How the son of Pakistani parents is fighting to dispel stereotypes and ‘teach tolerance and integration’ in the UK.
In the current climate, the image of Muslims as extremists and zealots stands tall in the public conscience. The unblinking spotlight on the supposed ills of the Islamic world fills the mind with shadowy pictures of militancy and terrorism. But a new initiative in the UK seeks to dispel the darkness and return the image of Muslims back into the light.
Media Cultured, a community interest company based in Teeside, England, aims to challenge stereotypes and foster “community cohesion and harmony” through the use of social media and film. The organization was founded by its fresh-faced director, Amjid Khazir, a British born Muslim who used to work in PR and internet marketing. Though his parents originally hail from Nakodar, a small village in Jhelum, Khazir firmly sees himself as part of the fabric of British society – a society he wishes to bring together.
“The origins of the company were built upon my research, career and work in PR and as an SEO,” says Khazir, “My voluntary work with local masjids and national faith groups coupled with my research into the ‘pathways’ to extremism also brought me to this point. This work and the experiences I have had were the bedrock of the initial epiphany of how media and film especially could be the key to promoting lateral thinking and common values without seemingly propagating a particular faith or ideology.”
A family tragedy also played a significant role in focusing Khazir fully on the task at hand. In 2011, his uncle, Muhammad Zabir, died six weeks after being attacked by a drunken passenger in his taxi the night before an English Defence League (EDL) march in Darlington. Whether the assault was racially motivated was never substantiated, but it provided that extra spark of motivation for Khazir to “succeed with his work.”
Khazir says: “Regardless of the causes of the attack and the reasons behind my uncle Zabir’s passing he was an upstanding and completely honourable man. I prayed that we can pay homage to his life and complete our duties to our fellow man.”
Media Cultured was set up in conjunction with Teeside University’s DigitalCity project who provided Khazir with a fellowship to produce films and other material. One of the most crucial challenges for the organization is making use of social media. At a time when Islamic extremists are turning more and more to formats like Facebook and Twitter to radicalize Muslim youth and the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of Muslims is being stridently promoted by radicals at the other end of the scale, the need for a more tolerant voice is greater than ever. “Extremists of all persuasions seemed to be utilizing this medium to great effect and so we are providing the ‘other’ voice.”
Their current project is a teaser for a short educational film, Combinations, made in partnership with Thousand Yard Film. It follows, Imran Naeem, a heavily bearded community worker and boxing trainer who took part in the Olympic torch relay last summer. The trailer opens with the camera focused on a stern faced Naeem and the Adhan sounding in the background seconds before he breaks into a cackle of laughter and challenges the viewer’s prejudices. What comes next is mobile phone conversations about what to buy from supermarket chain Tesco’s and scenes of a charismatic, articulate and fully integrated Muslim carrying on with everyday life. Perhaps the most poignant and revealing moment is with a smiling Naeem talking about the realization of his Britishness and the sense of pride he takes from it. He is in every sense a very real role model. Over the next several months, the film will be shown in schools and various other institutions to challenge prevailing misconceptions.
Up next is another film, Head for Cover, a narrative of the history of the hijab – an item of clothing which dates back to biblical times. With the number of hate crimes against Muslim women in the UK on the increase it is hoped that the film will help dispel many of the myths that surround Islamic dress. It also touches on the rights of women in Islam.
Issues pertaining to Muslims are not the only focus of Media Cultured. They are currently in talks with governing football bodies and anti-racism groups about making films which tackle the issue of racism on the terraces and society as a whole.
Alongside the media work, Khazir has also created specialist lesson plans and hosts workshops in schools, colleges, mosques and universities to encourage unity across social groups. Khazir says, “By educating people about these matters we simply explore and disseminate the nuisances that create and cause suspicion based upon race or creed.”
The work the organization is doing seems to be garnering positive attention. After just six months of operations the company has not only been recognized as a viable business in straitened economic times, but has won approval as a ‘fantastic’ social enterprise. Only a matter of days ago they were awarded a funding grant from UnLtd, the UK’s leading financial support group for social enterprises which they will receive at an awards ceremony at the end of this month. The message is getting across, and for Khazir that is the most important prize of all.
For more information and to view the trailer visit mediacultured.org.
The writer can be reached on his twitter account – @usman_ahmad82.