(RNS) — Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh always hoped he’d get a job writing about celebrities and memes.
His wish was granted.
Instead of writing about the Kardashians and TikTok challenges for an online publication like BuzzFeed, however, the 21-year-old student journalist and internet culture obsessive is assigning writers to interview comedian Ramy Youssef, creator of the first major Muslim American sitcom, and cover the theory that rapper Drake wore a Nike hijab in his latest music video.
Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muslim.co, a new digital publication for Muslim youth. He says the publication is meant for all teens and young adults within the ummah, or community of Muslims, regardless of their race, gender, sect or how they do or don’t practice their faith.
“I want Muslim to be the community for all Muslims,” he told Religion News Service. “A lot of people are talking about how we’re all one ummah, we’re all together, we’re all brothers and sisters. But I feel like no one’s really acting upon it. I think we’re growing so fast because we’re trying to actualize that by building the community.”
Within a week of launching the publication on April 20, with Youssef featured as its first cover star, the site received about 56,000 visits and featured articles on young environmental activists, the loneliness Muslim converts can face during Ramadan, tips for hosting the perfect digital iftar — and, of course, rapid coverage of memes that have made their way through Muslim communities on Twitter and TikTok.
The site has also developed an Instagram filter with Uighur masks as part of its #CloseTheCamps campaign, partnered with Instagram on the Ramadan hashtag #MonthOfGood and is continuing its IGTV series The Lineup, asking anonymous users to respond to prompts on issues such as women’s spaces in mosques.
The publication grew out of a social media presence (over 135,000 Instagram followers) as well as a newsletter (over 16,000 subscribers) launched last year in partnership with MuslimGirl.com — a now 10-year-old site founded by Al-Khatahtbeh’s elder sister and mentor, author and congressional candidate Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.
The idea for Muslim began, as many origin stories for young Muslims’ projects do these days, with President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. At the time, Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, who will graduate from Rutgers University in May, had just begun studying journalism in the hopes of becoming an entertainment writer.
The son of a Jordanian immigrant and a Palestinian refugee, he was “flabbergasted” watching the election results creeping in. His Iranian roommate began to cry and ask whether his family would be safe. Al-Khatahtbeh said the anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies he saw during the campaign caused an immediate change in the direction of his writing.
“I can’t write about, like, Zendaya and what I want to cover anymore,” he said. “I started seeing my writing turn into having to defend my Muslim identity or talk about Trump’s Muslim ban and it just opened me up to more political, to be more conscious, to cover deep-rooted issues.”
He found himself reporting on the travel ban’s impact on Iranian students at his own university who had gotten trapped overseas while on study abroad trips despite assurances from the school and embassies.
Al-Khatahtbeh said that few mainstream news media organizations featured the voices of Muslims. Even on liberal news outlets, he said, Muslims rarely got a seat at the table.
“At some point I realized there needed to be a major change,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “There needed to be a news publication for us.”
To make that vision a reality, his sister encouraged him to begin taking business classes. He received a crash course in media entrepreneurship during a boot camp run by the Asian American Journalists Association in 2018.
The site is currently an all-volunteer initiative, something Al-Khatahtbeh hopes will eventually change. The team consists of about 10 regular freelance writers as well as an editor and graphic designer.
“Muslim has given us young writers a voice,” contributor Amirah Ahmed told RNS. “Instead of downplaying the youths’ experiences, Muslim is amplifying them and providing a much needed, all-inclusive platform.”
A number of Muslim-focused blogs and online magazines have popped up since the 2000s, from the Islamic Monthly to MuslimMatters to AltMuslim and AltMuslimah. Many have shut down. Some focus on religious content, and others on women’s issues.
Al-Khatahtbeh’s project, however, is aimed directly at Generation Z, the demographic following millennials. Born between the late ’90s and the early 2010s, members of Gen Z are currently emerging into young adulthood, tend to lean left and have an incredible intuition for digital media.
But they’re also “super underrepresented” in politics and activism, he said, particularly within Muslim spaces: “Gen Z is ready to be involved, but nobody is giving us an opportunity within our own community.”
Nor, he said, are his generation’s needs being addressed by mosques.
“I don’t want to go to a mosque and hear a sermon about how to perform ablution,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “I want to hear about hard-hitting topics. I want an engaging lecture that’s going to resonate with me.”
U.S. Muslims are, on average, significantly younger than the overall American population. About 42% of Muslims in the country are under the age of 30, making Muslims the youngest major religious community both nationally and globally.
But increasingly, many Muslim millennials and youth say they feel disengaged from traditional Islamic spaces. In 2014, the film “Unmosqued” explored the phenomenon of young Muslims, women and converts who said mosques felt isolating, unwelcoming and irrelevant. The shift toward so-called third spaces has only intensified since, with initiatives like Texas’ Roots, Chicago’s Masjid al-Rabia and a growing network of Faith community hubs.
Many of his peers point to imams and mosque leaders who are more likely to scold young “Ramadan Muslims” — the equivalent of Christians who only attend church on Christmas and Easter — rather than hold their hand through their struggles with their faith, Al-Khatahtbeh said.
Many of the Gen Z and millennial Muslims he met felt similarly disenchanted with the spaces available to them. That need for alternative sources of community-building has only grown during the coronavirus outbreak, which has shut down mosques and left many Muslims feeling adrift.
“I’m just so glad that Muslim is there, could be a community for Muslims during this time, as we’re experiencing the first-ever digital Ramadan,” he said. “Insha’Allah (God willing), we can be that space for everybody.”