The basement café bringing Britain's Islamic debate to life
In the cold basement of an Indian restaurant on London's Drury Lane, two television cameras are trained on a pair of sofas covered in soft Moroccan cushions.The bare concrete walls have been temporarily covered in a warm red fabric and two smallsilver teapots from North Africarest on octagonal tables inlaidwith bright Mediterranean tiles.Were it not for the cold and the passing police sirens, you couldbe forgiven for thinking you were in Casablanca rather than Covent Garden
Into the room walks a 23-year old Somalian woman wearing a close-fitting black headscarf, a bearded London-born Bengaliman with a penchant for Islamicrap – the spokesperson of a group that encourages Muslim voting and mosque reform – and a self-confessed former extremist who has turned her back on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and now describes herself simply as "a single motherof five children"
What connects this seemingly disparate group is that they have all come to talk about dating and Islam.
Welcome to Muslimcafe.tv, an online television channel that has become a surprise hit with young British Muslims.
If you want to partake in discussions such as "Is hip-hophalal?", "Young, Muslim and single" or even "What is wrong with Muslim men?", then Muslimcafe.tv is the place to do it.
This morning's discussion,"Young, Muslim and single", is about the thorny question of how young, devout Muslims can find a partner who conforms to their own religious beliefs but is suitable for this modern day and age.
The discussion soon becomes somewhat gender divided. Therapper, Mizan Rahman, and Asghar Bukhari, the spokes personforthe Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), want young Muslims to become better at overcoming their reservationsabout meeting and talkingto the opposite sex. The former fundamentalist Fatima Khan and the Somalian student leader Zakia Hussen however, are more cautious. But all agree young Muslims should be just as entitled to fall in love as anyone else
straight up and tell them," saysMizan, to incredulous looks from Zakia. "Not in a derogatory way, he hastily adds, "and definitelynot if her dad is there with her!"Asghar, meanwhile, keepsreturning to what he says is thefailure of community leaders andparents to understand the needsof their children when it comesto love.
"Everyone else meets in somesort of social environment, be ita bar or nightclub. We as a Muslim community have failed our young people by not having an infrastructure to ensure we meet.Thus we're forcing them to do things that are outside the boundaries of our faith and as soon as someone does that we look down our noses at them."
The discussion is free-flowing and refreshingly different from the usual issues that Muslims are asked to comment on, such as terrorism, veils and community integration. This seems to be winning audiences over.Muslimcafe.tv gets thousands of hits a month; the channel's Facebookgroup is crammed with discussion among its 700 members from all over the globe.
"We're not really interested inwhat I'd call the usual suspects,"says Navid Akhtar, the show'sproducer. "Whenever the medianeeds some comment from Muslims on an event, the same people always show up in the newspapers and on the 24-hour news channels. We will never have a discussion entitled ‘Areyou Muslim or British?' It's anutterly banal debate to have."
Another discussion that has proved popular with online users is "Christmas Mubarak!"– an Islamic spin on the festive season ("Eid Mubarak!" beingthe traditional greeting given during Eid) – that debates whether Muslims should celebrate Christmas. The panelis eclectic, including an Indianborn Christian leader from Surrey, a suited Muslimimam, and Fatima Khan once more.
For Navid and his director, Amir Jamal, two former BBC stalwarts who have made numerous award-winning documentaries on Britain's Islamic community and have set up Gazelle Media, a production company specialising in ethnic stories,the café is a personal hobbyhorse,and an attempt to bring something exciting and hip to the national debate on Islam."You find these sorts of discussions happening in cafés, bedrooms, school buildings and university bars all over the country,and that's what we wantedto capture," says Amir, speeding through a cigarette in between shoots outside the restaurant."I want the café to be a place for what I call interface, rather than interfaith. The whole point is to be eclectic."
The idea was originally created for the BBC, but a change in commissioners meant it was shelved. "We just thought sod it,we've got a bit of cash, let's go ahead and put it up on the net anyway," says Navid, who grins as he describes the café's promotional launch video, which had a woman in a full niqab veil banging the drums to Phil Collins, a take on the popular Cadbury ad."Our debates are not put through a white middle-class filter,"says Navid.
"Britain is about Edgware Road on a Friday night, it's about Londonistan. To people like Melanie Phillips that's a terrible concept, but I and so many people like me wear it as a badge of honour.”
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