women do exist, [men] then end up having to ask themselves: well, if they exist, how do I speak to them in an online setting where the Quran doesn't really give me very clear rules about my conduct? How should I act when I see someone abusing a sister, even if I don't agree with her view? Is it appropriate to direct message a woman about a work issue? These are new conversations that are emerging – especially in conservative Muslim spaces – which have only happened because of online culture. And I think that's opened up space for very interesting new conversations.
What was the most surprising thing you found out when you were researching the book?
What was particularly fascinating to me was the ex-Muslim spaces and the conflicts that happen there, because I didn't really know much about that space other than the fact that they existed. Online spaces tend to be the one area where they really congregate and where a lot of their views gain legitimacy. I think it was more the peculiarity of the ex-Muslim experience; the wrestling with identities in real time. How do I leave a religion, while also living in a country where I'm kind of given a religion by nature of my race? Regardless of whether I make the decision to leave Islam – even if I think it's regressive, or backwards, and every view I have about practicing Muslims is in line with far-right groups – they will never be in a situation where acceptance is given unconditionally. As a result, you end up having some ex-Muslims who really double down on allying with the far-right, because that's the way they reconcile that identity.
But then you have other factions of ex-Muslims who are like, "I'll never quite leave the cultural background of being Muslim, and I also live at a time when, by nature of my name, or by nature of my skin colour, I will never be able to leave that life, even if I want to. So how do I reconcile that? How can I be my own person?" And for them, the online world offers the only space where they can really express that nuance and themselves as human beings, because in the real world they have to contest with all these identities – one that is given to them involuntarily, and another which they've chosen but is massively misunderstood.
Rule 34 of the internet is that, if something exists, there's porn of it. In some ways, the book shows that if something exists, there's a Muslim version of it. You look at Muslim YouTubers, gamers, meme-makers, shit-posters, dating-app users...
That's a good point, I never really thought about it like that. I think it was just because growing up as a Muslim in a practicing household, the way I experienced technology would always be as a Muslim – even if I gave myself a different avatar, or a different identity, the way I accessed the internet initially would be within a Muslim household. Your internet hours are basically the hours that your parents are sleeping, and you've got to hide your conversations with women because of cultural reasons or whatever. So unconsciously, the way that you interact is always going to be gendered, it's always going to be religiously informed and culturally informed. I think that holds true for all these people in the book, but also for anyone who's grown up in a space where an identity is given to them.
I think part of it is also this question that, if you're a practicing Muslim, or if you're someone who even identifies as one, how should you exist online? Sometimes Muslim spaces are a form of survival – safe spaces for Muslims to just be themselves or to let go, in private Facebook groups or private WhatsApp groups. We've both had this: you can try to be a funny person online – say, on Twitter – and someone's going to slide into your mentions with something about, like, the fucking Crusades. That can be really exhausting, so sometimes those spaces exist out of necessity; not everyone can deal with these idiots.
In other cases, there are Muslims who want to live as Islamically as they can. Right at the beginning of this conversation, we said that technology has taken over every aspect of the way we live, to the point where no one is going to say that you have to abstain from the internet, because it would be impossible. So now this new conversation has emerged, which is: if the internet is this inevitable thing, if I can't get away from it, how can I reconcile it with my religious values? How can I reconcile the way that I practice my faith? How do I translate that to an online space? So in the same way that practicing Muslims live in this country, and they can function perfectly well, while also abiding by – if they're conservative – those conservative forms of practice, the same goes for the online space. With dating, for example – say, with [Muslim dating app] Muzmatch – they introduced this aspect where you can get a chaperone to come in and monitor the conversation, which is a way of translating a conservative religious practice to the Muslim version of Tinder. A lot of it is about reconciliation; if I have this identity, which is important to me – bearing in mind: Islam is a way of life – how do I take that way of life and translate that to the online space where I spend so much of my life?
A lot of it just comes down to the fact that Muslims are people – of course we're going to have our own versions of the things that everyone else has! I found the narrative very humanising. Okay, last thing: what do you hope people take away from the book?
Number one is that I just hope Muslims read the book. I wanted to write this book because, as someone who came from a practicing background, and someone who still identifies as a practicing Muslim, there wasn't really a lot of stuff with nuance that approached the idea that you could have conflicts of faith and identity, and you could still remain authentic. I think there's always this assumption that if you're conflicted or if you have views that are different to your community or your family, you're committing heresy, or that your version of practice is inauthentic. As a child of immigrants, this is a really unsettling thing to hold on to – you frame everything in relation to your parents moving here with nothing, and the faith meaning so much to them; if you compromise on your faith, are you failing them? Are you failing their legacy? It's taken me a long time to be like: 'No, conflict is fine, and everyone feels it.' What I'm hoping that people get from this is an understanding that these types of conflicts, and feeling unsettled, and people making compromises, is a really normal aspect of the human condition, and it's not something that you should feel guilty about, or something that you should assume is hurting your belief or your Imam.
What I wanted to get to was this idea that the notion of religious practice shouldn't be archaic – it shouldn't be this compartmentalised thing, it should be part of oneself. And that also means understanding that religious development and your relationship with faith is going to evolve over time, and it's going to develop in ways that you or your community don't have control over. It's the same as how people's politics have been changed by digital culture: for example, people from suburban middle-class Kent now want to take down landlords as a result of interacting with people with different views and opinions that shape yours. It doesn't mean that you're an uncaring person, or that you've betrayed your family by rejecting Toryism. Why should it be the case that if your religious belief developed as a result of interacting with more people, that should be seen as you betraying your family or your community? I think that was kind of what I was trying to get to.
'Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims' is out today on Hurst, and available to buy here.