Meet the Media’s ‘Token Muslim Girl’ and her Negative Effect on Youth
Investigating MuslimGirl.com’s mysterious funding and abusive history in connection to Islamic Tokenism in the west
In “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019”, a 304-page document, from US’s Bureau of counter-terrorism Islam appears 326 times; “National Strategy For Counterterrorism of the United States of America”, a 34-page document, Islam appears 26 times; UK’s “Anti-radicalization report”, a 54-page document, Islam appears 26 times. The Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network, in their 2017 study, reported terrorism accounting for 0.05% of all universal deaths, yet the west sees Islam and Terrorism as a primary threat.
The western world has an obsession with portraying Islam in a negative light, however, the focus of this article is not the media outlets who waste their time slandering Islam, instead, I will discuss subtle ways that the west pushes its own idealized version of Islam — a ‘modern’ Islam.
For as bad as Islam is represented in the media the Muslim community only furthers that misrepresentation; validating religion through the western lens leads to misrepresentation. Muslims constantly validating Islam brings to fruition ‘modern’ Islamic websites like Muslim Girl (MG).
MG is a mysterious website with various unanswered questions about its founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. MG appears positive, but when put under the microscope it radiates with danger.
To understand the extent of MG’s unreliability a few terms need clarification:
What is Modern Islam?
Religious and historical scholars refer to modern Islam as “Islamic Modernism”. Mansoor Moaddel in his book “Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse” defines Islamic Modernism as “the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge” (2). Islamic Modernism’s aim is a progressive thinking Islam whereby western values, similar to that of the enlightenment period, are integrated.
The issue with Islamic Modernism is it frames Islam as inherently flawed and lacking in so-called “forward-thinking”. The media loves this idea because it puts them in a position of power, where the role of the media becomes to correct Islam’s ‘twisted’ principals.
Another ‘ism’ to add to our dictionary is Tokenism, which Mariam Webster defines as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly”.
Mainstream media continues featuring MG’s Founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, not for positive Islamic representation, but rather as a token; if media features people like Amani they can ‘tick off’ the ‘Islamic representation box’ and move on with their day.
This article will:
1. Question MG’s reliability based on funding and past treatment of staff
2. Discuss MG’s negative influence on the Islamic community
3. Explore how modern media portrays Islam
Alongside MG, I will discuss the role of the UK government-funded websites “SuperSisters” and “This is Woke”. Both Muslims and non-Muslims effect Islam’s representation. It is unfair to blame only western media because we too, as a community, are part of the problem and the media is the one promoting it.
The investigation on MG is split into three parts: Who is Amani Al-Khatahtbeh? Who is Funding MG? And Statements from Past Writers.
Who is Amani Al-Khatahtbeh?
In 2009 Amani founded MG, a website targeted towards young Muslim girls. Throughout the years' media outlets have featured Amani’s story. Some of these outlets include CBC, CTV, CNN, Teen Vogue, Elle, and The Economist. Global News referred to Amani as the “face of millennial Muslims” and The Cut called her a “token Muslim”.
Western media loves Amani because her content advocates for ‘modern’ Islam.
MG prioritizes Amani’s opinion rather than that of scholars. In Islam, there is a profound and extensive scholarship on the Quran (Holy Book) and the Hadith (a collection of sayings and traditions from the time of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) that are used to discuss issues and questions relating to Islam. Muslims live their lives in accordance with these teachings. This scholarship requires years of education.
Amani takes topics that have been debated among Islamic scholars for years and waters them down to flashy-clickbaity short articles.
In Amani’s article “Wearing Nail Polish During Wudu and While Praying” she talks about the unfairness of receiving criticism for her “claws” (referring to her long-manicured nails).
Nail polish and wudu are popular topics among youth Muslims. In Islam, praying and reading the Quran requires wudu (ablution), however, nail polish creates a water barrier making wudu incomplete. Amani discusses only her opinion and does not take the time to discuss an alternative opinion.
These are important topics that youth Muslims should be made aware of but through the lens of scholarship.
The articles are filled with personal interpretations on Islamic issues that have been debated for years. Phrasing them in a way where Amani is always right.
Another popular issue is the Hijab and Hijab etiquette. In Amani’s article “Hijab Policing is Sexual Harassment, Period” this issue is glossed over. The article discusses that criticizing how one wears the hijab is a form of “sexual harassment” and that women should be left to wear the hijab as they choose to.
The hijab is a struggle for youth Muslims and instead of discussing positive criticism on upholding the hijab — which is more than just headscarf — Amani waters down the topic to one that is black and white. She refers to criticism, on hijab etiquette, as “hijab policing” and therefore inherently bad.
Once again, this issue could have been fully flushed and could have provided wisdom to youth Muslims, if a scholarly perspective was taken. If articles on MG had more religious backing they could flourish.
This glossing over of heavy topics is also demonstrated in the article “Public Hijabi Syndrome” where Amani discusses the criticism she received when she appeared in a Maroon 5 music video. She mentions the made-up term “Public Hijabi Syndrome” referring to people who scrutinize hijabi influencers. Amani explains the difficulty of being in the public eye. The topic, once again, is watered down to one where all criticism Amani receives is bad.
The issue lies in the tone. Her youth audience cannot relate to “public hijabi syndrome” because they are not influencers. Amani writes to an audience of influencers rather than to her youth demographic. The article feels out-of-touch.
Amani will discuss, what seems to be, an Islamic issue but then spends a big portion talking about herself. The articles are a justification of her opinions rather than guidance or advice for her youth Muslim demographic.
Are these traits the end of the world? No, but someone given the label “face of millennial Muslims” should live up to that standard. Amani is the face of MG and to youth Muslims, her influence and popularity are a legitimization of her opinions.
Maybe you’re thinking that these articles, which I’m using to paint Amani’s personality, are cherry-picked but they are not and you can take a look here at Amani’s other MG articles. The articles demonstrate that Amani is unwilling to accept criticism. Judgement and criticism are different, while Amani does not deserve to be judged she needs to learn how to take criticism because her audience looks up to her for guidance. The wisest people are those who accept criticism and learn from it.
Amani ticks off all the boxes that “modern” Islam thrives on, making her the perfect poster person.
Who decided, on behalf of Muslims, that this one influencer is the “voice” of Muslim women? — The media outlets did. By choosing to report on Amani they can manipulate the portrait of Islam they choose to paint. Muslims, like Amani, who find the need to justify and modernize Islam are part of the problem.
Islam is either the cause of terror or the ‘we’re just like you’ western image.
Funding: Where the Lines are Distorted
MG does not pay their writers, Amani states that due to the ‘start-up’ nature of MG they do not have the budget to pay writers. Only editorial staff are given a monthly paycheck, which is also unstable.
Over the years MG has raised money, but it is unclear where that money goes, so I have made a timeline of their finances. Once all the finances come together it creates a mysterious picture.
I have also researched whether MG is for-profit or non-profit, to understand whether they have extra money to pay writers, according to this article by a past writer the website is for-profit. Amani also has a separate non-profit charity called “Muslim Girl Foundation Inc”.
Here is MG’s revenue over the past years (I will be discussing each in detail and where the ambiguities lie).
Revenue for Muslim Girl Website
2015: Ramadan of the Muslim Girl Crowdfunding link: $25,000 USD
2016: Muslim Girl “Baddie Box” Subscription care package: $20 per box
2017: Partnership with ORLY, merchandise, sponsors on Shopify, partnership with Getty Images
2018: Investment from Gary Vaynerchuck
Revenue for Muslim Girl Foundation Inc (Amani’s non-profit)
2015 Funding: Ramadan of the Muslim Girl
In 2015 Amani, to raise money for her website, started a crowdfunding link. The money raised would go towards updates like paying for better servers, updating mailing lists, and website fees. The campaign raised $25,000 USD.
Mehar Rizvi, the Social Media Intern at the time, says that a “direct source” told her that allegedly Amani used the $25,000 to fund her studio and a trip to Dubai, but Amani in a 2017 video posted on MG’s Instagram has denied this.
If Amani did not use the money for personal reasons, then where did it go?
Forbes, in a 2018 interview asked Amani how much money she invested in MG and Amani replied that she raised a “six-figure sum from [her] personal network of friends and family to pay rent and a small group of freelancers”. Despite my research, I have not found anything on this “six-figure sum” that she also said was used as a two-year budget. The only prominent amount of money that Amani made public is the 2015 crowdfunding campaign.
If we take Amani’s statement, that she used, a “six-figure sum” as a two-year budget, the money should have lasted from 2015–2017 or from 2017–2019 (depending on when the money was raised). In those two years, writers would be compensated, however, Ahlam who worked at MG in 2017 states that Amani did not compensate freelancers. An anonymous source who worked at MG in 2019 also confirms that writers were not paid at that time. Amani’s interview answers are incoherent when compared to her past statements.
With the apparent success of the crowdfunding link, it is a surprise that Amani stopped crowdfunding, for the MG website, after 2015.
Another writer provided me with the following screenshots (taken from the MG staff Facebook Group). The images show Amani demanding staff to “spam” the crowdfunding link on their feed and to pay $10 each (and get five other people to contribute). She also kept track of every staff member’s contributions. This “six-figure” sum was not voluntary and was pressured onto the staff:
2016: Subscription box
MG sold these boxes for $20 each, however, the total revenue made is unknown. I contacted Meham Khan who helped in the execution of the boxes, but when provided with the interview questions she did not reply.
care.muslimgirl.com, the website for purchasing the boxes, no longer runs, so I used Internet Archive to access the website. I can access the homepage but not the specific purchase page. Despite my research, there is no information on the total revenue made from the subscriptions.
2017: Partnership with ORLY
In 2017 MG partnered with nail polish brand ORLY to create a line of “halal” water-permeable nail polish. Using Internet Archive, to access halalprint.com, I found that a set of 6 colours sold for $49.00USD a box and that pre-orders sold out:
Their FAQ, on halalprint.com, states that orders were only sold within America, therefore they only had to pay domestic shipping making the price of shipping lower for each box:
I contacted ORLY to ask how much revenue MG made from their partnership, but they have not replied.
A couple of months after the release of the nail polish MG backed-out of their ORLY partnership, after selling out pre-orders, because of past comments from the founder of ORLY, Jeff Pink. It is unknown if MG made a profit from the deal.
This is the front page of MG’s previous Shopify website xo.muslimgirl.com which is now taken down:
On their Shopify MG sold their hats “The Aura Shield Collection” and T-Shirts “Pass the Mic” (the “care package” is their subscription box). Internet Archive does not have saved URLs of each collection, making only the front page accessible. Without the saved URLs I was not able to find out whether the collections sold out or if they made a profit.
There is a “Sponsors” page, on the header, which when hovered over opens the options for “current sponsors” and “past sponsors” I was not able to access these pages either, however, when I went to the November 9, 2017 version of the website on the footer is the following three companies:
Their past sponsors were Modefa, Terra Tattoos, and Silver Lining. I reached out to all three but have not received a reply. My speculation is that If MG had sponsors then they were either given money directly or free products for their boxes.
2017: Partnership with Getty Images
MG and Getty images partnered up to create 215 images of hijabis. Each photo costs around $500 to purchase. I contacted Getty images asking if MG gets a royalty from each photo and they said they would look into it, but as of now, I have received no response.
Therefore, the possibility that MG does not make a profit from this and that the profit all goes to Getty Images exists, I will not know for sure until Getty Images replies.
2018: Investment from Gary Vaynerchuck
Gary Vaynerchuk is a famous entrepreneur who is first known for expanding his family’s wine business and making it successful. He now focuses on his company “Vaynerchuck Media”.
Despite my research and trying to contact Mr. Vaynerchuck I have not found out how much the investment was.
Muslim Girl Foundation Inc
Amani, in a 2017 IGTV video, stated that all the money from crowdfunding campaigns fund “Muslim Girl Foundation Inc”, a non-profit which provides Muslim women with scholarships. On MG’s crowd-funding page only two crowdfunding links state they are for their foundation:
The March 2018 crowdfunding link “Meet Muslim Girl Foundation” raised approximately $4500 and was split between two scholarship winners in January 2019: Ibiene Minah, a then 20-year-old from New York and Mahrukh Rose, a then 19-year-old from Ireland.
Amani frames Muslim Girl Foundation as a constantly running project, but according to my research, the scholarship was a one-time event. Amani started a scholarship fund at a time when she could not afford to pay her own writers.
My aim, for this timeline, is questioning Amani’s choice to not compensate writers. If Amani wants to play the ‘we don’t have enough revenue’ victim card, then release MG’s financial records and show the public where all the money went.
Statements from Past Writers
MG’s interface makes it difficult to contact writers; despite every writer having their own page most writers will have only their first and last name stated and will have no contact information whatsoever. I reached out to current writers that did have contact information on MG asking to interview them, but they either did not reply or declined.
I spoke to three former MG staff about their experiences and here is what they have to say:
On December 29th, 2016 Mehar posted “MuslimGirl.com: Exploitation, Abuse, & Hypocrisy” on her blog Spill The Chai where she recounts the countless abuse she faced at MG. Mehar is still dealing with “trauma and anxiety” and recovering from her experience.
In 2014, seeking an Islamic community, Mehar applied to MG’s “Social Media Intern” role. Mehar explains that she was “expected to drop everything” for MG as Amani expected her to be available 24/7. Her phone was constantly “flooded” with messages that would sometimes go through to the night. The expectation to reply immediately and make instant edits to posts made her role stressful.
Mehar describes Amani as someone who, “instill[s] fear [within] the management team” and Amani would “completely disregarded the fact that [MG staff] were young Muslim girls at school/real paying jobs, and that [they] were at MG as volunteers[…] and [they were] expected to perform as if [they] were getting paid a five-figure salary”. Amani works full-time at MG, she has all the time to dedicate to MG, whereas most of these volunteers only have a couple of hours per week. This standard is unfair to volunteers who have lives outside of MG.
An anonymous source who worked two positions at MG over the span of 2019, says that her first position’s workload was fair, but once she worked her second role, she realized she was juggling too many tasks. She was putting more hours in than what she was being paid for.
On July 6th, 2019 Ahlam Ummul-Khair posted a video, split into three parts, on IGTV, called “The Truth about Muslim Girl”. In her video, she explains the toxic environment she experienced at MG. She worked as a writer and video content creator from May 2016 and was later fired in November 2017.
Ahlam explains how, like Mehar, Amani expected immediate replies and she received phone messages non-stop until she answered. Despite Ahlam’s role being voluntary, she felt like she was working a full-time job. On-top of her tasks Ahlam was doing work that she did not originally sign-up for; she was hired for videography but was also given content writing duties.
Lack of Compensation
According to an anonymous source, only editorial staff received paid compensation, while the writers did not. The paycheck editorial staff did receive had no safety net and “heavily relied on third party” companies. This heavy dependence, on third party companies, created an unsteady monthly paycheck. Some months editorial staff were not paid because the companies did not pay them that month.
In weekly calls, Amani would say “well this ad fell through, we were so close, so we’re not getting paid this month”.
In 2019 MG and Calvin Klein partnered up for an ad campaign, which did not do well despite MG staff putting hours into the campaign. The staff received no compensation from the company. These measures are not considered, Amani does not have a ‘plan b’ if companies do not pay them.
Amani tried to compensate unpaid staff through tagging on social media and having a dedicated page with the writer’s social media, but it “only lasted for a week and Amani cut it”.
Compensation was based on “favouritism, many unpaid staff would not have their social media on their dedicated MG author page, while other writers did.” Amani said this was due to IP issues on WordPress and could not link everyone’s social media.
Writers would be lured in with the false promise of receiving recognition for their work, but only to realize that this did not happen.
Mehar states that Amani “took all of the media praise and credit” for the website despite Amani’s insufficient contribution. Amani takes a passive role at MG while writers take the active role. “Amani markets and prides her whole site and efforts towards ‘sisterhood’, yet she treats [staff] lesser than [. . .] It is not sincere, she never really cared about Muslim girls and that is evident by how she treated all of us”.
I have created the following chart showing the number of articles Amani has written since 2009:
This is a yearly breakdown of Amani’s articles, a total of 88. From 2015, as the years increase the number of articles decrease. The articles written by Amani are short in length.
The total amount of articles on MG is unknown but based on five writers that I sampled there is over 1000, therefore it is not surprising to see that writers are over-worked when Amani herself does not produce a sufficient amount of articles to keep the website running.
According to Ahlam editors made “extreme edits” to writer’s blog posts without consent from the original writer. The blog posts, once published, lost the “writer’s message” and “most of what [is] read on MG isn’t even [their] words.” Writers lost access to their work after publication.
For a Ramadan initiative, Ahlam proposed a video series idea that Amani approved. Ahlam and her partner finished filming and editing the series. They sent Amani the videos but received no response from her and the videos never ended up coming out. Only one video was released seen in Ahlam’s video from 4:41–5:15.
This seems to be a trend, where Amani will accept one thing but then disregard it moments later and does not follow through.
An anonymous source states that the reason for Amani’s false promises comes down to disorganization and lack of communication with the team. Amani does not have long term plans. She states that “things should be planned out for the next six months, yet every phone call was something new, no follow through with plans, nothing clear [Amani tried] handling too much.”
Amani, according to my source, had “no real proper answers on the projects that writers were working on” leaving a lot of confusion on the team. She also says that “the main reason for writers constantly leaving is the lack of follow-through”.
Ahlam states that if MG had a proper “business plan, which [she] and [her] colleagues suggested” to Amani, then compensation “would not even be a problem”. Ahlam is “not surprised in the slightest that they are the same company [she] quit three years ago”. Ahlam raises another question, that Amani has yet to answer, “where does Amani get the money to fund her vacations while chaos is going on in the group chats?”
Earlier in the article “Ramadan of the Muslim Girl” was mentioned, Mehar stated that Amani expected each writer to contribute $10 and to also have five other family members donate.
Mehar states that Amani had strict enforcement of the rule and when a writer “stood up” saying that she could not afford to pay $10 because she had no extra money, Amani yelled at her. Writers ended up donating from fear of repercussions, including Mehar who donated $60 to cover for five additional family members. Amani was “inconsiderate and an absolute bully amidst being ridiculously demanding”
Ahlam states that she “witnessed the staff bully writers to the point where they resigned”. In the MG Slack group, Amani referred to herself as “#HBIC (Head Bitch in Charge)”; it was a form of intimidation for the writers.
When I asked my anonymous source if she had witnessed bullying in the MG environment, she said that personally she did not, but that since it was a remote working environment she didn’t have many connections to other writers. She mentions that her experience with the editorial staff, in weekly calls, were positive.
These screenshots, provided to me by another writer, are from the 2015 MG group chat:
How can MG improve?
- having long-term plans for the year that outlines projects →This will reduce the disorganization
- being transparent with staff and actively communicating → creating trust in a team
- following through with promises →staff are giving up their time to keep the website running, they're the backbone they deserve to be told the truth
If your interested in more accounts from former MG staff click on the following: Aima Warriach’s “Why I left Muslim Girl”, Kaya Gravitter’s “Why I Stopped Writing for Muslim Girl” and Zay Farzan’s “This is What Being at Muslim Girl for 7 Years Really Does to You”.
Websites Similar to Muslim Girl
This article in its inception was going to equally discuss “Muslim Girl”, “SuperSisters” and “This is Woke” but I shifted the article to focus on investigating MG. “SuperSisters” and “This is Woke”, however, deserve to be discussed because of their unethical nature.
Another website, that I will not be discussing in this article, is muslim.co which is a youth Muslim blog created by Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh (who is Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s brother).
“This is Woke” and “SuperSisters” are both websites targeted at youth Muslims, the difference between the two is that the latter targets solely youth Muslim girls while the former targets general youth Muslims. Both websites appear harmless, posting articles like that of MG. On the outside, they appear fine, but underneath is a shocking truth.
The Middle Eastern Eye’s 2019 article titled “‘Woke’ news platform aimed at young Muslims is actually a secret UK counter-terror program” released evidence that “This is Woke” was funded by the British government as part of the UK’s counter-terror program.
Not long after The Middle Eastern Eye’s report, “SuperSisters” was also discovered to be part of the UK’s counter-terror program, which is funded by Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT).
Religion News, in their article “Website aimed at British Muslim women funded by UK anti-extremism program”, quotes BSBT describing themselves as “a government program that aims to fund ‘civil society and community organizations who work to create more resilient communities, stand up to extremism in all its forms and offer vulnerable individuals a positive alternative’”.
BSBT’s description beats around the bush, they use phrasing like “stand up to extremism” when they mean ‘standing up to Islamic Radicalism’ and “offer [. . .] a positive alternative” as ‘stopping youth Muslims from radicalization’. They do not explicitly state Islam in their descriptions, but it is implied since which audience is being targeted by their counter-terror program? Youth Muslims.
These websites are brainwashing youth Muslims by accustoming them to ‘modern’ Islam. Governments should not have the right to define religion, ones that do such are considered oppressive, yet here is a prime example of two websites run by the government that tries to reform religion.
The governments, who do not understand Islam, are attempting to teach Islam to a vulnerable youth audience — it is insulting, to say the least.
Let us compare how independent media reported on this issue compared to popular news websites:
Popular News Websites:
Take a look at how BBC and The Guardian frame the Home Office (a ministerial department in UK’s government) as the victims by using phrasing such as they “defend” their funding and “acknowledge [they] went wrong”. These titles do not bother to highlight the Muslim youths deceived by these websites. The Home Office, in the titles of popular websites, are given a voice instead of the real victims.
Currently “SuperSisters” and “This is Woke” still receive government funding as part of the counter-terror program, but they have been inactive. The last article published on “SuperSisters” was at the beginning of 2020 and “This is Woke” has not posted since July 2019.
These two websites were caught, but how many more youth blogs receive government funding?
Final Thoughts: Stay on Guard
Be wary of websites that entice its audience with false promises and that appears to provide an online religious community.
Mehar’s advice to youth Muslims is to “find security” in Allah (SWT) and yourself and “ to know the difference between genuine sisterhood and a toxic environment [. . .] Do not feel the pressure to find sisterhood in spaces that violently tear other Muslims down”.
Ahlam’s advice is to “be careful who you look up to. These people might make you feel seen, but you don’t know what happens behind the scenes. Don’t be afraid to hold people [. . .] accountable.”
The media thinks they can mould and shape Islam to their heart’s content. They will try hard to push that Islam needs modernization, that Muslims are flawed, but that is a lie. Do not go to the media to validate your beliefs.
If youth Muslims are looking for guidance, they should find it in scholarship and through people who are educated in the topics they discuss. ‘Modern’ Islamic websites lack merit for religious validation.
Influencers like Amani will always exist, they will take advantage and use misrepresentation to their benefit by using it to push themselves forward while pulling the community down. Trust yourself and know that these misrepresentations are just that, misrepresentations.
If you would like to share your own story with me send me an email at email@example.com or a direct message on Instagram susukam_. In a time where people will try to silence you know that you deserve to be heard.