An Interview with Hanan Challouki and Taha Riani, Founders of Mvslim
"We run Mvslim like a startup. This means we are always experimenting and figuring out how to make the whole project more efficient. It’s a learning process that never stops for both of us."
“We need a creative platform for our community.” One year ago, this observation inspired Hanan Challouki and Taha Riani to create Mvslim, an online space reflecting the diversity of voices within Muslim communities worldwide. One year after it’s launch, the platform has found a large readership and global following. Interviewer Hugues Makaba Ntoto speaks with Hanan and Taha about the importance of online spaces, entrepreneurship as a tool of empowerment and having multiple identities in a globalized world.
Taha Riani (left) and Hanan Challouki (right).
Hugues: When you launched Mvslim one year ago, you barely knew one another. Can you tell us how you got to know each other?
Hanan: We met for the first time at a fundraiser at the University of Antwerp, where I was studying Communication. Taha had just started his first year in Computer Science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. We started talking about issues linked to media representation and learned that we both found Belgian media very negative and polarising in their reporting about Muslims. We both looked at international media for different types of stories, and agreed that in terms of diversity, international media was ahead. That’s when we decided to create a platform about other, more positive and less stereotyping, narratives from the worldwide Muslim community.
Hugues: One of the first steps you undertook before starting with this project was looking for online content about the experiences of other young Muslims all around the world. This search didn’t pan out as you expected, but was an important step in the creation of the platform.
Taha: We started by using “Muslim” as a search term on Google to see what type of content would come up. This simple action was confronting, because we mostly found negative portrayals of Muslims and very religious websites. We couldn’t identify with either, because the reality is that we carry different identities and our lives are so much more nuanced. In most media, when you see a Muslim woman featured, the talking points will be her clothing and religious identity. Other parts of Muslim identities that are equally important are often downpayed or ignored. This gives a very one-dimensional view of a person’s expertise in, say, a certain profession or of a subject. The knowledge that there weren’t online spaces where these multitudes of identities could be seen and heard, prompted us to create it ourselves.
Hanan: When we met a year and a half ago, we regularly talked about all these issues that have to do with identity. But it was equally important to create a counter-measure for existing stereotypes and highlight how diverse the global community of Muslims is. We also wanted to reach other Millennials in particular, because it’s the generation we are part of and identify with. Once we had defined the type of platform we wanted to create, we kept brainstorming and refining the concept, until it completely fit with our vision.
Hugues: When did you realize that Mvslim was a viable product?
Hanan: We knew this from day one. But the success of the platform became very real when one of our first articles, about Kadra Mohamed, the first Hijab wearing police officer in the state of Minnesota, went viral and got shared more than 475,000 times. That’s when we realized what kind of impact our platform could have.
I think the lack of representation we experienced here, is something that has resonated with the experiences of many other Muslims around the world. The need to have your identity acknowledged is something that everyone experiences. With Mvslim we managed to fulfill that need.
Taha: When you take a look at the type of stories that are shared the most on social media, you’ll also see that stories that affirm identities are very popular. That’s not a coincidence.
From the start, we knew what we wanted to achieve. What we didn’t expect was for things to go this fast, because usually you expect things to build up slowly. We were determined to succeed and I don’t think we would have started this project if we didn’t believe in its potential from the get-go.
Hugues: How do you think the internet plays a role in the process of establishing one’s own identity?
Taha: Everyone is looking to shape an own identity and validate all the different identities that are part of a personal narrative. One of the troubles with traditional media is that they see identity as something that is set in stone. In the globalized world we live in, the internet has made it easier to claim different identities. By sharing and connecting with other people who live similar experiences, you learn how to combine all the pieces that make you who you are.
Hanan: The stories about our peers and other role models exist, but are scattered around and not so easy to find. A little while ago Time magazine featured Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American fencer who is going to be part of the US team at the Rio Olympic Games. She’s a remarkable woman, but you didn’t hear all that much about it anywhere else. The idea with Mvslim is to make these type of stories more accessible for everyone and, again, make room for this type of empowering media representation. It’s also about having space to discuss critical issues in our communities: a story we recently ran, was an opinion piece about racism within the Muslim community. The essay got a lot of traction among our readers, because it’s a problem which isn’t widely discussed.
Hugues: Last year, when you launched the website you had a team of around thirty contributors. Today Mvslim counts more than three hundred contributors. What is it like to work with such a vast team of writers from all over the globe?
Hanan: One of the great insights we gained is how many differences there are between Muslims worldwide. To give an example, I remember having a conversation with one of our contributors from Florida about differences in customs between Muslims in Belgium and the U.S. when it comes to halal food. I learned that in the U.S. it is much more commonplace than here to eat chicken at places that don’t serve halal meat. Once you’re aware of how diverse our communities are, it’s really hard to talk in broad generalisations. What shapes your religious culture also depends on where you live. Growing up in an Islamic country is a very different experience from growing up in Western Europe, where you can’t escape your otherness.
Taha: It’s also one of the reasons why we don’t focus on religion. Your religion and how you practise it, is a personal matter. But here’s the thing: when you don’t have a medium to bring this simple idea forward, there’s no one who will. That’s why we found it important to underline that religion is a personal matter. People have to be aware that there are other aspects that are equally important when talking about Muslim identity.
Hugues: How do you implement this need for inclusivity and representation in your work process and editorial calendar?
Hanan: We have the luxury of having a lot of contributors from all over the world, so we’re never short of content from very different viewpoints. This is very important to us, and we are always looking to expand the voices we feature on our website. During last year’s Ramadan, we featured a series of articles highlighting the different ways Muslims from various countries observe this celebration. We wanted to see what makes the Ramadan different depending on where you’re situated in the world and how place and local culture affect the celebration. This pluralism within Muslim cultures is the diversity we are trying to bring to surface.
Hugues: What are some of the challenges you faced during your first year?
Hanan: The days before the official launch were intense, because people wanted to know what we were up to, but we couldn’t really give away a lot information. That came with a lot of doubts and pressure, because we started wondering whether people would still be as excited once the website was up and running. You really don’t want to get spit out by the public on your first day. To our relief, everything went well and both readers and press reacted with a lot of enthusiasm. But you know, it never stops being stressful, because you’re running a platform for a large user base, so you’re always thinking about how you can improve things and make everything run as smooth as possible.
Taha: Two days before the launch of Mvslim we started the hashtag #mvslim on Twitter. It was trending up until the day we went online with the website. So, you have a trending hashtag and you realize that you have to live up to people’s expectations. We had no way to really know if people would like what we were about to reveal, and that makes you anxious. Once the website was up and running we had to deal with some issues due to traffic overload. Now, imagine having to deal with all that when you’re in the middle of your finals!
We run Mvslim like a startup. This means we are always experimenting and figuring out how to make the whole project more efficient. It’s a learning process that never stops for both of us.
Hugues: What advice would you give to other young people who aspire to become entrepreneurs, and especially peers from minority groups?
Taha: If you have an idea, find a way to execute it. Hanan works a full-time job, and I’m still a university student, so it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. I would also stress that, if you want to succeed, you have to set the bar high for yourself and for your business idea. You don’t have the luxury to half-ass whatever idea you’re trying to realize, because that’s how you set yourself up for failure. I know that when you come from a migrant family, you don’t necessarily have an environment that completely understands what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t let that hold you back from pursuing your ideas.
Hanan: An aspect of entrepreneurship that I find very relevant, especially for young people from minority communities, is that the process of creating a product or service from scratch is in itself very empowering. You’re taking a risk, but the growth you will go through once you take the plunge is immense.
Hugues: How can Model View Culture readers support you?
Hanan: You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and visit our website. If you would like to share some thoughts with us, contribute or collaborate you can also shoot us an email at inspire -at- muslim.com.