It was early June, and Omar Ali was nervous as he gathered members of his small Midwestern Muslim community to make an unusual pitch. A chemical engineer by trade who doubles as the imam of the Islamic Society of Evansville, Indiana, Ali had been quietly working on a YouTube series he prayed could help counter the Islamic State group’s vast media recruitment machine. Now, he needed volunteers and money to make it soar.
On a retractable screen at the front of an elegant riverside ballroom that’s often rented for Islamic weddings, Ali projected one of his videos, which mix theology with pop culture, while families munched on kebabs and falafel. Shot reality show-style on city streets, the four-minute segment showed Ali in conversation with a non-Muslim friend, calmly defending his religion as peaceful, quoting from the Quran and citing stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Ominous introductory music gave way to images of rifle-toting jihadists and caged prisoners. “Their deeds couldn’t be further from the faith they claim,” bold text read. “Their acts are NOT IN HIS NAME.”
We can think of theories all day long about why these kids are going to Syria, but until we try to see what works, what we can throw up against a wall and what sticks, we’re not doing anything. Zac Parsons, Reclamation Studios co-founder
Parents, fearful of the growing lure of extremism, cheered. Kids, accustomed to getting questions from classmates about the latest Islamic State atrocities -- a suicide bombing at a Kuwait mosque had just been in the news, along with a beachside massacre in Tunisia -- signed up to help produce the videos. Elders pulled out their checkbooks. But after the presentation, a 17-year-old boy approached the imam, privately challenging him.
“ISIS says the Quran has a verse that allows for concubines for men,” said the boy, using a name by which the Islamic State is commonly known. The boy, a regular at the mosque, was referring to the enslavement and rape of non-Muslims, such as Iraq’s Yazidis, that Islamic State militants have carried out. The teen had seen Islamic State propaganda, and was confused about whose version of Islam was right. “So if they are doing this to women, how is that wrong?”
While the United States continues to fight the Islamic State group and arrest its American recruits, Muslims like Ali have taken the battle for the minds of the faithful into their own hands. Ali works independently, but others who share his aims have partnered with tech companies like YouTube, which recently recruited Muslim filmmakers for trainings in creating viral anti-extremism videos. Wealthier Muslims, meanwhile, are donating to causes like Ali’s, and nonprofits are doling out grants for films and activism.
"Young men and women who are committed to the faith begin [to] wonder why ISIS is not the right way. That is a big first step. It's not 'Hey, I'm considering joining ISIS,' but it's 'Hey, I will start thinking about what I am hearing from them,” said Ali, 37. “But that’s the first step on the journey toward a one-way ticket to their so-called caliphate.”
Speaking to the teenager that day in June, Ali knew he had to tread carefully. But he also had to be honest. Yes, he told the boy, there was enslavement in the time of the prophet, and it’s described in the Quran, but rape is condemned in the holy book. "Never should a Muslim bring back a practice that is known to be disliked by God,” he said. “God was talking about slaves people already had. He never said someone could independently bring back slavery [in the modern day].”
Today, the boy is one of a dozen people, from Evansville to Egypt, who make up Ali’s Reclamation Studios, which has released 20 videos and been backed by over $35,000 in donations. In total, the studio's productions, which cover hot-button topics like freedom of religion under Islam, jihad and the role of women, have been viewed nearly 10,000 times. High schoolers have told the imam during Friday prayers about using the segments to disarm tense discussions with Christian friends, while onlookers from Pakistan have sent messages via Facebook with questions about Islam and the Islamic State group.
Working largely with a group of volunteers, Ali makes his videos along with his partner and on-screen co-star, Zac Parsons, a former pastor. They work on nights and weekends in a co-working space in downtown Evansville, a small city that Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims have flocked to over the the years for jobs as doctors and engineers, and where there is only one mosque in town.
“We can think of theories all day long about why these kids are going to Syria, but until we try to see what works, what we can throw up against a wall and what sticks, we’re not doing anything,” said Parsons.
Ali and Parsons met at a local tech meetup, and in the most recent Reclamation Studios clip, they sit on couches while the screen flashes to a Sunday school lecture Ali gave to young Muslims on the seventh-century Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. In the treaty, a frequent reference point for both pro- and anti-Islamic State Muslims, the prophet comes to a truce with the Qurayshites, a competing religious group that controlled Mecca, after years of violent fighting and forced conversions to Islam. The treaty said that any enemy who became Muslim would not be accepted, but that Muslims could join the Qurayshites without punishment. Most scholars today describe the treaty as an illustration of how Muslims need to treat people of other faiths with respect. Extremists, however, interpret the event via a quote Allah uses in the Quran to describe it: “We have given to you a clear victory.” They believe that victory is over other faiths.
“A believer fights to uphold freedom of religion,” Ali says in the video, where he also speaks in Arabic to a group of teens and 20-somethings sitting a circle. “Never does a believer fight to take away freedom of religion.”
To the founders of Reclamation Studios, even the involvement of just a handful of kids and college students counts as a success. Their audience is not just the small minority of people who are curious about extremism -- the larger aim is to educate everyday Muslims about the history and theology of their own faith. In the coming weeks, Ali and Parsons are going on the road to host screenings and panels in Chicago and New York on their work.
“My hope and vision for this project is not just about the videos, but it is that the videos are inspiring a movement, reclaiming the faith, reclaiming the true meaning of jihad,” Ali said -- a reference to the definition of "jihad" as inner struggle and bettering one's community, as opposed to physical violence.
Part of the issue, he said, is that “when young men and women have questions [about extremism], they are afraid to research or ask, because that will automatically imply that they support it."
That’s why Bashar Hamami, Reclamation Studio’s biggest backer, has donated $25,000 to the Not In His Name series.
“To me, evil is when you have people who are not taking a stand,” said Hamami, a Syrian-American real estate investor. He was moved to take action one morning earlier this year, when he was driving his kids to school. They were listening to world news on NPR, Hamami said, and the children asked their father “why Muslims do these horrible things.”
In addition to the videos on extremism, the studio aims to release a series on the life of the prophet, totaling 70 videos through the coming months.
“All these kids leaving to join ISIS, they are obviously not evil kids,” Hamami said. “The people who go fight are kids searching for meaning in their life.”
Hamami acknowledged that the fight for young people's souls might be an uphill battle. But, he said, that isn't a reason to be discouraged.
“It doesn’t matter how monumental the task [to stop them] is," he said. "You have to try.”