Miqdaad Versi: Insightful moments illuminated the real tensions within Muslim communities“Muslims are quite a varied bunch”: not a bad message from the “Muslim Big Brother”, which aired on BBC2 this week.
If you wanted a show that represented all Muslims equally and fairly, proportionate to their population, you might be disappointed. But if you wear the hat of a reality TV show viewer – where you expect cringe, controversy and a tad of sensationalism, with editing for maximum viewing pleasure rather than a completely representative depiction – there were some insightful moments that illuminated the real tensions within Muslim communities.
How should we best deal with the far-right English Defence League? Should it be through compassion and humanity, like Bara, as he hugged the EDL member on the street; or through the honesty and integrity of Nabil who believed we have to stand up to racism wherever we see it? Both have their place. The former can be successful in individual cases, such as when a York mosque defused an EDL protest with tea, biscuits and football; and the latter reminds me of the necessity of not allowing hate to be normalised by showing strength, such as during the anti-apartheid struggle.
How should we respond to extremists like Abdul Haqq, who was unwilling to express an opinion on whether it was theoretically wrong for someone to shoot Zohra, his fellow housemate? In his view, her family and friends are “five-star grade-A kuffar [disbelievers] going to hellfire” because of their Shia background. Zohra provided an important example to all of us, not only showing the pain of sectarianism but pointing out the hypocrisy of claiming persecution while persecuting others.
For me, however, one of the stars of the show was Londoner Mehreen. From the compassion she showed even to those who judged her, to the brave and powerful riposte she gave directly to the immigrant-blaming visitors of the soup kitchen saying “if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be eating today” – she epitomised many of the values we yearn for in our society.
There were, of course, editorial decisions I disagreed with, such as the significant focus on the Anjem Choudary-supporting Abdul Haqq, the splicing of the footage of the France attacks with the prayer, and the lack of authentic representations of social conservatism. I’m not really sure that other communities would have been put under the microscope in the same way.
But when the far-right former leader of the EDL Tommy Robinson is irritated by the diversity of authentic Muslim voices, as his Twitter feed suggests, there must be something going right. I can only hope that the audience will listen to Zohra: “Next time you see a Muslim, maybe say ‘Hi’ and see what happens.”
Remona Aly: Singling out Muslims increases the notion of othernessI didn’t exactly grab the popcorn in anticipation of a ringside view of Muslims Like Us. But the two-part social experiment-led documentary series from the makers of The Great British Bake Off certainly delivered what every reality TV show strives for – fiery debate.
Each episode pointed out what is glaringly obvious to many but clearly not to all: that Muslims, like every other group of people, are not monolithic blobs, but individuals with varied experiences, beliefs and lifestyles. Thrown into the mix were 10 black, Asian, Arab, white, Sunni, Shia, convert and gay Muslims. Hats off to the participants for braving an experiment that the majority of us wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
It was a challenging watch, filled with discomfort, emotion, raw honesty, conflict, doubt, humour and vulnerability. But discussion was dominated by antihero Abdul Haqq, a former boxer with radical views. Alarming as it was to see his narrow opinions being given a platform which could easily rile far-right hostility, he was robustly challenged by all the other housemates. His weird throwaway comment of “as a Muslim I don’t believe in human rights” was my main What The Actual Fatwa moment.
The programmes revealed not only internal challenges of difference in interpretation, hypocrisy, misogyny, race and cultural prejudice, but also highlighted the external threats of bigotry and fierce anti-Muslim sentiment.
If we thought the first episode lifted the lid on tensions, the second one blew it off entirely. While a handful of non-Muslims jollied along to view the Muslims in captivity, some scenes showed the housemates descending into blazing arguments. A particularly cringe-worthy scene involved a clash between Ferhan and Nabil which began about not touching his onions – cue close-up of contentious onions. But Abdul Haqq’s blush at seeing Mehreen’s turban-style hijab was almost worth the pain. Finally, the gruelling nine-day experience came to a conclusion over a reconcilliatory barbecue, at which the participants concluded that no one could define what a Muslim is, given that it is such a nuanced experience.
Sure, I’d have preferred a documentary that reflected British society through a mixture of people, not just Muslims, since singling us out increases the notion of otherness. But Muslims are the hot topic of the day and that, as they say, is showbusiness.
Alia Bano: Abdul Haqq’s draconian brand of Islam came across as particularly masculineMuslims Like Us didn’t quite feel like dynamite viewing – more like a roll call of the 10 usual stereotypes, well, 11 including the Yorkshireman in panama hat and linen coat who looked like he’d been trapped permanently in the 1920s. Next to Abdul Haqq he seemed exquisitely modern.
Episode one centred around Abdul Haqq, who brought conflict and antagonism to the house. This was watchable, only because his views were so abhorrent. You could almost hear Tommy Robinson screech “Why don’t the Muslims speak out?” and 90% of the Muslim household did and continued to do so throughout. This would have been seen as a Christmas miracle in most Muslims homes, as the community feels such views are not given enough media coverage because it’s not considered sexy viewing.
The draconian brand of Islam Abdul Haqq was preaching came across as a particularly masculine issue. None of the women in the house shared his opinions, all generally having liberal sentiments, further adding to the illusion that only Muslim men propagate such beliefs. The programme failed to highlight that some women are just as complicit at supporting and enforcing these views.
Episode two felt like an exploration of 1,400 years of conflict in 90 minutes. You could almost see the producer ticking off each controversy from a list: racism, white privilege, imperialism, sexism, sectarianism and … onionism? It felt scripted, superficial and forced; just like most reality TV then.
While the documentaries were well-intentioned and hinted at the myriad voices that exist within the Muslim community, it could never represent everyone. Ultimately, it left me feeling despondent that, in the 21st century, we have to have a programme to remind us that 1.6 billion Muslims are not a monolith of ideology and opinion.