‘Islamic Netflix’ seeks positive representation of Muslims
London - Alchemiya, an emerging video-on-demand service that has been likened to an “Islamic Netflix”, is seeking to do the seemingly impossible: portray Islam and Muslims in a positive light. In the era of the Islamic State (ISIS), of global terrorism and Middle East chaos, that is easier said than done.
“This project is a chance to present a side of Islam and Muslims that is widely unknown and inject a dose of positivity, with uplifting, heart-warming content,” Alchemiya’s manifesto promises. Less than one year into the endeavour, and gearing up for the channel’s second phase, this is a philosophy that remains at the heart of Alchemiya.
“That’s a choice we took very early on. We think there is plenty of content about extremism and terrorism around. What we are concentrating on is the gap — where are those amazing films about Islamic culture and civilisation?” Alchemiya founder and Chief Executive Officer Navid Akhtar asked.
There is not just a dearth of content about Islamic history, that encompasses contemporary issues as well, he said. “We’ve made a conscious choice to look at what’s working, what’s succeeding [in the Islamic world] in terms of creativity, business and social change.”
Alchemiya is far from a one-man show. Akhtar has been joined by well-known British broadcaster, politician and imam Ajmal Masroor among others — Muslims and non-Muslims — who are seeking to put forward a more positive, more realistic image of Islam than the one depicted on the nightly news.
“I believe something very simple: We should all be involved in informing people, inspiring people and influencing change.
Let’s start those changes from within. If the core of our being changes, the world will change. And that’s what we are talking about when we talk about Alchemiya,” Masroor said.
Alchemiya, a successful example of crowd-funding, has 52 documentaries on offer. Soon that number will be closer to 500 as the service expands and reaches new subscribers in new ways.
“That’s where the next expansion comes. In addition to increasing the amount of content on the platform, we’re looking at facilitating how subscribers can watch. We’re looking at things like Chromecast, Apple TV, iOS, Android apps and probably Samsung Smart Hub,” Akhtar said.
As for whom Alchemiya is looking to target, it is clear the service has done its homework.
“When we started to do research we had a hunch about who our customers would be and that is when we came up with the term Global Urban Muslim. The Global Urban Muslim is in about 19 countries across the world, from Sydney, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Istanbul to Berlin, Munich, London, as well as Toronto, New York and Los Angeles,” Akhtar said.
“They [Global Urban Muslims] are quite highly educated. They travel a lot. They may have been born in the East or live in the West… [but] they don’t really see themselves as Eastern or Western. They move very comfortably between these two spaces. They’re not really religious with a capital ‘r’; they’re more spiritual,” he said.
“They don’t want programmes that are going to tell them how to practice Islam.
What they want is programmes that celebrate aspects of the faith and particularly cultural aspects of Islam,” Akhtar added.
Akhtar has 25 years’ experience in television to draw on, including stints at the BBC and Channel 4. His background is in the arts, history and culture — not news. He has produced documentaries on the haj, on Ramadan and on Muslims in Spain. It is content such as this that Alchemiya hopes to procure the rights to and produce itself.
“One of the most watched [documentaries] on the channel is The Muslim Traveller’s Guide to Granada, which looks at the things you should visit if you were to travel to the city of Granada in Spain,” he said.
Other available documentaries include Goal Dreams about the Palestinian national football team; Talking Through Walls, about one man’s mission to build a mosque in suburban America; as well as films looking at Afghan skateboarders and a call-to-prayer competition.
“But we are looking predominately to find talents that we can commission and give them the opportunity to go out and make content for us,” Akhtar said. “We’ve already found a lot of producers who we know but we also have come across new producers from everything from Pakistan to Turkey to Cairo.”
As for the Netflix comparison, Akhtar laughs. “Yes, we had a bit of a joke in the office about that,” but he says that he does not discourage the media-friendly term.
“When you say ‘Netflix’ people immediately understand that you can go online and watch content so it helps us in that way,” he said. “But at some point we’re looking to just be Alchemiya and for people to understand what it means. So as the brand develops we don’t have a problem with that comparison.”