In March 2009, I was sitting in the office of a fast-talking and dynamic magazine editor when his phone suddenly rang. He received what seemed to be a distressing call. “What?” “That’s Impossible!” “Where is he now?” “When will he be released?” “So everything’s gone?”
This editor was working in America for a magazine headquartered in Amman, Jordan. After hanging up, he stared at me with a blank face.
He told me that the magazine had just been raided by Jordanian police, the editor-in-chief jailed, and all computer hard drives and content confiscated. Its website was taken offline and the publication ceased to exist within hours. That week, authorities forcibly shut down two other media outlets in Amman. These events are unremarkable when we consider all that happens in the Middle East. However, in this case, the magazine that was shuttered was Islamica, a small, independent, award-winning publication that developed a strong following amongst writers, thinkers, analysts, and tens of thousands of others around the world who sought sophisticated writing that reflected the thoughts of a Muslim-leaning publication.
Subscribers, readers, writers and supporters were left to wonder what exactly happened. The only other official communication were FedEx envelopes addressed to each subscriber, ostensibly refunding the balance of their subscriptions with cash, down to the last penny, and a rather cryptically worded statement that the magazine was now closed. In the months ahead, I followed email lists and Facebook posts as fans and avid readers of the magazine kept asking, “What happened to Islamica?”
It is unfortunate that Islamica’s collapse did not make more waves in the Muslim community and beyond. Not many people knew what happened, and when I tried to find out, information remained murky. When asked about why it shut down, members of the editorial board or the offices of the Jordanian Royal Institute that funded the magazine offered varying accounts.
Although the magazine struggled to survive with limited resources, it was successful in its efforts to be influential at a time when Muslims were sorely in need of any kind of influence, and here was the real loss in Islamica’s folding. It was disheartening to see so much progress made in building the magazine dissipate overnight. At that time, the United States had just elected Barack Obama as president, and a number of Muslim staffers were in the White House. The real tragedy was in not being able to land a copy of this brilliant magazine’s latest issue on the president’s desk.
So I rang up a small group of journalists and editors, and we decided to do something to fill the void. The idea was to reinvent a magazine that offered the kind of high quality journalism, news and analysis that Islamica had provided keep it truly independent. It took an entire year to organize this new effort, especially since we were coming at this with little to no resources and little experience of publishing in the United States. Nonetheless, the first issue of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) was put forth in January 2011.
While we did bring some members of the old Islamica editorial staff back together, this magazine is not the old Islamica. Our vision is to bring the kind of insightful, thoughtful and varied perspectives of Islamica into the new media age. TIM is more than just a magazine. We plan to leverage the Web to create a community of readers, listeners and interested parties across a range of media, including print, podcasts, op-eds, stories, photos and ideas. It is a vision that borrows from what has worked, but also brings our own flavor to the table.
Since serving as editor-in-chief of TIM, I have witnessed how far we have come in a short period of time and how far we can go. The TIM editors have traveled around the country talking to people about our project. We sat with editors of The Atlantic, and producers at NPR, we dined with President Obama, sat and reported on poor and rural areas in Cairo and Pakistan, and have been advised by professors at Harvard and other notable universities and journalists who have been working on the ground globally. We interviewed important figures and thought leaders who encouraged us to press ahead. “It’s important to learn about the thoughts coming out of your community in an intelligent, insightful way. We need this now more than ever,” said New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
But surprisingly, the biggest struggle that I face as editor-in-chief is convincing Muslim audiences of the importance of our work and the value of independent journalism. Islamica’s collapse was, in part, due to its inability to find support from the Muslim community in America, resulting in its dependence on a government institution in a foreign country. We are now working hard to find the long-term support we need to survive and are beyond thankful to the handful of people and foundations that have given us the resources we needed to start. I have researched and reviewed hundreds of magazines from other minority groups in America, including the Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon and even atheist communities, and am motivated to help represent our community in this critical space. While TIM is not the only magazine talking about Muslim issues, it is filling an important gap by focusing on ideas that shape our public discourse in a way that communicates the depth and breadth of what we have to offer as a community. There is a way to speak in the public space to be heard, and we are focusing on building this magazine as a platform for amplifying our voices.
Magazines are a conduit for ideas, and those ideas matter. Remember the cover of The New Yorker with Obama depicted as Osama? How about The Atlantic’s piece by Anne Marie Slaughter on women in the workplace? They created huge public debates about important issues. Magazines provide a lasting space for thought. They can influence how people think and in many instances how policies may be formed.
I am proud of our small team who believe in this cause and work, largely uncompensated, because they believe in independent media. I am proud of the small group of donors who offer what they can to keep us afloat.
We urge you to find ways to support us. Submit articles, alert us of breaking news, send links to your friends, and of course, support us with any financial contribution in the same way that you would (and should!) other independent media channels such as PBS and NPR. Journalism can only be fearless when it is independent, and it can only be independent if it receives support from its readership. We want to build a community of people interested in investigating and learning about the pressing issues facing us and the world today. We invite you to be a part of it.