|Ahmed J Versi - Giving Muslims a Voice
Wed 18 Aug 2004
About three decades ago, when Ahmed J Versi came to the United Kingdom for the very first time, he had very simple and practical goals - a quest for further education in pharmacy and an aim to do his PhD thesis on the achievements of the great Muslim scientist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan. Versi believed that this great scientist from the golden era of Muslim science had for too long been overlooked by the scholars of our time.
|`The Muslim News has emerged as a platform of identity for Muslims in the United Kingdom, pioneering activities such as the annual Awards of Excellence and highlighting the previously neglected area of Muslim women's sports.'
Back then, if someone had said to him that in the years to come, he would become the mastermind behind one of the foremost Muslim newspapers in the United Kingdom, he probably would have laughed. But Providence has its own mysterious ways.
Today, after spending many long years striving for excellence in print journalism despite severe financial constraints, Versi can take some satisfaction in the realisation that The Muslim News has indeed come a long way. His newspaper is now the most respected and widely read in Britain with a readership of up to 140 thousand/month. In addition, the newspaper has an extremely popular website, which provides quality information to its global readership. Over the years, The Muslim News has emerged as a platform of identity for Muslims in the United Kingdom, pioneering activities such as the annual Awards of Excellence and promoting Muslim women's sports.
Originally from Tanzania, Versi has since childhood considered himself to be a seeker of knowledge. It was an expedition to fulfil this aim that brought him to these shores. The journey since, although remarkable, has not been easy. Whilst reflecting on the history of the newspaper, he recalls that it was whilst working with a magazine called Afkar-Inquiry that he `..realised that there was no newspaper available exclusively for British Muslims' and so conceived the idea of an independent and exclusive newspaper for the British Muslim community.
Regarding the format of his publication, Versi says that there were very valid reasons to opt for a newspaper style.
`Firstly, I wanted to keep the content in the news form and did not want to amalgamate it with comment or opinionated articles. Secondly, it was a cheaper option.'
Timing is fundamental to any new project. The first issue of The Muslim News was published in February 1989, not long after the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's now infamous Satanic Verses.
`It was a time when the Muslim community had a lot to say but sadly the mainstream media refused to give coverage to our feelings. It was at this crucial stage that The Muslim News was launched and began working in the interests of British Muslims.'
No matter how noble Versi's intentions, this new venture needed revenue to survive and progress. But revenue was far from forthcoming as Versi explains:
`We have always kept the newspaper free because we wanted our message to reach the widest possible audience. However, what we could not foresee were the strong reservations held by the government sector against advertising in a Muslim newspaper.'
Versi points out that there is a lack of proper monitoring for the ethnic media and advertising circles largely ignore the standard of publication in which they advertise. At present one of the very few monitoring system for newspapers, is the ABC certificate.
`We were certified by ABC, however, I decided to discontinue my registration, after realising that being certified by a good monitoring body was of no consideration for advertisers and I was only wasting my money.'
Surely, one would hope, he had support from Muslim businesses in the advertising arena?
`Not really, as far as the Muslim business sector is concerned, they have their own rerservations. They realise that they are living in a multicultural society and are afraid of losing out on business if they narrow down their market only to Muslims. However, other communities get support from their businesses. For example, the Jewish Chronicle, is filled with Jewish business adverts. No one blames them for supporting their own media. However, we do get sponsorship for the Awards for Excellence event, which helps to cover the running costs of the ceremony.'
Media has the power to effect change and Versi keenly recounts some of the many memorable occasions in which his paper has championed Muslim causes.
`A few years ago, Americans were closing down Muslim charities involved in supporting Palestinians. At a meeting of Jewish leaders with John Major, who was the Prime Minister at that time, we realised that `Interpal', a leading British Muslim charity actively helping impoverished Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, was also on the list of charities to be closed down. We highlighted this issue in our newspaper and initiated a huge campaign to put pressure on the government. Another such issue was the issue of hijab. Until the 80's and 90's, many schools in the UK did not allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves, as that was considered to be not part of the school uniform. We repeatedly published cases of such human rights abuses in almost every issue, through features, interviews, comments and cartoons. Finally, the Tory Head of Education at that time announced guidelines for the schools to taken religious sensitivities including dress code into account when formulating school uniform policies.'
Over the last decade, Versi has found himself in a privileged position, which gives him an opportunity to monitor the Muslim community closely. He considers `identity crisis' and lack of proper representation as the burning issues facing British Muslims today.
`According to our population, we should have 17 Muslim Members of Parliament, while we have only two at present. We need to have more public service appointments if we want to get our message to the corridors of power.'
Versi has high hopes for the young Muslims of Britain whom he considers to have responded in a civilised manner despite considerable provocation...
`In the last decade or so, British Muslims have seen their Prophet and religion being continuously vilified without any recourse to law; they have suffered in the West by attacks on them because of domestic and international events, discrimination and exclusion at home; they have seen the suffering of Muslims in different parts of the world and they were not able to do much - like the killing and raping of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia, the indiscriminate bombing of Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, the continued sanctions against the people of Iraq, the atrocities against the Palestinian, Kashmiri and Chechen people, and the attacks on Muslims in the West following 9/11; yet the young Muslims in the United Kingdom have never opted for violent measures. Instead they chose the democratic means to protest at the domestic and international injustices meted out on Muslims . No other community has suffered so much or continue to suffer as the Muslim community. I salute their perseverance.'
Versi is an achiever and one wonders how it is that one man has been able to contribute so much over such a long period of time. Modestly, he gives much of the credit to his wife, noting:
`I have an absolutely wonderful and understanding wife. She has always stood by me and has always appreciated my work.'
Although unable to fulfil his dream to study about Hayyan, time has moulded him into serving the Muslim community like Hayyan. His personal excellence in the media has thankfully provided the Muslim community with a much needed voice.
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