Photo of Joshua van Alstine courtesy of Joshua van Alstine
In 2012, a guy from Texas launched his YouTube channel, Americanbadu, and soon became one of the biggest TV stars in the Middle East. Meet Joshua Van Alstine, also known as Abu Muteb. If you’ve been to Qatar, you’ve probably seen him on TV. So how did a seemingly all-American from Dallas (who didn’t speak any Arabic at first) end up as a face of Middle Eastern entertainment and get to rub elbows (so to speak) with royalty?
Van Alstine, who grew up Muslim (his Turkish mother is Muslim), moved between the U.S. and Turkey, but after 9/11 while living in America again, he felt what many Muslims did for the first time: completely unwelcome. White Americans didn’t accept Van Alstine and Muslim communities didn’t consider him one of their own. He had no one and nowhere to turn, except for the Internet, where he started creating videos about Islam, and another on Saudi life.
We spoke with Van Alstine via email about his beginnings, traveling to Saudi Arabia for a royal visit, and of course, Donald Trump.
When did you launch your YouTube channel? Were you in Texas?
I launched my YouTube Channel sometime in October of 2012. I was going to school in Texas and my father had gotten a job in Denver so I was visiting them there during winter break.
What was the response at first?
The first response was amazing I got higher than 90 percent likes, so I know people liked what I had to say. I couldn't read the comments since I had yet to learn Arabic and Google isn't very good at translating colloquial Saudi Arabic into English. I would later learn from my best friend Abdallah Al Amri how to read and write Arabic.
You were invited to Saudi Arabia for a royal visit because of your channel. What was that like?
I indeed was invited by the royal family because of my channel. It was amazing and the opportunity was so grand. It opened my eyes to a whole other world. I got to see with my own eyes what most in the west only dream of. I got to get up close and personal with dignitaries I would read about but would have never dreamed of shaking their hands and asking them some of the questions I had! Being invited by the royal family was one of the biggest honours of my life, and I can most liken it to a badge I wear proudly on my chest that I was once a guest of theirs!
You did a video that got a lot of pickup telling people they needed to rethink what they knew about the country. What prompted you to do that? Have you been frustrated with the way people outside of Saudi Arabia view what’s happening inside the kingdom?
As I was going to university, I came across a lot of professors and academics and peers who were closeted anti-Muslim bigots and the only way it seemed they could voice this bigotry was to make a criticism of Saudi Arabia or Saudi social life.
I was always debating my peers and professors and telling them that they are using Saudi Arabia a scapegoat so that they don't expose their ignorance of Islam and Muslim society in general.
I mean, here we have some very good well-known academics trying so hard to make commentary on Muslim society, yet the only thing they could muster was a few cheap shots about Saudi Arabian society!
I would later put it upon myself to be the unofficial and unaffiliated spokesman of the state, and fought very hard to fight first for the reputation of our religion, and then for the state that represented it the most.
I'm not saying Saudi Arabia is perfect, but her reputation is so closely associated with our religion (which in my humble opinion is perfect) that I find it my duty to spark dialogue between people and to make sure the debate is based on facts and not emotions or a debate about social norms.
Photo courtesy Joshua van Alstine
I think a lot of people can relate to feeling like an outsider, which you, as a white Muslim in Texas, have no doubt felt. What advice do you have for anyone right now who feels like they don’t belong?
Texas is a state that you will forever feel loyal to and love for the rest of your life even if all of its citizens hate you. This is what I always found beautiful about Texas! I liken her a lot to a pleasant tooth ache that hurts when you bite down on it but you keep biting it anyway!
My European ancestors have been in North America for much longer that the United States has been here, our ancestors were settlers of New Amsterdam before they called it New York!
The only difference between me and [most of] my countrymen was my religion and I found it astonishing how quickly they were willing to excommunicate my entire "Americanness" simply for being Muslim.
Our Founding Fathers would have found this reaction despicable. Our America is a collective nation of people who could never entirely fit in anywhere else.
My advice to people who feel like they don't belong is to make your voice and opinion heard! You'll be amazed at the community you can find through social media!
Perhaps you are shy? Try blogging! Try to communicate your ideals and differences with people. You might change a few minds, or someone can change yours but the risk is worth it. Don't ever forget that no one in America fits! Just ask the Kardashians, Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer and Oprah about fitting in, you will all get that one emoji “”.
If you always feel like you fit in, you aren’t doing or saying anything meaningful.
Since your videos have aired and gotten such traction, has the response at home been better for you?
The response at home has been kind of cool.
A lot of people can relate to me because I look like the all-American boy, blond and white with red cheeks; people never look at me as foreigner, until of course I open my mouth.
The response, whether positive or negative, has given me a platform to be a part of the conversation, and that’s all I have really wanted. I just want people to stop making rash comments and decisions about a religion of 1.6 billion based on a few idiots they heard on the media. And I think I'm slowly accomplishing it.
What has been the most exciting part of your journey so far? What have you experienced that absolutely amazed you?
The most exciting moments are meeting the dignitaries. Imagine sitting in your dorm room in Denton, Texas, and reading articles about the region and seeing all their faces, then hopping onto a plane and seeing them in real life. Here are all these big names with so much weight attached to their names and they welcome you so warmly.
I kissed the forehead of the current King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, which is a sign of respect since I'm a Muslim of much younger age and status.
I've met the heads of each royal family in the United Arab Emirates, except the smallest Emirate Um Al Qwen.
I met Nasr bin Hamed and Khalid bin Hamed Al Khalifa, the sons of King of Bahrain.
I even made great friends with Khalifa bin Hamed, the son of the former ruler and brother of the current head of Qatar.
Meeting them gives me great memories and for that I will always be grateful. When I feel down I high five myself and say at least I got to meet these great embodiments of national pride and allies of America!
You work now with Qatar TV. Are you based there now or in Texas?
I work with Qatar TV mostly with expats about their lives here in Qatar. I'm now based in Qatar and I must say it is the best country to live in as an expat. The people are extremely welcoming and the opportunities to fulfill your dreams are endless.
Was it an adjustment for you to uproot to the Middle East or did it feel more at home for you?
I do feel entirely at home here. I never feel like I don't belong here. I have adopted the national dress and talk and eat like my hosts. They never consider me as being non-Saudi or non-Qatari or non-Emirati and so on. The people treat me as one of their own and I try to return the warm, sincere feeling that they too are a part of me. I haven't had to make any huge changes really, their lifestyle is based on Islamic principles, something I was basing my lifestyle on even in America.
Obviously you’re seeing what’s happening in the U.S. with Donald Trump and everything he’s saying. What are your thoughts?
I feel bad for Trump's supporters. Donald Trump doesn't really believe in anything he is saying, he is just trying to rally support. Donald Trump is just way too intelligent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a closet Democrat and running just to show how disgruntled and insecure some Americans are feeling about their identity. I don't think he will win, but I do think he is forever changing America and making radical views very mainstream, which is unfortunate for us Americans.
What’s next for you? Any idea or plans that you may want to do?
I'm working now on a podcast! Podcasting is exploding now and people are finding a great past time in it. I'm planning on doing a podcast on life here in the GCC and Arabic culture!
I'm also working on a Daily Show-style show on Western Media and Muslim society in general. Jon Stewart has always been a great inspiration of mine, and growing up he helped me cope with my differences through humor!
© SalaamGateway.com 2016