Muslims Like Us: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly 14 December 2016

I really wasn’t looking forward to Muslims Like Us. A “Muslim Big Brother” was the precis, and with the grandiose claims of providing an insight into British Islam, and the subsequent revelation one housemate was associated with Anjem Chaudhry, I was dreading the show. Having watched both episodes, for all its flaws, Muslims Like Us is still the best telly on Islam that I’ve been in quite some time.

So the good…

Lots of things worked in the show. For a start, they did succeed in bringing together a decent variety of Muslims. Are these Muslims “representative”? No, but nor should/could they be. They are however diverse and different in unexpected ways. This made the show work, to see the differing perspectives emerge. Baraa’s engagement with the member of the EDL and Nabil’s subsequent objection is perhaps one of my favourite moments of the show. What’s the answer? Should Muslims seek to present a human and warm face to the EDL or other racists, or should they confront them and challenge them on their bigotry? A great piece of reality TV that tapped into real life challenges.

Likewise, Saba, a lovely and warm lady who I’ve met in the past, and her argument with Nabil and Humeira was perhaps difficult watching, but again, important. Many ethnic minority Muslims have met white converts who bring with them racist assumptions and prejudices, and when two likeable and articulate characters like Saba and Nabil clash over such an issue, the complexity of it all is laid bare to the viewer.

The producers got quite a few things right with the show. For example, they didn’t include any scholars of Islam, whose scholarship would have introduced an unfair element of power into the debates and discussions. It might have been tempting to throw one or two in, but it would have been a mistake. As it stood, most housemates in the show were articulate, religiously literate, and opinionated to about the same level. No shrinking violets and no veteran debaters.

And the bad…

My biggest objection in the show remains the inclusion of Abdul Haqq, a student of Anjem Chaudhry and so in some way loosely affiliated with the now proscribed al-Muhajiroun. There are two problems with his inclusion.

First, extremist Muslims are overrepresented by a huge degree in media. It dominates headlines and discussions and opinion columns. Anjem Chaudhry after all, an upstart with no religious training, is more familiar to the British public than say Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam, or Shaykh Akram Nadwi – just a handful of the more influential and trained scholars in Britain who are considered religious leaders by hundreds of thousands.

So this show could have been a corrective to that. But it wasn’t. To give some perspective, al-Muhajiroun (they go under different names to avoid proscription) is a largely London based group with perhaps 50-100 members at most. Nonetheless, here’s a quick list of documentaries of which they are the subject: –

  • Dispatches: Britain Under Attack (2007)
  • Generation Jihad (BBC, 2010)
  • My Brother The Islamist (BBC Three, 2011)
  • Week In Week Out: Journey To Jihad (BBC, 2014)
  • Dispatches: ISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled (Channel 4, 2015)
  • The Jihadis Next Door (Channel 4, 2016)

There are certainly more  (these were just the ones I could remember and confirm my memory was correct), and let’s not forget the same month that Lee Rigby was killed, it was Anjem Choudary who was invited on to Newsnight on the BBC, Daybreak on ITV and Channel 4 News to speak.

Al-Muhajiroun have basically played a convenient role of the go-to extremist, a group like the Westboro Baptist Church (both in terms of the cultic behaviour as well as the size), but conveniently utilised by the media whenever a fanatic in Britain’s proverbial attic is needed (hat-tip to Chris Allen for that phrase). So yes, it was an issue that Abdul Haqq was included, once again inflating the attention given to a fringe group.

The second problem is that Abdul-Haqq was the sole conservative housemate, failing to represent the distinction between extremism and conservatism. Not shaking hands between genders, as Abdul Haqq refused to do, is not a hallmark of violent extremists, but something practiced by orthodox Muslims as well as orthodox Jews (I once had to warn female guests at an interfaith dinner not to reach out to shake the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’ hand, on instruction from his aides). There are conservative Muslims who would be significantly stricter on gender segregation than Abdul Haqq was, but who would have not sought to either force it upon others.

Perhaps the producers couldn’t find a conservative Muslim for the show, it’s likely a combination of suspicion of the media and a general preference for privacy found amongst conservative Muslims would mean they wouldn’t wish to appear on a show such as this in the first place. Which only stressed the importance of not having Abdul Haqq at all.

And the ugly…

I loved the first episode, but the second episode got a bit ugly. Clearly the effects of putting ten strangers in a house together for ten days was taking its toll, and we moved from interesting discussions to flatmate drama. Ferhan and Nabil’s arguments about the onions, for example, would be familiar to anyone who has shared a house with roommates they couldn’t choose. While it was kind of interesting to watch in a voyeuristic sense, it departed from the shows professed aim, and adding four non-Muslims to the mix seemed not to add much other than awkward bystanders (though Mehreen challenging Jason was satisfying to watch).

But all in all, Muslims Like Us remains decent telly about Muslims. Flawed, but I enjoyed it. Usually, when watching a documentary about Islam (for example, Channel 4’s “What Muslims Really Think”) I’m filled with a rage and frustration of being spoken about rather than spoken with. It’s a powerless feeling, and it takes me a good few hours to shake it off. I had none of that with Muslims Like Us. I laughed at the jokes, cringed at the arguments, learned from the discussions. Mobeen Azhar, the producer, can take a bow on a job well done.

This article is from Issue 14 of On Religion. Intelligent thinking about religion and society is needed now more than ever, help us and subscribe for £19 a year. Subscribe Button

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.