It Takes ‘Elan’ to Make Hot-Button Issues Cool

Curtis Stephen, City Limits Weekly, January 12, 2009

Two weeks after Barack Obama became the first African-American elected to the White House, sparking street celebrations as jubilant in Nairobi as New York, staffers of the magazine “Elan: The Guide To Global Muslim Culture” sprang into action. Even though their year-old glossy publication only comes out once per quarter, they decided to put out a special fifth issue. “Given how this historic election was being honored within the Islamic community, it’s something that we couldn’t ignore,” says editor-in-chief Nida Khan. “We didn’t have a lot of time, but we couldn’t let this moment pass us by.”

The result is a hot-off-the-presses special edition featuring a mix of Muslim voices reacting to Obama’s election, including those of Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X, and Benjamin F. Chavis Muhammad, the former NAACP head who converted to Islam in 1997. “Muslim World Embraces Obama,” announces the cover, the president-elect’s occasional campaign slight of American Muslims apparently fully forgiven.

It’s a confident move for a new lifestyle magazine with a youthful staff of five, housed in a small office in DUMBO, Brooklyn. With the latest issue, Elan is continuing to define and mine the community of young professional Muslims nationwide. Over the issues, its coverage has spanned from hot-button topics like illegal immigration and the possible ban of Facebook in Egypt, to profiles of people including Imam Khalid Latif, a 25-year-old NYPD chaplain and director of NYU’s Islamic Center, to a look at the planned Guggenheim Museum branch in Abu Dhabi.

The hip and boldly designed magazine is the brainchild of publisher Moniza Khokhar. Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Chicago and New Jersey, Khokhar graduated from Drew University in New Jersey in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. Soon after, as Khokhar weighed job offers in Washington, D.C., a chance encounter with a freelance journalist named Candy J. Cooper would inspire her decision to launch the magazine.

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Khokhar, who says that her family’s business background in the medical industry helped her as she drew up a plan for the venture in 2007, focused her initial efforts on securing financing. “I was fortunate to find a private Muslim-American investor who understood the importance of this,” says Khokhar–though the benefactor and the sum provided go unspecified. “I really had to make a pitch and beat my head against the wall. But to have a publication financed from the very beginning helped to get it up and running.” Khokhar used the funds to launch her own enterprise, Wahid Media Ventures, to publish Elan’s first issue last February. “In Islam, God has 99 names. Al-Wahid is a name that means ‘The One’ which speaks to the concept of coming together,” she says.

At a time when print publications are folding left and right, having an “angel” investor is certainly a rare piece of luck. {snip} Though official numbers aren’t yet available, Khokhar claims a circulation of 10,000 in the U.S., with 5,000 in London and Dubai.

Available at big bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders in the five boroughs and other cities nationwide, Elan blends its reporting of contemporary Islamic culture with a wide-ranging assortment of socio-political issues, including subjects steeped in controversy. Last May, Dunkin’ Donuts removed an advertisement from its Web site after conservative bloggers complained that a black-and-wife scarf worn by celebrity chef Rachael Ray resembled a kaffiyeh, the traditional Middle Eastern scarf that has long symbolized Palestinian nationalism and is now a fashionable item both inside and outside the Muslim community.

In response, the Fall 2008 issue of Elan highlighted the work of Chicago-based activist Nadia Sulayman, whose blog features photos of more than one hundred kaffiyeh-clad Muslims nationwide holding Dunkin’ Donuts cups. That issue’s cover also featured a digitally-enhanced image of the Lincoln Memorial adorned in a brightly-colored kaffiyeh.

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While there are no firm independent statistics on the number of Muslims nationwide–the U.S. Census Bureau is legally prohibited from collecting data on religious affiliation–Elan joins an emerging crop of glossy magazines catering to the Muslim-American population, including Muslim Girl, America’s Muslim Family, and Islamica. There’s also an array of youth-oriented blogs popping up, including one dubbed The Official Muslim Blog run by the Brooklyn-reared Saad Ahmad Rashad, whose commentary tackles everything from the ongoing crisis in Gaza to the health risks associated with tattoos.

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On the eve of the inauguration, Khan is preparing to travel to Washington, D.C. to file a report for Elan’s website while also planning the next issue, which will explore Islam and hip-hop. To her, the recent election underscored the relevance of the magazine and the Muslim community as a whole. “The only time we heard Muslims mentioned was when someone on the right was trying to brand Obama as un-American or when someone on the left denied Islam to the point where being Muslim was supposed to be a bad thing.” she says. “But I have a lot of non-Arab friends who are also Muslim. Whenever I show them Elan, the first thing they say is ‘it’s about time.'”

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