The BBC’s ‘Muslims Like Us’ programme was a neo-Orientalist circus show

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This week social media has been taken by storm with yet another story about Muslims, but this time it wasn’t overtly linked to the usual counter-terrorism paradigm.

Instead, the BBC’s two-part Muslims Like Us programme, which aired on Tuesday and Wednesday night, has sparked a lot of debate about Muslim integration into British society and intra-Muslim unity.

I was initially scouted to feature on the programme that promised to be a Big Brother-style reality show, but I declined because I had a gut-instinct – one which proved to be true – that the show would essentially be a circus consisting of the “uncivilised” Muslim “others”, for the entertainment of the “civilised” British masses.

While I appreciate that a single monolithic “Muslim community” does not exist, and British Muslims are a relatively broad church to some degree, I was worried that the programme would also tacitly reinforce the divisive “war on terror” labels such as “liberal”, “radical”, “moderate”, “conservative”, “Islamist” and so on.

Would such a programme be made about any other minority group? Can you imagine Jews Like Us, Hindus Like Us, Sikhs Like Us, Blacks Like Us, Asians Like Us or Gays Like Us? I think not.

But I guess it made sense to the BBC – like it does with the entire mainstream media – that Muslims make good headlines and ratings.

Abdul Haq, the bogeyman

The 10 participants who resided in a house in York for 10 days were indeed a colourful bunch – such a “broad mosque” that one would inevitably question whether it was accurately representative of the Muslim demographic in the UK.

My immediate thought after watching Muslims Like Us was that the BBC ultimately tarnished normative Islamic beliefs through Abdul Haq, one of the 10 people living in the house, who was the most isolated and “conservative” in his religious views.

Throughout the programme, Haq spoke strongly against the free mixing of sexes, music, smoking, Muslim women dressing immodestly, and going to pubs to socialise. He also raised the importance of giving dawah – propagating Islam to non-Muslims.

All the aforementioned beliefs and practices have existing mainstream Islamic positions deep rooted in classical and contemporary scholarship backed by Islamic texts.

However, they were depicted as “fringe” because of Abdul Haq’s harsh personality, controversial background and skewed interpretation of some of these concepts.

Inevitably, in a Britain which is already very distrustful and suspicious towards their Muslim citizens, the millions of non-Muslims who watched Muslims Like Us will now identify the above Islamic beliefs – directly or subconsciously – with Haq, a sympathiser for the so-called Islamic State who attempted to leave for Syria.

Welcome to the circus

The circus started when four non-Muslims were invited to the house to spend time with the participants to “see” what Muslims are “really like”.

Two participants who appeared on the show told me what I already suspected – that the producer set up conflicts for the non-Muslim guests to witness. If these entrapment allegations weren’t bad enough, the Muslim participants were then invited by their non-Muslim guests to visit a war memorial and a cathedral to essentially test their “Britishness”.

The second episode was certainly more entertaining, with heated exchanges between Nabil, a Nigerian stand-up comedian, and Saba, an elderly white convert from Nottingham, about racism, and between Nabil and Ferhan, a gay Scotsman, over onions. Haq and Zohra, another Muslim living in the house, had an impassioned discussion about the Shia sect in Islam.

But during all this dramatic display of intra-Muslim “diversity”, it was clear for anyone with a remotely analytical mind and grasp of the current Islamophobic environment that a great play was being acted out.

Questions about “Britishness”, “British values” and integration had all been discussed, with each participant sharing their thoughts and it appeared – like the majority of the non-Muslim Brits that I interviewed on the same subject in London’s Covent Garden one recent afternoon – that the Muslim participants simply could not define or agree what these terms actually meant.

However, as a general principle to most things in life, we must always question and understand context; and the context behind a show like Muslims Like Us is that Muslims in the UK have been experiencing a relentless campaign by the government and their reformist advisers to redefine fundamental aspects of their faith since the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks.

Their “loyalty” to Britain is questioned like no other minority group in the country, Islamophobic attacks have doubled in major towns and cities, and the community’s resistance to assimilate to an arbitrary set of “British values” that is used to classify who is and isn’t an “extremist” under the controversial Prevent strategy, makes Muslims the most targeted minority group in the UK.

So when a Big Brother-type show presents legitimate foreign policy grievances as strange, racial and religious discrimination as a paranoid conspiracy, and normative Islamic beliefs as extreme, it only plays into the divisive stereotypes that have been created by the mainstream media and the political establishment.

A neo-Orientalist social experiment 

The neo-orientalist premise of the entire show was truly shocking – in that the Muslim participants were acting as guinea pigs whose “Britishness” was being tested on national TV.

British Muslims don’t need a show like this to “humanise” them. They don’t need to be accepted as “normal” by going to a karaoke night at the local pub on a Saturday night.

They don’t need to visit war memorials or admire church architecture to not be treated as a disloyal “subject”.

In the end, how can it not be derogatory to place cameras in a house and observe the “normality” of the most discriminated minority in society?

Admittedly, I would be lying if I said that the 10 participants were entirely unrepresentative of the Muslim population in the UK. Actually, I would go as far as to say that at least six of the participants represented the huge identity crisis many Muslim youth experience growing up in a secular liberal society.

And by crisis, I mean a clear case of confusion about what defines an individual’s identity – are they solely “British”, “British Muslim”, “Muslim born in Britain” , “Muslim first”, “English”, “liberal”, “moderate” and so on? Six of the participants in the show were clearly unsure of how to define their own identity, which is quite prevalent amongst Muslim youth in the UK.

Undoubtedly, you will find every single characteristic and personality espoused by the participants in Muslims Like Us across Muslim communities in Britain, but that doesn’t detract from the problematic premise of the show itself.

The “Muslim leaders” who were consulted before the production of this programme should have known better than to pander to the BBC’s lust for such a ‘social experiment’, knowing full well the perceptive ramifications it would have.

Most troubling of all, Muslims Like Us presented Islam and British Muslims to be so diverse that there is no such thing as “normative Islam” or a set of fundamental beliefs that bind Muslims together. That leaves an unrestricted framework for Islam to be redefined to fulfil a muscular assimilation agenda within a counter-violent extremism paradigm.

However, the reality of what the vast majority of British Muslims actually believe, and how they understand their faith – whether they practise it or not – is far from the distorted tabloid editing of Muslims Like Us. There is a rich tradition within Islam that has always allowed scholars to deal with new realities based on Islamic source texts through the process of what is called ijtihad.

To dismiss or misrepresent this scriptural and scholastic roots of a Muslim’s beliefs is to dismiss and misrepresent the vast majority of Muslims who are neither ardent secular liberals, nor hard-core “jihadists”, but are culturally conservative in outlook and religiously orthodox in beliefs.

Maybe this was one of the reasons why the BBC failed to get participants from a traditional background. They, too, would have held orthodox “illiberal” views, but declined to feature on the programme because of the lack of trust with the mainstream media and the questionable premises underpinning shows like Muslims Like Us.