With everything happening in the world today, being a Muslim is pretty tough. Let's put it this way. If the world was one big video game, these would be the levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced, impossible and Muslim," begins Abdel En Vrai, the Muslim-Belgium-Moroccan comedian, in his YouTube video titled "Being a Muslim Today."
With 15,662,802 views, Abdel En Vrai has been recognized for his work and named one of YouTube's Creators for Change. Announced in September 2016, Creators for Change is a global initiative dedicated to amplifying young YouTubers using their channels to front social change to promote messages of tolerance and empathy.
Sugar-coated with humor, his videos speak about a stark reality for Muslims in Belgium where Islamophobia is rampant and 67 percent of the population feels invaded by immigrants. "Obviously, let's face it, they don't consider Swedes and Italians as immigrants," Abdel explains in one video. "When I saw this statistic, I thought I should maybe refresh Belgians' memory."
Today, the young comedian hosts Le Journal d'Abdel [Abdel's News Report] in which he investigates complex and often overlooked issues, from the persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya community to the situation in Aleppo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, an old-Belgian colony, with a heavy dose of humor.
VICE Impact sat down with Abdel En Vrai at London's YouTube studios to chat about the ups and downs of being a Muslim YouTube sensation impacting change.
VICE Impact: The first ever video you posted on YouTube was in 2013 in reaction to the Islamophobic remarks made by French actress Véronique Genest on France 2 [French national TV]. Can you tell us more?
Abdel En Vrai: What she was saying was pure Islamophobia. I was raging. I wanted to go on TV and give her my two cents but I couldn't. So I thought, 'You know what? I'm going to post a video on YouTube to tell her what I think about what she's saying'. And that was it. I was on YouTube.
Has your production process changed much in the past 4 years?
I first look for a theme that speaks to me. Once I've found one then the ideas come to me very quickly. But to develop these ideas takes time. I want to make sure that a 10-year-old looking at my videos will understand. I want that 10-year-old kid to think, 'Hey I've learned something.' So I tell myself, 'Okay, a kid is going to listen to this. How do I do it so he gets it?'
I try to do videos that ultimately have a positive message that can at least change the minds of a few people or at least make them questions their beliefs a little bit.
On Le Journal D'Abdel [Abdel's News Report] you bring to light, broadcast style, to topics that are often ignored in the mainstream media. Can you tell us more?
There comes a time when we have a responsibility.I like gaming videos or videos of people being dicks, don't get me wrong. But there is an educational aspect missing in those videos. I want people to look at my videos and laugh, but also think.
Does being the voice that explores and influences these important, but sensitive and often overlooked issues feel like a huge and, at times daunting responsibility?
I have to be careful. It's such a huge responsibility. After one video, it took me nearly four months to publish another one. On one hand, I didn't want to disappoint my audience but on the other, it takes time to produce these videos. It takes a lot of research to be accurate and at the same time funny.
We can't make ourselves small and invisible because of rampant Islamophobia.
I receive a lot of mail from non-Muslims that say, 'I was on the verge of becoming anti-Muslim because of all the shit that's happening but you're videos are making me rethink things.' And I think, 'Holy shit that's something! That's some weight!'
So I try to do videos that ultimately have a positive message that can at least change the minds of a few people or at least make them questions their beliefs a little bit. It's a lot of pressure.
What has been most difficult about making these videos?
To put myself out there as a practicing Muslim. To say, 'Hey, I am Muslim, I pray, I go to the mosque.' Close friends told me not to. They were like, 'Be careful, don't do that, don't speak about Islam.' Even my Dad, these days, tells me not to let my beard grow out. We can sometimes be scared amongst ourselves.
People tell me that I am exaggerating and that it's not that bad. But morally, I think we are there, the atmosphere, the tensions. People think, behind every Muslim, there is a potential terrorist. This is a huge problem.
What drives you to put yourself out there and speak openly about these topics?
We can't make ourselves small and invisible because of rampant Islamophobia. We are Muslim, but we were born in Belgium. And that's it. We have to accept it. You can't be next to millions of people that practice a certain religion and pretend it's not there. And we also can't just apologize for just existing.
I have started to work with governmental institutions. They see what I'm doing, they trust me and we are working together to help raise awareness on topics like radicalization and so on. That is awesome.
The interview was translated from French into English by the author and edited for clarity and brevity.
YouTube has partnered with VICE Impact to promote the Creators for Change program. This article was written independently by the VICE Impact editorial staff and was not paid for by YouTube.