Launch of the digital television channel Alchemiya

A dose of positivity in dark times

A new London-based media start-up seeks to counter the warped portrayal of Islam. The digital television channel Alchemiya intends to showcase only positive content. Sounds a bit cheesy? Perhaps it is, says Jannis Hagmann, but it just might be a smart business idea and one that will catch on

Welcome to the brave new world of Islam; to a world where young families smile happily for the camera, where inquisitive children surf on their ultra-thin tablets and where Daddy indulges in a quick coffee to go in Jakarta's financial district, before catching the next flight to Abu Dhabi, London or New York.

This is the world of Alchemiya, a new London-based media start-up that is slated to launch before the end of the year. The video-on-demand platform will work like Netflix, only that it solely showcases Islam-related content. Unlike news channels such as Al Jazeera, Alchemiya will not give out the daily bad news from the Middle East, but instead focus on success and innovation in the Muslim world, offering viewers documentaries, in-depth reports and feature films. Its founders describe Alchemiya as a lifestyle channel: war and terror is replaced by topics such as health and fashion, travel and family.

Although the channel has yet to be launched, 1,000 customers have already subscribed to the channel and paid roughly €130 for a two-year subscription. "It's a kind of crowdfunding," says Alchemiya founder Navid Akhtar over the phone. As well as bypassing big investors and their demands for influence on the channel's editorial policy, he wanted to bring focus to crowdfunding as an acceptable mode of financing in Islamic Law.

The British journalist and documentary filmmaker is convinced that his feel-good channel will be a great success: "The market is saturated with bad news from the Muslim world," he says. Instead of daily reports on the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Muslims all over the world want to hear positive things about their religion, he says. "There is a demand."

Navid Akhtar, founder and CEO of  Alchemiya (photo: Alchemiya)
According to Alchemiya's manifesto on the new television channel's website, the project is "a chance for us to present a side of Muslims and Islam, that is widely unknown, and inject a dose of positivity, with uplifting, heart-warming conent"

Targeting the "gummies" of this world

Akhtar has already found a catchy name for his customers: "gummies" (Global Urban Muslims). "A distinct Muslim identity is emerging; we call that the Global Urban Muslim. The same mindset exists whether you live in Sydney, whether you're in California, whether you're in London or you're in Kuala Lumpur," he explains in the platform's promotional video. They are "sophisticated, educated Muslims who've got all the latest technology; they've got young families and who love to travel". At the same time, Akhtar continues, they are committed to Islam.

According to him, they are the future of the religion. "We've seen the crazy people. We've seen all the damage they can do," he says, referring to the IS terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The gummies, he adds, are the polar opposite of the extremists: "They are the cream of the community."

Akhtar does not deny that Alchemiya caters to the upper echelons of the global Muslim world. However, he doesn't think that's an issue. "You may say they are elite, but the truth is, it is from these people that the solutions of twenty-first-century Islam will come. They are the high achievers."

Akhtar draws motivation from something else too: "I'm not Arab," he stresses. According to him, the big news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya all claim a distinct Arab perspective on Islam, but that will not be the case with Alchemiya. "We focus on any part of the world where Muslims live."

Akhtar was born into a Pakistani migrant family in London and was the first in his family to attend university. After graduating with a degree in design, his work as a journalist took him around the world and saw him land several prizes for his programmes, which were broadcast on the BBC and on the UK's Channel 4. In 2007, he went on to start his own production company. Only later in life did religion become important to him, says the now 47-year-old. When his mother died of cancer, he looked back at his career and wondered if there was more to life than money and success. It was at this point that religion entered the stage.

Today, Navid Akhtar can lecture for hours on spirituality and religious values. He represents the visionary Muslim businessman, as much as he passes for the successful young start-up entrepreneur. "Business people are ambassadors of the faith," is one of the slogans he equips young Muslims with. Another is: "doing business is an integral part of Islam."

Not a religious channel

However, despite its focus on Islam, Alchemiya will not be a religious channel, Akhtar claims. "We are not giving people instructions on how to be Muslim, but it is important that we have spiritual values behind our work," he adds.

As a result, Ajmal Masroor materialised as one of Akhtar's key business partners. The British imam is a well-known figure in the UK as he not only delivers the Friday prayer once a month in four different London mosques, but also appears regularly on talk shows. He has also hosted his own TV programmes, among others, on the BBC.

Through the launch of Alchemiya, Masroor hopes to showcase what Islam is really about. In interviews, he likes to tell a little anecdote about his ten-year-old nephew. The boy, he says, once came up to him and told him that having seen all the bad news about Islam on television, he no longer wanted to be a Muslim.

Alchemiya has been in the making for several years. Coincidentally, it will be launched at a time when negative headlines from the Middle East are dominating the news more than ever. One could argue that the IS terror regime will actually help the London-based start-up. The reason being that many believers no longer want to watch IS's atrocities on television on a daily basis. Alchemiya aims to tell the counter narrative to the barbaric portrayal of Islam that jihadists and other extremists spread in the world.

These intentions might be noble, but at times Alchemiya seems to be a bit cheesy, especially when a Muslim US hip-hop artist and a wrinkled Moroccan in traditional attire sing Bob Marley's "Get up, stand up" in a music clip produced for Alchemiya's marketing campaign, or when Navid Akhtar raves about the unique beauty of the Taj Mahal. The campaign is not short on references to the great philosophers of the Islamic Middle Ages to which so many Muslims like to refer in order to shed positive light on Islam. 

We can only hope that Alchemiya will not fall into that trap and mourn the long lost Golden Age of Islam, but will actually showcase positive but not uncritical programmes from and about the Muslim world.

Jannis Hagmann
© Qantara.de 2014

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