Using Photography to Fight Daesh and Reclaim Islam

The day before the 2016 presidential election I received a call from my sister asking, “Did you hear what happened to Alia?”* In my six-year-old cousin’s class there was a mock election where Donald Trump had won and immediately a group of kids approached her saying, “Now that Trump is our president, you have to pack up your bags and leave this country because we don’t want you here.” And surely, like any 6-year old would, she came home crying to her parents saying, “I hate this place, I don’t want to live in America anymore and I want to move back to Pakistan.”

And while she is South Asian-looking like me, has a Muslim name, and speaks Urdu, she’s never been to Pakistan let alone lived there – in fact, she was born and raised here and is just as American as her classmates. But in that moment, because of the colour of her skin, she became something different, something to be feared, and something that was un-American.

This is the crisis of identity that many American Muslims face where this Clash of Civilizations narrative is peddled every day, suggesting that there is something inherently incompatible with our faith and our country of birth. And while this is a challenge that many first-generation immigrant communities face, Muslim youth are particularly vulnerable because there is a group of dedicated extremists who seek to exploit our insecurities for their nefarious purposes.

Daesh’s recruiting strategy is premised on one thing – eliminating the Grey Zone between Muslims and Western societies by coordinating their attacks in such a way that fuels Islamophobia while positioning themselves as the defender of the Muslim community. (Hence why they planted a fake refugee ID on the bodies of the Paris attackers and refrained from claiming last year’s attack on Ataturk Airport but showed no such restraint in Brussels). Rather than showing the beheadings, immolations, and mass-executions that Western audiences have grown accustomed to, Daesh’s propaganda projects a message of inclusivity and purpose, where they show images of Muslims from all around the world coexisting in harmony as they work together to defend and build a new state.

For a Muslim who has been pushed to the margins and believes that his Islamic and Western identity are incompatible, such a call is not without appeal. But that does not make it correct – the specter of Islamic extremism has hijacked a peaceful religion, upended many Muslim societies and threatens the coexistence that Muslims have found in the West.

So to combat Daesh’s extremist narrative, I created My Muslim Friends, a Humans of New York styled photography page that highlights stories of coexistence, leadership, and hardship from activists, politicians, refugees, and everyday citizens in hopes of building solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims, revitalizing the ‘Grey Zone,’ and giving hope to that Muslim kid who believes that their faith makes them a victim.

I have interviewed prolific figures such as Farah Pandith, who spoke about how 9/11 inspired her to join the State Department, Reza Aslan, who gave a call to service to American Muslims, and Qasim Rashid, who spoke about upholding the true, progressive values of Islam.

By countering Daesh’ message of intolerance with one of coexistence and rejecting their message of victimhood with one of inspiration, I hope to use photography to play my part in winning the war of ideas against extremism.

*Pseudonym was used to protect the identity of a minor.