Review of Religions: Meet the 115 year old publication finding new resonance today

One thing we can say with certainty in today’s media landscape is that the religion of Islam is currently a strong topic of conversation throughout both traditional and social media. But this is often within the context of wider world events, as opposed to a special interest focus on the faith and surrounding cultures themselves. One such publication providing this outlook, is the Review of Religions, which takes an earnest approach to current world events and places Islam front row, centre of the conversation, drawing in wider faiths and religions along the way. Here, in this exclusive interview for FIPP, Amer Safir, the publication’s editor-in-chief talks us through the magazine’s history, it’s update into digital, and where new and future global audiences are likely to come from. 

“One of the things that we’ve tried to do in the last five years is to take this incredible brand – this legacy that we have – from 1902,” said Safir. “Then, people like Leo Tolstoy, considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time, would read the Review of Religions. But nowadays, people didn’t know it as well as they should have. So the last five-six years have been about setting in that digital footprint, bringing in a website, bringing in social media, so YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. We use Facebook advertising now.” 

“On YouTube we have a very active channel. One of our recent videos, which was a social experiement, had two million views. And so what we’ve tried to do is take this amazing legacy, brand, and archive that we have, which has always been incredible, and we’ve just had to install those modern techniques, that digital footprint, into it.”

Asked about the publication’s content, Safir explains that the magazines has a primarily Islamic focus, but supporting content is brought in to give an insight into wider religions.  

“Our content is split into two you could say. One of our main focusses is on Islam. We provide our particular version of Islam, which we believe is the original, unchanged version. And then present views from other religions. So our approach is based on the community I belong to – it’s called the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and we have a worldwide spiritual leader called Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, and so often we publish a number of his speeches, his press interviews, etc.” 

“He’s been completely fearless in terms of dealing with issues like the recent wave of immigration into Europe, one million people, or the issue of the crisis in Syria. We tackle it head on. We talk about whether immigration is right or wrong, we talk about whether Jihad is right or wrong, we talk about issues of women’s rights. So all of these allegations and discussions being seen in the media against Islam, we will tackle it head on, discuss it in detail, and we don’t shy away from those controversial topics.”

Indeed increasingly Review of Religions has been prepared to go a step further, featuring for example, an insight into the current Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio aka Pope Francis’ commentary on Islam. 

“Recently in our magazine we’ve quoted His Holiness, the Head of our Community, praising the Pope, because he has actually defended Islam on one or two occasions. For example, when the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened, of course that is something that should be condemned by everyone. We condemned it, there’s no justification for it, this was a merciless attack and those responsible for it should be punished.” 

“At the same time when the debate happened about free speech later, the Pope said that if somebody was to make fun of my mother, like my assistant here, I would punch them in the face. Meaning that if you make fun of somebody who is a very respectable figure, you’re going to get a reaction. That reaction might be completely wrong, but we have to understand that. So the Pope has come out a few times and said a few things in favour of Islam, or in defence of Islam, which have been very positive.”

Looking more deeply into the nature of the publication itself, we asked Safir if Review of Religions catered primarily to an academic, or a special interest consumer audience.  

“I think that’s a fascinating question and I’ve learned myself being editor that actually we’re aiming at both. I know they say you shouldn’t do both, you should be one thing or the other, but we do have academic articles. And the Review of Religions historically, we do still get contact from Oxford University, from libraries, who want to go into the archives and find very unique stories that were written there, for example when the first Muslims came to America, or when the first Muslims were growing in London, when the first mosque was built. And you had those accounts which were only found in our magazine, and so people do want to come for those academic articles.” 

“At the same time, I was recently on a 22 state tour of Amercia to promote the magazine. And I was in South Side Chicago, in the inner-suburbs, which is considered the most crime ridden places in America. It’s called Chi-Raqu – Chicago in Iraq – and over there I was shocked to see that people were reading the Review of Religions. And people who I was affiliated with there were saying that they needed more copies because people were reading it in barber shops and everything. So what we learnt is that there is a wide scope for addressing issues in a way that can be read by all people. And so we are literally going for both markets: the academic market, although we’re not a journal, but also we want to expand our reach and have shorter articles that can be accessed by a wider readership.”

Finally, we asked Safir to explain the financial set-up of Review of Religions:  

“We personally are all subscription based, we don’t do advertising, because we want to show that we have no ulterior motive, in the sense that we’re just presenting an honest view of our religion. So we only have subscriptions that come in. And our publishers, which is the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, they also help fund us. We’re actually registered as a non-profit organisation. So we do have money that comes in through subscriptions, but our aim is not just to make money. We want to give a message, which we feel is a message that needs to be heard by everybody, and we are growing and growing and people are listening to it more.” 

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