Man at His Best

A Muslim In The US Fights Against Terrorism With YouTube Videos

A petrol station manager in Minnesota counters ISIS propaganda with some messages of his own.

BY sam mclean | Mar 24, 2016 | Culture

People all over the world, including Muslims, fighting the good fight against terrorism every day. Despite death threats, a gas station manager based in Minnesota, US, who calls himself 'Average Mohamed', began creating anti-terorism cartoons to counter ISIS propaganda. “It’s the average people who must fight this war,” Ahmed said to the Guardian. “It’s a game changer. As Muslims on the frontline of this issuewhether it’s fighting it physically or fighting in my ways with counter ideologythat is a way we are closer to victory.” Esquire interviewed Mohamed for more insight.    

ESQUIRE: What made you start Average Mohamed?
Average Mohamed: The idea that we need a counter narrative to extremism. It started as ‘what can I do to help stem the radicalisation process?’ I am an average guy, with a wife, four kids, a mortgage and a car loan. It is average people who are radicalising each other. Mohamed is the most common name in the world, so we created Average Mohamed to speak plainly to humanity on ideas that go against extremism.

ESQ: Your videos are aimed at kids, from age 8-16. What is the feedback from them?
AM: We do outreach both on social media and face-to-face talks. It is usually the first time a kid gets introduced to a narrative that goes against extremism. The fact that it’s cartoons awes them. Then the impact of the message is one of "Oh. I didn’t know that", or "ah, now I get it". There’s an enormous amount of trust, because I am an average guy like them. It gives them a willingness to listen.

ESQ: How long does it take to produce one video?
AM: My turn around is 14 days, from concept to product.

ESQ: You’ve had death threats. What form did those take?
AM: Yes, on the YouTube page.

ESQ: What did they say?
AM: A person using the insignia of Islamic State said they would find me and that I would be killed.

ESQ: So, do you worry about your safety?
AM: I believe in Allah and that nothing will happen beyond what the Lord has ordained. But we need to stand up for our majority Muslim values. Extremism is an abomination. The average people must speak up, without fear. They can’t kill us all.

ESQ: What do you think of the views of Donald Trump, which essentially says Muslim = potential terrorist?
AM: [I] live in a great country [the USA] that is governed by a constitution. That constitution has a bill of rights that is inalienable to all its citizens. America does not segregate or pick on people because their gender, race, religion or any other marker. Indeed, it is a great country with a long history of inclusion, not seclusion. Donald Trump’s views are his. You have seen the thousands of other politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, denounce it.
Given the views of some on the political right (and indeed the mainstream media), do you think there is room for a series of videos aimed at non-Muslims that shows that Muslims are just normal people?
Average Mohamed does that! Imagine the surprise I got when non-Muslims sent me emails saying that they only believed what the media was saying about Islam. But they find my messages, which say what our faith means and teaches. They take a second look. They are informed. I have received emails from across the world, from Israel to Timbuktu, saying ‘thank you’. I opened a window in their minds to look again at Muslims and Islam.

ESQ: You’ve had support from other faiths and their communities. How satisfying is that?
AM: Christians, Jews and even atheists have open up their houses of worship so we can have inter-faith dialogue. Daawa is part of Islam. It means ‘propagation of values of Islam’. Diversity is our strength, not our weakness. It is enormously satisfying knowing we are pooling humanity together.
ESQ: You have received a lot of interest from across the world in a relatively short space of time. Has that surprised you?
AM: We do this work for the sake of our society, and also for the sake of our faith and Lord. What we have created with this platform is a radical approach. It is a new, hip and very current way of staying with power for years or decades to come. The world sees it for what it is – innovation that can help us all. Yes, I am surprised. And humbled. I am just an average guy.
ESQ: Did you start making these videos to talk to your community within Minnesota, or was the hope always that it would go global?
AM: What works in Minnesota can work in Malaysia or anywhere. We focus our message to be as global in outlook as we can. Yes we use it to talk to our community, but we have hundreds of thousands of hits on social media. Analytics tells me the reach is global for English speakers. Maybe it’s time to add other languages to the message.

ESQ: From which countries do you get people watching Average Mohamed?
AM: It is truly global… Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, North America. All are watching and taking in these messages.

ESQ: If you made them to talk to Minnesota, have you had to change your approach now that you have a global audience?
AM: We are constantly innovating. My background is corporate America where there is only one true rule – change will happen and it is good. We constantly brainstorm to look at what works and what doesn’t. The kids themselves give us feedback.

ESQ: Has the popularity of Average Mohamed surprised you?
AM: I am an average guy, so of course it has. Our goal is simple: to counter radicalisation. The celebrity status that comes with it, I can do without.

ESQ: You are a gas station manager. Has the popularity of Average Mohamed tempted you to do this full-time?
AM: A man has to earn a living. The work I do provides for my family. I currently have six projects on the table. I just got help by getting grant writers to help find funding solutions. It’s hard because I don’t know how to beg for money. I am learning that there are others who would love to fund us. If God wills it, we shall get the necessary funds to take Average Mohamed to the next level to counter ideology.