If you’re anything like me you might have switched off the telly after watching the BBC’s latest Islamophilic-offering ‘Muslims Like Us’, in the midst of some serious epistemological doubts. Don’t panic you’re not a kaafir! On second thoughts, you might be, according to the show’s token religious nutcase ‘Abdul Haq’.
Presented as a kind of mini Big Brother for Muslims, ‘Muslims Like Us’ was quite an unusual programme for BBC and major terrestrial TV programming in the UK; it was a mini-series that facilitated a somewhat deeper than average exploration of Muslim lifestyles and beliefs without the intrusion and judgmental air of any presenter or interviewer. That’s if we ignore the editing.
The programme filmed ten Muslims cooped up for ten days in a house in York where a series of activities were laid on alongside general cooking, housekeeping and leisure time to facilitate the rapid and sometimes fraught unravelling of the fragile, fragmented and neurotic British Muslim psychology.
The producers did a fantastic job of finding the most diverse bunch of Muslims imaginable; a Muslim of every type or stereotype you could say! There was poor ridiculed Abdul Haq, the quickly-labelled religious extremist, infamous for his stint in Belmarsh Prison and so keen to ‘do dawah’ that he began handing out leaflets to the second person to arrive in the house. Then there was Fehran, the weepy emotional gay Muslim who was rediscovering (according to his opinions) that it’s possible to be gay and Muslim, although after watching the show you’d be left completely incapable of answering such a conundrum since you’re left questioning everything you’ve ever thought having imbibed and mulled over the confused ramblings of the inmates who honestly couldn’t agree on a damned thing.
Then there were quite a few women of varying liberalities and il-liberalities. Of the more liberal persuasion, we had pouting Barbie-esque Mehreen, who despite leaving little to the imagination and making her beauty very conspicuously known to everyone around her, displayed a big heart and conservative ritualised ideals, to the modern Zohra and Naila who displayed little outward religiosity except a commitment to integration and good manners.
On the other end of the religiosity-meter were those that were probably more what we might call ‘observan’ or ‘practising’ Muslims in that they looked and sounded more the Muslim with their hijabs and Muslim-orientated politics. On this end of the Islamic spectrum we could place Saba, the wise old middle-class white convert, at times, prone to a bit of old-fashioned elitism; Humaira, the gobby hijabi fashionista with a nose piercing; Nabil, the jovial Black comedian and saviour of the homeless and finally Mani, the somewhat average British Asian male engaged to a “wife from back home”. And last but not least there was Barra, probably the most sensible of the bunch which is ironic considering current anti-migrant sentiments in the UK. The Syrian student melted my heart when he cleverly disarmed an EDL member with a hug.
It didn’t take long for such a kaleidoscope of Muslim personalities to clash. In fact, true to form, the much derided Abdul Haq set everyone’s’ pulses racing before the housemates had even had a chance to sit down and brew their first cuppa. Mr Haq got most of the women’s backs up within the first ten minutes of the show by probably somewhat naively deciding that it would be a good idea to distribute leaflets condemning free mixing of the sexes whilst himself sitting apart from the rest of the group at a separate table. The spiteful and contemptuous series of exchanges that followed was sadly a good predictor of the wild arguments to follow in the days to come and an accurate gauge of the collective Muslim temperament. The row began what would be a ten-day long battle for the ideological heart of Islam, with Abdul Haq, the extremist pariah, frequently the one whose narrow-minded so-called fundamentalist views providing the explosive trigger to spark off other residents.
Quickly we saw a loose formation of two camps: the liberals vs. the more conservative, the integrationist vs. the more traditional, and the hijab-less vs. the ‘hijabified’. The natural rhythm of daily chores sprinkled with the addition of a few nosey non-Muslim locals ensured that the dialogue rubbed up against some of contemporary British Muslims’ biggest sore points. We had the rather tedious hijab issue, the so-called problem of gay Muslims, the realities or delusions of anti-Black Muslim or non-Muslim racism, the British vs. Muslim identity competition and the two great World Wars!
Credit is due to the producers for facilitating open dialogue around these issues, I certainly feel that we need a lot more real Muslims talking about these toxic issues on mainstream public platforms. Sadly, most of the time it is established gatekeepers that prevent this from happening. However, I can’t help but think this was a missed opportunity because the discussions around these topics were far too brief and in most cases failed to really uncover how these Muslims had arrived at such a wide range of views.
Yes, we heard Mehreen talk about her appearance and decide to wear a more modest outfit at the end of the show, but at no point in the show did any of the women actually say why they did or didn’t cover their hair. Yes, we heard Fehran, the gay Muslim declare that he had come back to Islam because he now believed that you can be gay and Muslim, but we never heard how he formed his opinions.
In general, there was very little theological rationale in the show and the Qur’an and hadith, the two reference points uniting every Muslim on Earth, were frankly, a side note, interjecting as some kind of ludicrous bygone mumbo jumbo, most often associated with Abdul Haq, who excelled at making sincere belief in the truth of the Qur’an and hadith appear like something to be ridiculed!
What the show clearly lacked was a moderate conservative Muslim, the kind of Muslim who would be at home in the mosque and the office, who doesn’t shout about their religion from the rooftops or condone acts of violence, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from peacefully and humbly adhering to what they believe are good examples and ways of living set down by the Prophet Muhammad whose wisdom has quite clearly stood the test of time.
But overall it was the glaring take-home message that ruined the series for me: the concluding impression that Muslims have such vastly differing interpretations of Islam and an inability to agree on barely any aspect of their religion that it is impossible to objectively pinpoint what Islam is and what a Muslim is like or dare I say should be like. This should ring alarm bells for the Muslim community for two reasons. Firstly, how did Islam get so confusing that we can’t make head nor tail of it? Secondly, how have we as Muslims, both within communities and religious institutions, failed to provide common spaces for Muslims of all spiritual mastery to move towards God? Shouldn’t we be worried that there are Muslims, such as the gay Muslims, who exist outside the fold, and yet invite others to their heterodox interpretations of religion?
I hope that the show will act as a wake-up call to our precious religious communities. Let it be a window into the future that we certainly wish to avoid: the future in which Islam as a religion dissolves into a sea of moral relativism, where Islam is whatever a man wills it to be. Be sure that without a concerted effort to unite and respond to the challenges of modernity, Muslims in Britain will increasingly manifest the fragmented, disenfranchised and individualistic ego-centric beliefs and attitudes of the housemates in ‘Muslims Like Us’, in many respects mirroring the individualisation and fragmentation of wider society. For that reason, I declare the programme ‘Muslims Like Us’, not a winning goal for the unheard voices of the real and diverse Muslim community, but yet another point for the enemies of Islam; those who know that without a major change in social aspirations toward Godly objectives, within little more than a single generation, the combined programmes of governmental social engineering and cultural assimilation will likely have successfully buried Islam beneath the fanciful whims and desires of the morally relativistic postmodern human ego.