Hours after last month’s attacks on political cartoonists in Paris, which left 12 people dead, artistic responses poured in from around the world.
One of them, from Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff, depicted bullets flying through the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and onto an Islamic mosque pictured in the background. Like much of the commentary on the tragic shooting, Latuff’s message was direct: Western media may provoke emotion with caricatures of Muhammad, but religious extremists sabotage their own message with deadly retaliations.
The battle for public opinion regarding the Muslim world often seems centered on Western-media-driven stereotypes — that Muslims reject modern society, hold anachronistic and misogynistic views that run counter to American principles, that Muslim women’s clothing, particularly veils, gets in the way of convention. Or in the most dangerous of stereotypes, especially amid attitudes that prevailed in the days after 9/11, that they are to be feared.
That’s why a handful of religious leaders in Bon Air say they’re working to heal Islam’s relationship with media in their own way — by becoming part of it.
At 21 Buford Road, Jalal Abualrub runs the Islam Life Center, which opened Nov. 1. It isn’t a mosque, but a community center that serves as a gathering place and offers such services as counseling and fitness classes. Attendees run the gamut — couples looking for marriage advice, children seeking to learn martial arts.
The center’s most successful endeavor is Islam Life Radio. The talk-format station, which is broadcast online, is being run through a co-founder’s house in Midlothian while the center works to prepare a more permanent space for the project.
Abualrub hopes to build a multimedia empire with Islam Life Radio at its heart. Plans include producing books and in-person events, starting with a program called Islam Speaks.
An invitation for the event, previously planned for next month at Virginia Commonwealth University, encourages attendees to come bearing curiosity: “Ask Muslim experts about Islam, Jihad, Shari’ah, ISIS, Paris Attacks, Muslim Women’s Rights, Allaah, and any other question you may have! This is your opportunity to seek truth and clear any misconceptions or confusions!” But when Style went to press, organizers said the event would be delayed.
The radio venture draws comparisons to the successful National Public Radio show “This American Life, which discusses current events in an impromptu style and has spun off such programs as “Serial,” “Planet Money” and “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.”
In a nutshell, these Richmond organizers envision This Muslim Life.
“We are half education, half entertainment,” Abualrub says. “We transmit Islamic teachings, but our discussions eventually stray into what’s happening to Muslims in the news, in culture.”
The goal is to attract Muslim and non-Muslim listeners alike. Islamophobia is stoked by media stereotypes, Abualrub says, so he’s out to correct misinformation while providing solace for practicing Muslims — all in a compelling way.
Although it’s awash in ancient traditions, Islam Life Radio comes off as hip. The website is steeped in slick graphics and catchy slogans. There are podcast apps for iPhones and Androids. Tuning in, you’re likely to hear sassy promos for its programs, such as: “Sorry bruthas, ‘Reflections of a Rose’ is a poetry show fo’ women only!”
The station’s most popular show is “Just Us Women,” with host Umm Maahir. She’s co-founder of the North American Islamic Foundation, which fights against discrimination against Muslim women in the workplace. Maahir describes the program as “a builder of self-esteem and self-worth,” and says she hopes to impart “deep knowledge” of a woman’s place in Islam.
Gaining respect from non-Muslims might seem to be Islam Life Radio’s greatest challenge. The station has ambitions to be more like NPR than a religious service. It wants to be a trusted source on all things Islam.
But reactions from within Richmond’s growing Muslim community show that the station is fighting for support on two fronts.
Some local leaders aren’t so sure they want a small group to speak on their behalf. And they’ve voiced concern about Islam Life Radio’s connection with Salafism, a branch of Islam. Salafi, which translates as “righteous predecessors,” places emphasis on the first generation of the prophet’s companions.
The branch carries a reputation for causing divisiveness in Muslim communities, because Salafis follow strict, literalist interpretations of the Quran, according to New York Times reporter Andrea Elliot, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her series of articles on Brooklyn’s Muslim community.
In the broader context of global Muslim culture, Elliot notes that evangelistic Salafists want sharia, or divinely ordained law, to govern society. While sharia regulates such mundane activities as diet, countries such as Saudi Arabia apply its most harsh punishments, which include bodily mutilation.
On Islam Life Radio, DJs discuss things as varied as poetry and the job market. But there’s one significant thread. Twenty-four hours a day there’s an overarching question: How do you reconcile an ancient lifestyle with modern life?
Abualrub, gray-bearded and wearing a tight brimless cap called a kufi, can be a fiery debater on air. But in person, he’s relaxed, playful and charismatic. If he perceives misinformation, that’s when he starts to chuckle and let loose an argument. His show, after all, is called “Provocative.”
“Islam says you forfeit your Muslim status if you do something like blow yourself up in a market,” he says. “Media tries to resolve contradiction by describing these actors as both terrorist and Muslim.”
Abu Hudhayfah Edwards, the laconic chief executive of Islam Life Radio, often chimes in to support his colleague’s point. He says the title of the show “Just Us Women” is a play on words — just us, or justice.
“There really is justice for women in Islam, contrary to what you hear,” Edwards says, referring to views that Muslim women are oppressed. Some critics cite veiled clothing as one way that Muslim culture encourages women to erase their individuality.
Edwards paints himself as a Luddite, despite his job managing Islam Life Radio from his home office in Midlothian. When asked about the station’s equipment, he’s reluctant to go into detail, instead pulling out a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook. “This, and a mild case of OCD,” he says, “keeps everything running.”
Abualrub laughs, explaining further: “We have all the things a typical Internet radio station would have — in Hollywood quality.”
Ancient religions usually aren’t advocates of materialism. But under Islam’s sharia law, according to Abualrub, there’s plenty of room for modern life.
“I see nothing around me that contradicts my religion,” he says, surveying the somewhat barren Islam Life Center. Taufique Aziz, the youngest host at Islam Life Radio, quietly nods while turning a smartphone in his hand.
But despite the station’s mission to demystify Muslim culture and its technological embrace, this isn’t a place where anything goes. In a seemingly contradictory stance for a project that aims to be a multimedia empire, there are limits on freedom of speech.
“I’d say you have no right to portray or mock Muhammad, or any prophet — I don’t consider that freedom of speech,” Abualrub says, straightening his abaya, or full-body cloak. When a topic revs him up, it’s easy to see him slip into his on-air persona, ready for a debate.
A visit to Edwards’ spacious home studio reveals that Islam Life Radio indeed is a serious venture. Young, tech-savvy Aziz prepares for his show “Know the Ledge” by calling up notes on his Microsoft tablet. Shock-mounted mics stretch forth on cranes, surrounding a large Mac desktop computer. Edwards shuffles around, testing headphones, checking speakers — and then they’re live.
For the next hour, Aziz uses scripture while relentlessly deconstructing the immorality of the Charlie Hebdo attacks by two brothers, gunmen who cited an affiliation with al-Qaida. The phrase “holy war” never appears in the Quran, Aziz says. “Many non-Muslims are starting to realize, these horrible events are not the whole story.”
And Muslims afraid of being stereotyped shouldn’t conform, he says: “Fellow Muslims may suggest that you shave off your beard or take off your hijab, but hiding your faith is wrong.”
All the while, Edwards continues to troubleshoot. He cruises Facebook on the big screen, chatting with listeners from Canada, Australia and Indonesia.
The origin of Islam Life Radio reaches back to the aftermath of 9/11, when Abualrub was a guest speaker at Texas State University. Aziz was sitting in the audience.
Abualrub goes straight for the heart, speaking to people’s disillusionment with modern society. He translates prophetic texts from classical Arabic — a demanding labor that itself can seem like a sacred rite. Rescued from obscurity, these teachings on modest living can have a revelatory effect.
Aziz was hooked. The 32-year-old, who wears fashionable horn-rimmed glasses, says he decided that he wanted to study under Abualrub. “He’s like a father figure to me,” he says.
Around the same time, Edwards met Abualrub in Florida. “Jalal and I were both living there and connecting was just a matter of priorities,” says the towering father of six, pointing to bookshelves full of religious texts. “If you’re into sports, you know the star players. If you’re into Islam, you know who is disseminating important knowledge.”
The three men and their wives also felt a strong pull toward new media: podcasts, blogs, social networks and the like. They noticed how educational projects had greater power in the Facebook era. An online radio station required low overhead and could reach multitudes.
And so they decided to launch Islam Life Radio in Richmond. They picked the area for three reasons, Edwards says. The city is centrally located between other Muslim communities on the East Coast, it fosters an entrepreneurial environment with a low cost of living — and it has a temperate climate. “I couldn’t wear this in January where I grew up outside Manhattan,” Edwards says, pointing to his abaya.
While the station is a nonprofit that accepts donations, the founders say it takes only $600 a month to operate because of the affordability of consumer technology. The founders also say they’ve waived their salaries, making their living through day jobs. But they insist that Islam Life Radio is their life’s work.
“This isn’t a weekend hobby,” Edwards says.
After their show concludes, Aziz and Edwards are loose and lighthearted. They debate the merits of Apple versus Microsoft. A row of shoes sits by the studio door. Edwards stares down at his socks, and as usual, speaks in a measured, radio-ready voice.
“We want to plant our feet here,” he says. “Be a point of contact for the community.”
The Islamic Center of Virginia is Richmond’s oldest mosque, established in 1973. It’s also on Buford Road, within walking distance of the newly founded Islam Life Center, where the radio station soon will be housed.
The 42-year-old mosque, and its leader Ammar Ammonette, is well known in Richmond’s Muslim community. But there’s a lack of a face for Islam Life Radio, which is raising a red flag for some local Muslims: Why do we know so little about them?
Virginia Commonwealth University professor Imad Damaj says Richmond’s Muslim community has evolved through the decades. In 1952, the Masjid Bilal was established in an old grocery store on Chimborazo Boulevard. In the past 10 years, multiple mosques have sprung up to meet a growing need in the South Side, Chester and the West End.
“It has been hard-won progress,” says Damaj, who also is founder and president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. “Money has been raised from inside the community and there has been an intense focus on civic and charitable engagement.”
Damaj is deeply concerned about Islam Life Radio’s connection with Salafism. He describes ambitiousness as the hallmark of Salafists, just behind their penchant for cultural conservatism. If this small group becomes a leading voice on Muslim issues, Damaj says, he worries that the American Muslim majority will suffer greatly for it.
The Salafist movement gained a foothold in America during the early 1980s, writes Elliot, the journalist, who describes how Salafist nonprofits, fed by Saudi money, began to proliferate across the country. These nonprofits were perhaps zealous in their effort to spread fundamentalist Islam. But they didn’t seem like a political threat.
Tensions rose when American boots landed on Saudi sand during the first Gulf War because the peninsula is home to many holy sites. Emboldened, Osama Bin Laden assembled his group from handpicked and extreme parts of Salafism.
Salafists now are a politically motivated bunch, with money to spare. They’ve taken seats from longstanding parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, following the power vacuum left by 2011’s Arab Spring revolution.
It would be wrong to suggest that all Salafists aspire to join Bin Laden’s jihad, but local leaders such as Damaj worry that, at best, their overall message is tainted by association. And through such projects as Islam Life Radio, Damaj and others believe that efforts might fragment the local Muslim community.
For his part, the station’s Abualrub rejects comparisons to extremists who would bring holy law to modern society through horrific violence.
“Sharia only partly deals with law; it organizes all of our worldly and religious beliefs,” he says. “It is our daily search for balance.”
“As for extremists who commit terror in the name of Islam,” he continues, “they are rebels through and through. We are well-read and know the Quran condemns religious extremism. We are not extremists — they are irresponsible editors of our sacred teachings.”
Richmond’s Muslim community is built on a particular kind of trust: If people don’t know a fellow follower by face, they at least know their occupation or spouse. The concern is that, in virtual communities, it’s easy to appear as an authority. A non-Muslim listener of Islam Life Radio might think they’re getting an unbiased glimpse of Muslim culture. The site, after all, is geared toward mass appeal and ease of connection.
Damaj, who serves as an adviser to VCU’s Muslim Student Association, suggests a market test of Islam Life Radio. Over a recent dinner, he has students navigate the site on their smartphones and offer initial reactions.
Political science student Charlie Turner says he’s turned off by the slick packaging. “If something is presented as an entertainment product, I’m going to immediately look at its underlying worldview,” says Turner, who also heads the youth program at the Islamic Center of Virginia. “Is this fulfilling an exclusive Islamic ideology, or is it encouraging people to find their own answers during their faith journey?”
Others say the station seems to put too much stock in a massive online following.
“Online is how my generation connects, it’s a democratic medium,” says Tayyaba Syed, a dental student. “But I don’t get caught up in all the images, because democracy is something that informs my daily life.”
Syed participates in Project Downtown, a nationwide effort that provides meals and essential services for disadvantaged populations. In Richmond, Muslims and Baptists can be seen working for this movement, side-by-side.
Other students quickly perceived another Salafist hallmark: extreme attention to detail. “By focusing on minute details like conservative rituals, I’m worried that people might lose sight of the basic essence of our faith,” says Farah Hottle, who attends the Islamic Center of Richmond.
Locally, the Muslim population is 20,000 people and growing. That’s a much smaller number than in Philadelphia, for example, which one Islam Life Radio host calls home. Yet even in the smallest towns with Internet connections, communities are split. Knowing your neighbors through their online profile is the new normal.
“Everyone is putting their name and their spin out there,” says Richmond resident Dilshad Ali, who manages the Muslim channel on Patheos.com, a multifaith website that averages 250,000 visitors a month. “This is the age of eyeball journalism, where personal blogs, opinion pieces, and ‘truthiness’ rule the day.”
One of Ali’s former staff writers is Rabia Chaudry, a Muslim blogger who inspired season one of the “Serial” podcast, which attracted 65 million downloads in a few short months. It can often seem like we’re barraged with new media, Ali says.
“But really, we take a cursory look at a lot of things online,” she says, “so I don’t think we should judge an internet radio station if we know only 10 percent, 20 percent of what it’s about.”
Undoubtedly, some prominent Richmond Muslims tune into Islam Life Radio.
“I like when it provides a moment for prayer,” says Moeen Khan, chief financial officer at the West End Islamic Center. “Jalal [Abualrub] is working for a great cause, to educate people.”
Khan says misinformation is Islam’s greatest hurdle today. At Pemberton Elementary, for example, students were called into the auditorium while the Charlie Hebdo attacks unfolded. Images of terror flickered on a big screen. Khan’s fifth-grade son sat in the audience. The boy asked school leaders why they’d never cancel class when a person did something good in the name of Islam. Pemberton’s principal later called Khan to apologize.
“We know more about our international neighbors than our actual neighbors,” Khan exclaims. “We need to teach kids about equality first, then politics.”
Isti Arief, science chairwoman at Tawheed Prep School, agrees that local communities are at risk of becoming superficial. She thinks social media, as much as mainstream news, plays a big role here.
Recently, Arief noticed that the wife of her tae kwon do classmate was liking anti-Muslim articles on Facebook. “And they know that I can see this, but we’re still friends,” she says. “I’m not going to let that digital world have a bearing on my reality.”
With respect to Islam Life Radio, though, Arief takes a stronger stance. Muslim communities have traditionally relied on shura councils when attempting to make decisions. These town hall meetings included non-Muslims as well. That physical proximity is of great importance for establishing credibility, she says.
“Years after 9/11, Average Joe is finally starting to change,” Arief says. “When a person suddenly realizes that their oh-so-normal coworker is Muslim, that’s so much more effective than the savviest online PR.”
On Jan. 20, Arief supervised Muslim Advocacy Day at the Virginia General Assembly. Constituents expressed concern about a Senate bill sponsored by Chesterfield Republican Stephen Martin that’s being referred to as the “foreign law bill.”
The bill says that any judicial ruling influenced by religious foreign law, such as Islam’s sharia, is an infringement of a person’s constitutional rights. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” ironically pointed to Christianity’s foreign origins, while others have lambasted the bill as “a solution without a problem.”
It’s basically harassment, Arief says: The American Muslim majority doesn’t want Islamic sharia to govern U.S. society. Don’t let stereotypes seep into the legislative process, she adds.
But when it comes to the fraught relationship between Muslims and media, Arief is unsure whether Islam Life Radio can offer redemption. Time will tell, she says: “In the free market, many things just end up washing away.”
Back at WKTL’s studio, another show prepares to go live.
Its host, Abu Sulaiman, is in Florida, the former residence of Edwards. An emotionless cyborg voice begins to speak. “Warning: You are now entering ‘Tech Corner,’” it says. “Your presence has been detected and recorded.”
The show details the goings-on of Silicon Valley — Google’s attempt to embed computer screens in eyewear, for example. The word Islam isn’t mentioned once.
Aziz takes a moment to explain this. He’s more excitable than the solemn Edwards, perhaps a result of studying under Abualrub’s passionate personality for so long. But like Edwards, Aziz was raised in America and it shows.
Aziz prefers to look at the big picture: Even under a literalist interpretation, Islam is more open to technology than any other religion. It’s ultimately a matter of how those tools are used, he says. Aziz isn’t alone in this assessment — even the Pope agrees.
A week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Pope Francis spoke out against the cartoons, which continued to incite anger. In the massacre’s aftermath, Charlie Hebdo printed three million copies with an illustration of Muhammad on the cover, wiping away a tear and saying, “All is forgiven.”
In such a sensitive environment, it’s no wonder that Richmond Muslims are concerned about an essential question: Who is the most balanced Muslim that can be put before the public eye?
When everyone’s voice is amplified by the smartphone in their pocket, the debate can get heated. Islam Life Radio’s future live event will aim for an open discussion. Its founders will step from behind the microphone for a day of performances and lectures. They’ve encouraged the public to ask questions about Islam.
The event is sure to be a good match for the station’s distinct personalities. Abualrub is an ever-ready debater. Edwards, speaking in a slow drawl, is like an immovable object. Aziz speaks the language of Facebook and Twitter.
Edwards acknowledges cultural differences within the Muslim community, but plans to stay focused on attacking the mainstream media food chain. You can make a lot of money after 9/11, he argues. He believes that news biased against Muslims is lucrative, because it attracts the nation’s wealthy and politically conservative investors.
On Jan. 9, HBO talk show host Bill Maher acted out Edwards’ nightmare. The host told his audience that 9/11 kicked off a long festival of Muslim violence, listing one terrorist attack after another. “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard,” Maher said, referring to Islamic culture.
Even more recently, Muslims were rattled by events in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where a man shot three young Muslims. Whether it was a hate crime is being debated. But the man arrested was a fan of atheist Richard Dawkins, who frequently appeared on Maher’s show to add his bumbling assessment of Islam.
So many voices, so many opinions — all amplified by growing media. For the founders of Islam Life Radio, it’s a search for clarity.
“We didn’t create Islam Life Radio to force anyone to become Muslim, or to think like a Muslim,” says Edwards, who also serves as host of “Muslim Jobs.” He proudly refers to listeners aren’t followers of Islam. “We’re very dynamic and we value entertainment, but it has to be truthful.”
Eventually, Islam Life Radio plans to be housed in a dawah, or center for proselytizing. The team has its eye on Henrico County. Their dawah will hold a Friday service, more martial arts classes and Quran studies for women.
“It will not be a mosque,” Edwards clarifies. “We want to move quickly, avoiding the administrative and cultural conflict that could arise with mosque elders.”
In recent years, West End neighborhood meetings have been fraught with politics over the founding of three new mosques. The sites are in residential areas and zoning issues have been voiced by non-Muslims.
Islam Life Radio hopes to avoid that type of drama with its dawah center. But board members at local mosques say they’re happy about this type of debate, saying it points to freedom of expression and community dialogue.
For now, the struggle is an incremental one. The future of Islam Life Radio isn’t guaranteed.
“We broadcast every day, read the news every day, and study the Quran every day,” Abualrub says. “We are well-versed, and know when some pundit is creating a spectacle, corrupting our message.” S