Muslim cool: New broadcaster beams a vibrant vision of Islam’s cultural impact


In an era of negative portrayals of Islam, Alchemiya aims to shift the discourse by sharing content they love, which evokes grand memories of a positive past for Elest Ali.

Image by Hassan Hajjaj via Alchemiya Facebook page
Image by Hassan Hajjaj via Alchemiya Facebook page

I once had a non-Muslim friend introduce me to another non-Muslim thus: “Elest is Muslim, but she’s cool.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that I didn’t whip out my scimitar and lop off his head. Why? Because I’m ‘cool’ like that. Furthermore, my heart went out to him. Here was a mate I’d known for years trying to impress on another, in a first-meeting situation, that I wasn’t like ‘those Muslims’.

So what am I then? A recent conversation with Navid Akthar, a former producer at Channel 4 and the BBC, afforded me an epiphany in this respect.

But first, let me tell you about my granddad.

In 1952, my maternal grandfather enlisted in Turkey’s military aid response to the United Nations, and was duly dispatched to the Korean War. He told his lady-love (my gran, a military nurse) that he hoped to be martyred. Why an altruistic young Muslim man believed that dying over a Cold War proxy conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union would land him in paradise was and still is a mystery.

Perhaps the world was still naïve then. Perhaps Granddad, looking for a cause, was naïve. Like so many others, he’d bought into the popular discourse of the time and picked a side in the conflict. You’ll be pleased to know he didn’t die in the Korean War. He returned with many a good story to tell about heroism and human kindness despite the terrors he encountered in South Korea. He married my gran, and in an attempt to change the world again, this time through verse, ended up serving time for writing socialist poetry.

But that’s a whole other kettle of kebabs for another day.

Today, the dominant story being told about adherents of my grandfather’s faith lacks the nuance of his own life and tales. The popular discourse is of terrorism, cruelty and a human ugliness that has nothing to do with his beliefs. To say that Islam is widely misrepresented in mainstream media would be the understatement of the century, and Muslims are tired of this. They’re tired of condemning and apologising for the actions of lunatics who have nothing to do with them.

“How can I apologise for something I didn’t do, and I don’t agree with?” asks Navid. I’m speaking to Navid because he is involved in a new project called Alchemiya, an upcoming online TV platform which aims to offer an alternative discourse about Islam for audiences from all walks of life. “Muslims have been condemning and distancing themselves from acts of terrorism since 9/11,” Navid continues. “People always say, ‘Muslims need to speak louder, Muslims need to condemn’ – they are! And they have been. But there seems to be, what I call, a racist attempt to continuously make out that we support these atrocities.”

“Human beings are fundamentally trying to find humanity”

I agree with him – especially because I’m a firm believer that there are two types of people in life: those who look for the flaws and deficits in others, because they’re conscious of their own flaws; and those who look for the beauty and truth in others because they’re conscious of their own flaws. We all have the capacity for both mind frames (you should see me when I’m pissed off, with my scimitar no less) but everyone has a stronger inclination towards one or the other.

So what has this got to do with my granddad? Another belief I have is that we are what we love and value, and that the stories we consume play a big part in forming that. This is that aforementioned epiphany, and it isn’t just about the importance of responsible broadcasting. It’s about cultural narrative. But I’m getting too deep now, so I’ll refer back to Navid. He’s waxing lyrical about the things he loves: travelling, visiting Istanbul, eating good food, observing the varying colours of Islamic cultures the world over, and appreciating their traditions of hospitality.

“Alchemiya is a cultural experience,” Navid explains. “We promote and celebrate the cultural impact of Islam on the world.” He speaks about art and philosophy and science and literature. Cultural manifestations like Rumi’s poetry and the Taj Mahal, which do not exist in a vacuum but have come from a religious ideal. “Take a beautiful geometric tile panel in Morocco for instance; the people who designed and put that together did so because it’s an expression of their love of God. And our aim is simple: to share what we love.”

Share and love are words we hear very little of amidst the clamour of hate and fear-mongering. When world media is owned by only a handful of conglomerates and news outlets continue to push views that further specific political agendas, entire races, cultures and faiths suffer the brunt of the damage. When no alternate discourse exists, freedom of speech is a right we can seldom exercise because freedom of independent and informed thought has become near impossible.

These are my thoughts, not Navid’s. No, Alchemiya is out to keep it simple. “This is about being human,” he says. “There are global clashes taking place: Islam and the West. And in the middle of it I think human beings are fundamentally trying to find humanity. We’re trying to find the small things that bind us together. The small people and small ideas.”

People like my granddad, perhaps? The voices that get lost in the tumult; the multi-faceted stories of well-intentioned folk that never get told because they blur the lines.

I, for one, would like to hear more of them.


Learn more at the Alchemiya website

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