We all know what Muslim utopia looks like – it’s the ‘Happy Muslims’ video by Honesty Policy, the enigmatic British Muslim collective, available on YouTube. And it lasts all of four minutes and 13 seconds.
Now, thankfully due to finger-on-the-pulse BBC commissioning, we have a reality TV experiment in British Muslim dystopia. Muslims Like Us brought ten Muslims together for ten days, and as my favourite housemate Naila summarised, ‘I feel like we’re in a zoo, day after day – I’m overloaded with the same horseshit.’ To make sure the dichotomy was truly striking, the city of York was chosen as the backdrop – calm, historical and cultured to ensure a proper clash with the volatile, alien Muslims, mainly hailing from KFC wrapper-strewn London. The show turns out to be two hours of largely painful viewing designed to ensure that people at home stay worried about the Muslims (who might move in) next door.
The first housemate we meet is Mehreen (‘like a submarine’), who only a die-hard Islamist could dislike. She is intelligent, opinionated and beautiful and would have looked perfect in the ‘Happy Muslims’ video. Cue resident number two, Abdul Haqq, our caricature villain that every drama must have, who is instantly concerned by Mehreen – her clothes, her make-up and her non-existent hijab. She is not someone that he intends to mix with. In fact, the former boxer and convert doesn’t want to mix with any women regardless of their dress code. So, he goes about educating his fellow housemates about the dangers of free mixing by handing out leaflets. Yes, like you, I thought that at the very least the Abdul Haqqs of this world had moved on from leaflets and onto social media. But he doesn’t stop there. Not content with simply preaching to his already Muslim but deviant household, we learn about his desire to spread the message of al-Islam to the ‘Grade A kufar (infidel)’ residents of York. Lucky them.
As the housemates introduce themselves, I can’t help but fall for all of them. They are like the Muslims I have met and interacted with my whole life (and I know two of them personally). I find myself moved as the housemates gather for their first prayer. Naila, who doesn’t take part, says she has her own ways to pray and believes there is space for everyone to find that. I am even more excited. The space seems to have an openness and warmth. I can immediately see that the participants have taken part in the programme to help dispel negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims – I can’t help but admire their bravery.
Yet early on during their stay the Nice attacks take place and the British public, probably for the first time, get to see a group of Muslims respond with genuine anger and grief up close. The housemates speculate on what the tragedy will mean for Muslim communities, how it will fuel Islamophobia and exacerbate radicalisation. This all reminds me of the Young Muslim camps I attended as a teenager. I remember my own naivety, believing that by smiling and showing Muslims to be the harmonious ‘best nation’, we would win over the wider British population. Not yet seeing the patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, anti-blackness, and discrimination in favour of able-bodied people within my own community.
Cut back to Abdul Haqq, whom the show essentially revolves around and who is a card- (sorry leaflet-) carrying supporter of Anjem Choudary, the infamous convicted terrorist. He next discovers that he doesn’t just have to protect his virtue from his female housemates, but from Ferhan, too, who comes out to household and nation as gay. The response to this announcement is completely mediated through Abdul Haqq’s reaction – which is, of course, disgust. The rest of the house are either supportive or decide to follow the golden rule according to Nabil, ‘When in doubt, don’t be a dick,’ – a slogan that is probably being made into bumper stickers by Honesty Policy as you read. But the household which had dealt so swiftly and decisively with the question of gender segregation initially posed by Abdul Haqq now largely brushes off concerns about the visibility of queer people in the Muslim community. There are attempts to get the discussion going again – Naila says that ‘the Muslim community drowns in shame’ when it comes to sexuality and conformity to gender norms and roles – but nothing goes further.
Instead, almost every point in every debate seems to be made in opposition to Abdul Haqq’s perspective – staying on the surface, probing no further. The best we get is a discussion on dress code, instigated by Abdul Haqq’s leaflets, that has the household questioning the importance of what a Muslim looks like vis-à-vis what being Muslim means. The consensus is that Muslims judge each other far too harshly. But the discussion stops short again, with the housemates singularly directing themselves at Abdul Haqq and being wholly unsuccessful in what amounts to their ad hoc de-radicalisation programme.
This point about judgement almost results in group consensus about a level of pluralism that could exist within the house and by extension the wider ummah. We may not be able to accept the choices of other Muslims, which may not be choices we would make ourselves, but at the very least we can leave others to practise in a way that allows them to connect (or not connect) with the divine as they best see fit. As the chair of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, I know that some (or indeed many) Muslims may struggle with the idea of women as imams in mixed-gender congregations or attendees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. However, my hope is that if they can’t understand and accept these perspectives, then they can at least suspend their judgements and allow other Muslims to exist and explore these alternatives.
If the goings on in the house have not been enough to scare viewers so far, a faction begins to emerge. Our star residents Naila and Mehreen decide to lead and spread their liberal version of Islam in York via the medium of karaoke. Viewers are forced to witness the group sing ‘Let It Go’, the treacly earworm from Disney’s Frozen, which helps to prove the point that, like everyone else, Muslims are atrocious at karaoke.
Later, to purge themselves of their singing misdeeds the group volunteer at a homeless shelter. Prior to this noble event, Bara, our Syrian resident, already attempted pre-emptive absolution by hugging a member of the far-right English Defence League (EDL). The household jury is out as to whether this was a praiseworthy attempt to disarm a misguided young man or an unwitting endorsement of fascism.
Besides encounters with EDL members, karaoke warblers and visitors to Abdul Haqq’s da’wah (preaching) stall, our diverse Muslims are also subjected to visits by members of the York (read: white English and/or non-Muslim) community who each have a five-day, VIP, all-access pass to the house. And boy are these visitors baffling in their arrogance. One asks Ferhan if he can rename him Ferdinand – so much easier to pronounce, you see, despite the extra syllable.
These York emissaries not only wear bow ties and play the piano – they also want to take the group out into the world to experience British culture. They choose a trip to the York World War II memorial. The Muslims are forced to decide between two obnoxious choices – staying in the house with Abdul Haqq (who is first to declare he will not be going) or traipsing to the memorial. They split down the middle.
The inclusion of the York residents is cringeworthy. Has it not been enough for the housemates to become social experiments for our television screens? Did the producers seriously need to bring in ‘local’ folk to convince us of their humanity?
The group left behind in the house now starts discussing white privilege. Nabil, a black Muslim comedian, challenges Saba, an older white convert, on negating his experiences of racism. Finally, a discussion that doesn’t have Abdul Haqq in the frame! Nabil accepts that he has certain privileges as a man, but says that Saba has her own privileges as a white woman and needs to acknowledge this instead of shutting down discussions on racism. (What would Abdul Haqq – who is also black – have said to this?) Saba struggles to engage with Nabil and instead storms off, voicing her disappointment at Humaira, the hipster hijabi, for not standing up for her. Humaira quips to the camera, ‘I didn’t realise being accused of racism was worse than actually experiencing racism.’ Holding up a mirror to anti-blackness within Muslim communities, it’s one of the better interactions in the house – honest, difficult and with both sides showing their vulnerabilities.
Still, it’s not long before The Abdul Haqq Show returns, this time focusing on his views about Shia Islam. This is where descent into dystopia reaches its nadir, with Abdul Haqq all but condemning Shias to their death in front of Zohra, the household’s lone Shia. Zohra is speechless, leaves the discussion and breaks down. This is followed by a beautifully warm moment in which the housemates comfort her, having witnessed the devastating impact of Abdul Haqq’s words. A light is held up to sectarianism in Muslim communities – but with only its most extreme form being tackled by the housemates.
Having Abdul Haqq in the picture does repeatedly make the point that the rest of the household disagrees with the majority of what he says. But his presence makes it impossible for us to hear perspectives that are truly introspective on difficult topics like gender segregation, homosexuality and sectarianism. These discussions probably happened – how could they not have? – but the editorial choices leave us wondering if these were not considered viewer worthy.
Instead, ten days of footage culminate in ‘onion-gate’. It’s a moment in which we see how the unresolved hostilities about anti-blackness and homophobia come together and explode when Nabil and Ferhan confront each other over an onion. ‘Onion-gate’ illuminates how all the residents carry both privileges and prejudices, and how all have the power to hurt and the vulnerability to be hurt.
Yet all is not lost in the Big Muslim House. During their last supper, Mehreen finally dons a hijab and a blushing Abdul Haqq certifies her dress as ‘much better from an Islamic point of view’. Yeah, even hijabis can be hot. In the residents’ final reflections on their experience, they speak with a disparate yet unified voice. They have been unable to define what a Muslim is – and from my recollection they barely even talked about it. They come across as a group of varied and contrasting personalities who never really shared the deeper aspects of their faith. Still, as Mani concludes, ‘We are not the enemy.’ And Mehreen says, ‘We are just people who want normal things from life, we are people who fall short and we are people who try our best, just like everyone else.’
The clincher comes from Zohra when she concludes, ‘Next time you see a Muslim, maybe say “Hi” and see what happens.’ This makes me think that it’s not inside the Big Muslim House that the dystopia is taking hold. Dystopias are often characterised by dehumanisation, and Muslims Like Us is an attempt to humanise. By doing so, it acknowledges and validates the dehumanisation of Muslims by wider society and the dehumanisation of Others within Muslim communities. That’s an uncomfortable thought to come away with.
Muslims can’t wave a magic wand and reverse this tide, but we do have a role to play in acknowledging the dehumanisation that takes place within our communities. How do we deal with anti-blackness, homophobia, sectarianism and patriarchy? How do we have discussions about the issues raised in the house in an honest and just way? Humaira puts it beautifully but heartbreakingly: ‘We are intellectually dishonest.’ If a utopia requires an emphasis on egalitarian principles of equality, which we at the very least accept to be a Qur’anic ideal, how would we go about nurturing a community that values gender justice, includes people of all races and sexualities, and is open enough to accept Muslims from different sects and with different theologies? As someone who chairs an organisation aiming to do just that, I can tell you the answer isn’t easy. To me, at its most basic, it comes down to judgement. And the housemates settled on the point early on – that Muslims judge each other far too harshly. I agree. So, the first step along the road – as the Muslims (Who Sing Karaoke) Like Us and Disney’s Frozen remind us – is to ‘Let It Go’.