The culture of the internet and the world of devout religious faith are two areas that, for outsiders, can be immediately challenging – they are rife with lingo, rituals and historically layered rites of passage. In his debut book Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims, the journalist Hussein Kesvani attempts to unpick these two cultures and their intersection.
The book has been billed as explaining how radicalisation happens in online Muslim communities; the title and introduction both draw on a message Kesvani received encouraging him to leave his Western life to join Islamic State. However, Kesvani spends far more time discussing how radical spaces can be reclaimed from extremism and the ways in which British Muslims (a majority of whom are below the age of 25) are creatively using the internet to drive people to their faith. Tales of meme communities, Muslim Tinder, Islamic Instapoets and Muslim gamers are just a handful of the colourful stories told in Follow Me, Akhi.
Particularly compelling is the way that Kesvani portrays Islam’s biggest online haters, humanising the people behind the social media accounts that post dehumanising messages about Muslims. In a section on Islamaphobia and the alt-right, Kesvani visits the home of one of these anonymous Twitter users, Phil, who had spent months harassing Kesvani with hate speech on the platform. Kesvani paints the picture of a sad man, living in untidy accommodation, recently divorced. It’s a bracing glimpse of the real lives that lurk behind the abusive accounts we see online.
Though Kesvani is welcomed warmly into Phil’s home, his host is unapologetic and unrepentant about his behaviour. Reminding the reader that Phil is still sending hundreds of messages of hate speech every month, Kesvani ends the section with Phil’s response to a tweet from Sadiq Khan announcing plans to tackle hate crime in London:
“‘I’ve got a meme for this,’ Phil sniggered, showing me a picture of a poorly drawn caricature of Khan’s head transplanted on to the body of a pig, the Arabic word haram written on its side. ‘Mayor Khan wants to ban this,’ Phil tweeted. ‘Would be a shame if it got retweeted.’”
Through such stories Kesvani makes it clear that the online world of Muslims is not only a place of community but also of constant abuse from radicalised white people.
The book encourages us to think about the impact of the internet not merely in commercial and generational terms. It can also encourage faith to flourish. Kesvani shows how YouTube and Instagram have helped Muslims become closer to their religion: the ability to access more teachings and a greater number of imams has made Islam more relatable than traditional mosque environments. He introduces us to Facebook groups and gamer forums that have created safe spaces for LGBT+ and black Muslims. And he explains how Tumblr has become a haven for Muslim women to practice their faith with feminism, meeting like-minded women online and even finding ways to get an abortion.
However, Follow Me, Akhi doesn’t shy away from the tougher truths of online Muslim spaces. It describes how social media can be used for Muslim infighting (one case led to the death of a cornershop owner in Glasgow), for aggressively conservative Muslims to grow their platform, and for shaming young Muslim women and radicalising young men. (Kesvani’s would-be recruiter had a corporate job in the City of London and found no meaning in his life, until he decided to take up arms and fight for Islamic State.) Kesvani writes that many Muslims say they don’t want to “air their dirty laundry”, fearing they may add to the bad reputation that Islam gets in the West. But he handles these issues delicately and artfully, demonstrating that, despite the actions of a few misguided people, British Muslims are in the main using the internet to create a safer world for themselves.
Occasionally the writing and editing make the book a little bit hard to follow: keeping track of Arabic terms for religious rituals and the various names of online spaces can prove difficult. Overall, though, Follow Me, Akhi is deeply researched, surprising and considerate. It portrays the online world of British Muslims as diverse, rich and fraught – but above all else innovative, exciting and criminally under-reported.
Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman’s tech and digital culture writer
Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims
C Hurst & Co, 206pp, £12.99