French explorer Gibran Hasnaoui globe-Trots to combat Anti-Islam sentiment

The self-taught videographer Gibran Hasnaoui discovered Islam in Dubai in 2010, and has since created video projects and a film festival with the purpose of a more positive portrayal of his religion

Gibran Hasnaoui among friends on his world tour. Courtesy Gibran Hasnaoui
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When the French national Gibran Hasnaoui first landed in the UAE in 2010, he had no idea that the next two years would send him in a direction he could never have fathomed. Although born into Islam, Hasnaoui never felt a connection with God – or his religion.

“It was here that I actually became connected with Islam,” says Hasnaoui. “I was introduced to many wonderful brothers from different countries and through them I managed to learn more about my own religion. From Dubai I took a trip to the holy city of Mecca and in whatever I did from that point onwards, God played a more central role in my life.”

Employed as a sales engineer in Dubai, Hasnaoui soon became disillusioned with expatriate, city life and longed for something more fulfilling.

“That was when I had the idea to start the Muslim World Tour [MWT] – where I backpack to 50 countries in five years, filming the various Muslim communities with the intention of both satisfying my own wanderlust and curiosity as well as to take my stories back to my home country, which is notorious for its anti-Islam agenda.”

Now having returned to France, this self-taught videographer aims to immortalise his interactions with Muslims across the globe to paint a more realistic impression of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims in France and Europe.

Six countries and many MWT episodes (all of which can be viewed on the MWT YouTube channel) later, trips sponsored by donors rooting for his mission, Hasnaoui has picked up a few world truths on his travels.

“I don’t like staying in fancy hotels, so what I do is send a call-out for Muslim families willing to host us during our stay in their country,” he says. “I’ve noticed that it is the poorer, less-developed countries that have the warmest and most welcoming people.”

But these adventures alone weren’t enough for this modern-day Ibn Battuta, for just last year he took his life’s mission one rung higher, by founding the first Islam-themed short film festival in Europe – the Mokhtar Awards.

“I was in Malaysia when the controversial film about the Prophet Mohammed was released. Also, in France on the anniversary of 9/11, agitators started drawing offensive caricatures of the Prophet and of Islam, and I thought: ‘OK, let’s arm every Muslim we can find with a camera and a microphone and invite them to represent themselves and fight all this hate through the medium of film.’”

His call-out resulted in 100 entries from amateur videographers, not just from France, but as far away as Morocco and Malaysia. Tickets to the festival’s awards night last December were sold out two months in advance, cementing Hasnaoui’s plans of making the festival an annual event.

Muslim-owned businesses in France were quick to support his cause, allowing for first-, second- and third-place winners to take home €10,000 (Dh50,654), a trip to Makkah for Umrah and a sponsored trip to Istanbul.

Despite all he’s done, Hasnaoui has strong opinions on the way Muslims are portrayed in France.

“The Muslim communities … themselves are faring well in French society, so economically, most French Muslims are fairly stable. It is the media running on a government agenda that are constantly projecting an image that increasingly portrays Muslims as deserving of isolation and a deterrent to the progress of the secular, French way of life.

“Muslims are constantly being provoked and lured into scenarios where they’re depicted as being extremists. Thankfully, the majority of the French public aren’t of this opinion and are actually non-aggressive – if not neutral – on their stance of Muslims.

“Through the MWT and the Mokhtar Awards, I hope to raise awareness that Islam is more than just keywords such as niqab, jihad and the like. These are not money-making opportunities for me – I do this solely with the intention of pleasing God, by attempting to create a more positive image of Islam and its followers.”