“There’s no platform available for people to bounce constructive ideas off of each other and showcase their creative and academic works, which portray the beauty of the MENA region and the successful integration of Muslim communities in the West. I wanted to create that safe space.”
Why did you decide to set up the Middle East Collective?
I’ve been really passionate about the MENA region for a very long time. The first time I experienced the Middle East was in 2009. I was studying at the University of Tennessee to obtain my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so I was very interested in Islam and Muslim cultures.
In the Southeastern United States, where I’m from, there’s a lot of prejudice and confusion regarding Islam and the Middle East. Traveling back to Tennessee from Cairo, I enjoyed speaking to people about the Middle East and opening their minds about it. As a result, they could begin to fathom my experiences and relate better to the Muslim communities in our state.
I’m hoping that the Middle East Collective will be something people in the West can relate to, even if they’ve never been to the region before. I want Westerners to grow more curious about the majesty of the region, because there are so many wonderful aspects of the culture that would integrate beautifully with life in the U.S. and Europe.
I’m getting a lot of good feedback about it, and I believe it’s important to have a platform where Muslims, Christians and people who are not religiously affiliated can come and express their views through honest, informative, and raw submissions.
How are you going to moderate the site? People have quite strong views on the topic.
We have a submissions page that will feature work submitted by young professionals, scholars, and activists. I will approve the proposals before they are written for the MEC and we also have a Facebook community where people can express their views about the MENA region and Muslim Communities in the West.
Numerous friends and mentors have said: ‘Oh, Whitney, you had really bad experiences in Egypt. Are you going to talk about those things, the harassment, corruption…?‘ That’s also something I also want to cover through the submissions and the Facebook community, where people can join in and have progressive discussions and debates, which will support the MEC mission.
What will be on the site when it launches?
I decided to launch the site once I had several submission pieces: graphic design, art, spoken word… Submission topics are being proposed by people in the West (Europe and the United States), as well as people in the Middle East.
Many followers [and those interested in submitting their work for consideration] have told me there’s no other platform like this, and they’re not as intimidated or restrictive with their work, unlike when they’re writing for Huffington Post or Foreign Policy. This has been encouraging and makes me more passionate about bringing the two worlds I love together.
Why did you decide to launch your own thing, rather than using an existing platform?
It started as a small idea, after speaking with mentors and my friends in Cairo and in Washington. We have Facebook groups and academic programs, but there’s no platform available for people to bounce constructive ideas off of each other and showcase their work, which portrays the beauty of the MENA region and the successful integration of Muslim communities in the West.
I wanted to create that safe space. I think it’s incredibly necessary right now, especially with all of the conflict in the Middle East, and politicians like Donald Trump saying really horrendous things.
How do you reach beyond the people who already want a better understanding between the West and the East?
Our main target group is comprised of scholars, activists, and young professionals. I want Middle East Collective to be a place where like-minded individuals can learn from one another and share their ideas.
People who are Islamophobic, or those who ‘hate’ the Middle East, are not the main MEC target group. It’s going to be very difficult to make my voice heard in those small towns in Tennessee for example, but I’m hoping the MEC will cause a ripple effect.
I have conservative Republican followers on my social media channels and they may not agree with me entirely, but sometimes they will relate to part of an article I post. This is how the ripple effect begins and minds start opening, it’s a beautiful process I love to witness.
How do you run the site?
I’ve been receiving a lot of submissions, which is the heart of the initiative. Journalists, students, doctors, business owners, and others have been sending in their work and they’re also interested in passing the information along to their colleagues.
The most complex part has been trying to decide on the initial topics to focus on, because the Middle East is such a vast, complex region. That’s where our mission came in: promoting tolerance of Islam, understanding the MENA, embracing the Muslim communities in the West, and bolstering the quivering bridge between the two regions.
Do you see the Middle East Collective as start-up or a charity?
That’s a question I was having issues with during the first months.
I felt incredibly guilty, considering that I could make a profit from establishing something that would help to unite communities.
However, since 2006 this has been my biggest passion: focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, while being a bridge or a voice that connects my Western home with my Eastern one. Continuing to do this would be my dream job; therefore the MEC is something I would absolutely love to do full-time.
I spoke with life coach Layla Saad about it. She was very supportive and told me, “Especially as a woman, you should not be afraid to ask for a salary or give yourself a salary if you’re dedicated to a cause.”
If you’re working 40 to 70 hours a week on something you believe in, especially if it’s making a positive impact on society, then you need an income to live off of. This isn’t something we should be ashamed of, and I want other people, and other women to realize that too.
I don’t want to call the MEC a start-up, rather an initiative which is comprised of both business and charity elements. We’re going to offer products, such as t-shirts and tote bags, which will feature wonderful graphic design and soulful art from some of our contributors.
A large portion of the proceeds will go to charities throughout the Middle East and the West. Those charities might be focusing on supporting asylum seekers in the United States or on educating women in Pakistan, for example.
Why don’t you want to call it a start-up?
Currently in Berlin, the ‘Silicone Valley of Europe’, there’s a negative connotation saying something is a start-up because everything is considered a start-up, and many start-ups don’t have a positive social-impact focus. Most of the start-ups are tech oriented or strictly for personal gains, but the MEC is a social initiative.
Many activists and experts are turned off by the word ‘start-up’, because of the business-focused connotation. To many, start-ups don’t sound like they focus on assisting charities or collecting donations, which is what the MEC wants to do as well.
What was the reaction like when you decided to launch Middle East Collective?
I had been brainstorming about the Middle East Collective for months. I was thinking, “I have to make something, despite all the anti-Muslim and anti-MENA sentiments so many are spouting. A place where all of these people who are so passionate can contribute, to feature their voices and get themselves heard.”
Many friends said, “Yes, you can do this, but good luck because it’s a foreign policy and religion focused thing, and this is just not in existence right now.”
There’s also been some backlash from acquaintances in the South, but I think if you’re so afraid of negativity and you let the fear of the unknown stop you or the outcry of the opposed consume you, at the end of the day you will have no success because you haven’t really tried.
Let’s go back to the time you spent in Cairo…
I was in Cairo for the first time in 2009. This was part of a research trip for my undergraduate studies, and I found out that the American University in Cairo had a reputable public policy program. I was excited about the prospects of living and studying in the Middle East, instead of living in the United States and studying about it.
I received my acceptance letter in January 2011, and then the revolution happened. All of my family and colleagues said, “Whitney, you can’t go!” But I never hesitated. I absolutely had to go. I enrolled in a new program designed by an Egyptian diplomat, Nabil Fahmy, which focused on global affairs and international cooperation.
I spent a lot of time interviewing and working with United Nations Women and International Labor Organization for my thesis. I was focusing on the international agency implementation of women’s empowerment programs under the regimes of Morsi and Mubarak, so during secular and Islamist governments. That’s one reason why I became even more passionate about women in foreign policy and international development.
Is there going to be a gender component to Middle East Collective?
Yes, definitely. Especially because in the United States it’s still an issue: women don’t get paid as much as men, we don’t have the same benefits as a lot of men do.
I think many women in the U.S. might be able to relate to similar circumstances that women in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing.
I often spoke about these issues in the U.S. and I realized that the narratives between regions were often quite similar. American women began to relate to the experiences I was describing in the MENA, and then they’d ask more questions about women’s lives in Egypt or Jordan.
The women’s factor is a huge one and that’s been a consistent topic people have covered in their submissions as well. Contributors have written about violence against women, converting to Islam as a woman, or genital mutilation; and all without me asking for these types of submissions, they’ve been abundant.
If someone wanted to contribute, do you have tips as to what you are looking for?
I will consider submissions for the Middle East Collective which promote tolerance of Islam or understanding of the Middle East and North Africa, via short videos, articles, personal narratives, documentaries, or graphic design, for example.
One of the women who contacted me did several documentaries in Iraq and that was a real honor for me, because I never would have anticipated someone wanting to share their most cherished work in such a way.
This is why I don’t want to be too restrictive, because I think it’s really important for people to be able to express themselves with raw and honest submissions.
I am requesting scholarly articles and intensive research to be submitted to the Middle East Collective as well, but I also want people to submit their raw art or their insightful personal narratives, which are really moving and maybe describe an emotional experience they had while in the MENA as an American or European, or as a Muslim refugee who is starting a new life with their family in the US.
This exclusive Skype career with Whitney Buchanan, founder of the Middle East Collective, was conducted by Lucie Goulet, founder of Women in Foreign Policy, in May 2016.
The Middle East Collective would like to sincerely thank Women in Foreign Policy and Ms. Goulet for allowing us to republish this exclusive interview and supporting images.