In mainstream European media – television, newspapers, magazines, and online – Muslims are a source of endless debate, curiosity, and suspicion, particularly during times of crisis and tension. And yet this demographic, constituting approximately 20 million of Europe’s 350 million people, has been largely excluded from the dialogue. It’s not just religion that serves as a barrier. Language, race, gender, and national identity, all compound the separation between this increasingly strategic community and the wider European landscape. Without a forum for debate, discussion, and understanding – from a European Muslim point of view – those who wish to polarise society are able to fill the media vacuum.
In November, a group of twenty young European Muslim media organisations of various shapes and sizes managed to gather in Madrid, Spain to launch a new initiative aimed at combining their resources to better address these issues. The gathering was sponsored by the largest Spanish and French Muslim news websites – WebIslam.com and SaphirNews.net – having experienced phenomenal growth themselves over the past few years. This newly christened European Media Islamic Network is seeking to redress the disparity in media presence and help allow fledgling Muslim media outlets to combine resources, knowledge, and expertise to better articulate a European Muslim experience and to leverage influence on the broader media landscape.
To illustrate, WebIslam.com’s head Yusuf Fernandez, along with his staff, demonstrated their approach and the challenges they faced as they grew. His is among the more developed mediums for Muslims in Europe and is in some ways a victim of its own success, drawing a sizable audience from the Americas (including the US) that now rivals its domestic Spanish audience. Like many of his European counterparts, financial viability is an issue. WebIslam.com makes enough to pay for one full time salary, which goes to its hardworking webmaster. For the rest of the staff – and for most of the other European organisations – operations are on a volunteer basis. Some are quite small – including sites in Finland, Bosnia, Estonia, and Sweden – and feature mostly local news and comment. But by using the Internet, all can take advantage of the relatively low cost and wide reach, leaving only content, talent, and knowledge to make a mark on wider society. Couple this with an ever increasing understanding of the power of media and a professional, journalistic approach to it, and one can see real potential for change.
Hearing the stories about starting up established Muslim media websites was a revelation for those who worked alone in parallel, especially for the few English mediums in attendance. Nearly all had the similar challenges alongside the variations in language, journalistic style, and local perceptions of Muslims. Yet it is the cross-pollination of ideas and resources that could help add context, perspective, and understanding to the issues concerning Muslims in Western countries across these linguistic divides, as there are now likely more Muslims speaking non-English European languages in the West than those speaking solely English. English-only Muslim media, whether online or offline, is not sufficient by itself for contextualising the interests of Western Muslims. In this rapidly changing media landscape, European Muslims need to learn from each other’s experiences to gain influence in wider society.
The statement of principles decided that day reflect the common purpose that members of the network could agree to: “shared Islamic values, ideals of pluralism, freedom of expression, journalistic integrity, the promotion of civil rights, and the promotion of harmony and understanding between cultures and religions.” In addition, some practical arrangements would allow the sharing of resources and content, workshops to help train media startups, and exploring the development of a European Muslim news agency that would aggregate stories from Muslim communities for syndication in wider media circles. All of this would be done “without undermining the identity, language, and character of the individual members” – a very European approach to collaboration.
Europeans of all stripes have had to manage stark cultural, linguistic, and nationalistic differences between them. European Muslims are no different, and a media network for them is a product of the times we live in, the changing nature of media, and a still-developing European Muslim identity. As of now, the stories and interests of European Muslims are subject to the whims of a mainstream media often driven by commercial interests. A well organised, independent Muslim media network, built on the credibility from its connections to real Muslim communities, can help change that. It has the opportunity for wielding far more influence than each of its members could achieve on their own, especially when using online media. Without it, each entity would be reinventing the wheel, not knowing how much they could achieve and potentially surrendering to the existing narrative that threatens to separate Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.