‘Reclaiming Muslim’: The Instagram series celebrating Islamic diversity in the UK

Britain is known for its multicultural status, but many who follow Islam are still stereotyped. We meet the artist examining this

Aima Warriach is a 20-year-old niqabi, feminist and artist who was born in Pakistan and moved to Canada as a baby. Reclaiming Muslim/ Charlotte Bibby

Almost three million Muslims call the UK home, and it’s a rich and diverse community. But so often those who follow the Islamic faith are portrayed as a ubiquitous group in British public life, with discussions dominated by terrorism and security.

Charlotte Bibby, based in London, is part of a growing number of creatives challenging misconceptions about Muslims in British society. The 25-year-old started the Reclaiming Muslim project in 2017, an Instagram photography series telling the stories of Muslims living in the UK.

"I wanted to do a project about Muslims here in the UK for a while," Bibby tells The National. "When Muslims are brought up in mainstream media, they are often vilified, really stereotyped."

With a view to disrupting that narrative, Bibby decided to interview and photograph people following the Islamic faith, but she herself only had one Muslim friend in the UK. “It was hard knowing where to start,” she says, adding that initially, she just went into mosques.  “I got a lot of rejections at the start.”

Frustration is a key theme in the series. Mehera Miah, a British-Bangladeshi mother-of-three, was interviewed shortly after the Westminster Bridge attack in March 2017, in which terrorist Khalid Masood killed five people. 

“’Do we have to go there?’” Miah asks rhetorically. “Because, yes I condemn him [Masood], but I condemn anyone who attacks or kills or murders." 

"If I could make the world understand or be aware of one thing it would be that Islam, as a religion, does not teach or encourage violence or hatred or divisions or terrorism,” says Mehreen Baig, a 27-year-old British-Asian who is pursuing a career in television. 

Four terror attacks in London last year drove a 50 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime in the months following. Despite the rise in Islamophobic attacks, Ferhan Khan, one of the interviewees, believes the UK is the best place in the world to be a Muslim. "That response really shocked me," says Bibby. "Because I thought 'wow', if this is the best place in the world to be Muslim, that makes me so sad."

But for Bibby, that is the point of the project, to show that just because people share an identity, it doesn’t mean they share a mindset. “You do have to put this kind of stuff out there because people are going to forget that two billion people on this planet are going to be different,” she says.

Changing perceptions is fundamental to Bibby’s ethos as an artist, and is why she decided to ‘exhibit’ Reclaiming Muslim on Instagram. “The point of this project is that the most amount of people get to see it, and it changes their mind about things and opens their mind,” she explains. “Instagram is a very good platform for artists because the potential for audience is massive.”

Exhibiting on social media has also allowed Bibby to interact directly with her audi­ence, and a lot of them were surprised to learn she was not Muslim herself. While the maj­ority of responses have been positive, she has faced some criticism. “I’ve had some people say it’s not my right to do this because I’m not Muslim,” she says. “I know a lot of the time when people take stories or experiences that belong to minorities, they take it, twist it and profit from it. Then the people get completely left out of that process.

“But the way that I’ve approached the project is elevating the voices of those people. I’m not speaking for them, they’re speaking for themselves. All I’m doing is taking images of people and putting them on Instagram.”

Reclaiming Muslim is far from finished. Bibby continues adding and expanding the portfolio, most recently travelling to Canada where she photographed Aima Warriach, a Niqab-wearing artist and feminist.

For now, her focus is a separate project designed to educate and create empathy for another sometimes vilified group, refugees.

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Bibby wrote a book for children with illustrator Gus Scott called Yasmin's Journey, which is about an eight-year-old refugee's treacherous voyage to safety in the UK. "There's so many refugee children coming into Europe and they will be going to schools. The kids here will have no understanding of what their classmate might have gone through.

“I thought it would be great to make a book about refugees for when I have children. Hopefully by that time, the Syrian civil war won’t be going on. But there will always be displaced people.”

Follow Reclaiming Muslim on Instagram @reclaimingmuslim