If you’ve ever wanted to ask your Muslim friends a question about their faith, but were afraid of offending them, a new website wants to help.
Launched on Sept. 15, Islamically.com is fighting back against negative media portrayals of Muslims by showing site visitors what Islam actually teaches. To do this, the website offers English-language media, including articles, Instagram-esque photos, and subtitled video clips of weekly sermons from local mosques across the United States. It also lists contact information of local imams, so visitors can contact them directly via email or phone. For now, though, Islamically only features mosques and imams in New Jersey, where the site’s creator is based.
“The way Muslims are representing themselves on the internet is not the best,” said creator Yassine Elkaryani, a 31-year-old IT consultant, who created Islamically with his wife Fatima Azzahra Boubyane and sister Kaoutar Elkaryani.
“The message that the mosques preach is great, but we lack representation of it on the internet.”
Without context, it’s easy to watch videos of Islamic sermons and think an imam is angrily shouting negative things in Arabic. But with English subtitles, viewers quickly realize that he’s just telling attendees to integrate into American society, or encourage their kids to get involved in politics, for example. Islamically’s videos help non-Arabic speakers understand what their Muslim neighbors listen to every week during Friday prayer—and understanding is the first step towards acceptance.
The website also connects people with local imams in two ways. First, Islamically has a list of imams and their contact info, so visitors can either call or email them directly. Then there’s also an option to anonymously ask the imams questions, after which answers will be posted on a public thread. “Our backend system ensures that your IP address is deleted from the database,” Elkaryani said, adding that the anonymous option enables visitors to ask sensitive questions without risking their privacy or reputation.
Imams are also a better resource than the internet, which can spread false information about Islam, according to Elkaryani.
“To the general American audience … forget what the right-wing media is telling you,” he said. “Get on board, join our platform, watch what we have online. You have the opportunity to comment, discuss, and ask the most controversial question because we have nothing to hide.”
“Muslim scholars are equipped and ready to answer the most controversial questions and challenging questions about Islam.”
Much like other Abrahamic religions, Islam only allows men to become imams at mosques. A woman can lead prayer for a group of other women and answer fatwa questions (a “fatwa” is a religious decree issue by an Islamic leader), but isn’t considered an imam. Elkaryani, however, welcomes women to join Islamically’s fatwah team to give visitors religious advice. “We do not have restrictions, whether the person answering questions is male or female, as long as they have the credentials and have been selected by credible imams,” he said.
In addition to establishing an online presence for American mosques, Elkaryani, his wife, and sister hope Islamically will help battle Islamophobia and home-grown terrorism. As a new study suggests, anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. has risen dramatically over the past decade, with Muslims beating atheists as the most-disliked religious group.
For this reason, Elkaryani put in safeguards to protect Islamically against attacks by “whoever does not want a balanced and peaceful Muslim message to flourish.”
Unlike the Islamic State (ISIS), which preaches extremist ideology to inspire homegrown terrorist attacks, mosques are places where people can learn about Islam’s true teachings, Elkaryani said: “Mosques lay a huge role in preventing terrorism, so these mosques have to be strengthened and the media is the key component in that.”
Although Islamically aims to educate non-Muslims who don’t speak Arabic about Islam, the site also serves as an online community for practising Muslims.
As the former youth director at a mosque in New Jersey, Elkaryani is particularly interested in targeting young Muslims who are “lost in the midst of Instagram and Snapchat, and receive [a] narrow proportion of Islam on these platforms.”
He said he has a moral obligation to reach out to this group of Muslim Americans: “I want to be competing with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian on Instagram and Snapchat in a sense that our … users are using [Islamically] to seek Muslim media on regular basis.”
That’s why Elkaryani created “Islamigram,” a section of the website that offers visuals with quotes from U.S.-based imams, and takes its name after the popular social network.
So far, Islamically is entirely self-financed, Elkaryani said, though he wants mosques to introduce him to local businesses that would be interested in advertising on the site.
“We don’t have any shareholders, and we have not taken out loans. It is self-funded,” he said. “There are no organizations behind this project; it is just a family project.”
For now, Islamically is limited to New Jersey, but Elkaryani said he and his family are “dedicated to this cause,” and hope to expand across the country soon.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."