By Aisha Iqbal Khan
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to create a cheap, sensationalist headline, you just stick the word ‘Muslim’ in it.
Heck, we’re guilty of it ourselves in this very article. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that Channel 4’s recent documentary ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ has caused the stir that it has.
Some of the claims in it were astounding, and I’m not going to go over them all again. But it was unsurprising that the bits grabbing the most attention were the findings on claims of intolerant British Muslim attitudes to homosexuality, women’s equality and other seeming clashes with mainstream UK thinking.
It’s not a version of everyday lived Islam that I recognise but it would seem – as far as Trevor Phillips is concerned anyway – that it’s time to vanquish the bogeyman in our midst. I know he didn’t quite say that, but he might as well have.
Within minutes of the programme starting, former race relations chief (oh the irony!) Mr Phillips had talked about the extreme adherents of Islam who have “created a major fault line” in the country and who are part of a “looming threat to our way of life”. The opening gambit was pictures of a blown up bus in London. The stall was set early and you could see where this was going.
It was a repeat of the dangerous and irresponsible headline-hunting that has proved so divisive and counterproductive in recent years. But what did it actually achieve? After watching the documentary, I was certainly left pondering a few questions of my own.
Top of the list was: ‘Why are Muslims a problem that society feels it has to solve?’ Because the tone was uncompromisingly bleak, to say the least. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the findings, even those that might on the surface have seemed more than a little shocking to the mainstream eye. It all depends, ultimately, on which lens you choose to view them through.
As another commentator pointed out, many of the survey answers from Muslims were to be expected from any conservative religious grouping. But no one bothered to ask other religious and non-religious groups – or indeed to ask the non-Muslim participants in the survey what they thought of Muslims. So, a ‘them’ and ‘us’ clash was set up from the outset. Surely, if we are to start using yardsticks in our anthropological endeavours, then those yardsticks must be applied equally?
Muslims and Islam are not the ‘other’, the ‘ignoble’ savage dwelling among ‘us’ – but you wouldn’t know it from this programme. I certainly didn’t recognise the picture of the average ‘Muslim’ that was being painted. But rather, I saw many different elements of many different Muslims who are able to hold a diversity of views and who don’t agree with each other on many things.
Most of the Muslims I know don’t identify in any way with the ‘nation within a nation’ wilful outsider being presented. But that kind of pluralistic outlook wouldn’t serve the agenda and the dominant narrative. There was, disturbingly, a darkly divisive undertone to the whole hour-long broadcast.
I also kept seeing the word ‘integration’ popping up in the documentary – but at no point was it suggested that that integration is a two way street, or that changing demographics and new waves of immigration affect how quickly that happens – and indeed can be seen to set us back.
“The prospects for integration do not look good!” Trevor told us, another in a string of glib assertions, as if the last 60 years of post-war migration, settlement and multi-generational assimilation hadn’t happened, and that the Muslims had only descended on these shores post 9/11.
The programme focused solely on a seeming growing 21st century schism in our society between Muslims and the mainstream but failed completely to try and understand or explain the root causes of it. As if the wording wasn’t dramatic enough, they drew an actual physical chasm to show how truly bad things are. But no mention of the fact that integration cuts both ways, of all-white communities where the price of a house is considered to go down if a Muslim family moves in; or of parents fighting tooth and nail to NOT send their children to a state inner city school because it has a 97 percent non-white and predominantly Muslim pupil population. Or, indeed, of socio-economic conditions often allowing prejudice and bigotry to fester and grow in all parts of society. Yes, these things do happen and they are out there. No-one should know that better than a race relations expert.
The picture being painted was of an otherwise perfect, liberal, society in which these Muslim interlopers are creating schisms. As if intolerance and separatism are solely Muslim domains. I am not condoning intolerance in our Asian communities, I am well aware that there are pockets of bigotry and cultural backwardness holding us back. However I also know great strides are being made within those communities to change those attitudes.
But all this talk of the need to reassert ‘our’ liberal values seems to me to be based on flawed assumptions that Muslims are the ones segregating themselves off and therefore increasing the problem. That Iraq, 9/11 and global geopolitics, the war on terror, the increasing demonisation of Muslims, and the rampant rise of identity and dog whistle politics are not factors in increasingly alienating large swathes of (especially young) British Muslims.
There was also no acknowledgement that hard-line Government policy like welfare change could be feeding a wider restlessness and disillusionment – and ultimately leading to a fraught search for scapegoats. In previous decades they were brown and black. Now they have Muslim-sounding names.
There is a whole generation of UK Muslims who have had their private and public identities shaped by a post 9/11, Iraq and 7/7 world. Society seems desperate to put labels on them and then, when they react to those labels, they are re-labelled as wilful outsiders. At the same time, we have irresponsible rhetoric feeding the ‘bogeyman’ myth mongering.
In this context, programmes like the Channel 4 documentary sail dangerously close to propaganda, not necessarily by design but certainly by default. What is it they are actually afraid of, I found myself wondering.
Is it a fear of a cultural takeover? A fear that a growing Muslim presence – in terms of social and political influence – is filling a spiritual vacuum in wider, secular society and challenging the universal liberal agenda? That it’s not Islam per se challenging the status quo, but any form of organised religion at all?
Talking of challenges, I’d like to challenge the makers of this programme to commission similar programmes focusing on what other religious (and atheist) groups, as well as people from different social classes and gender/sexuality groups, ‘really think’. Because I’m pretty sure they would reveal some surprising answers too.
That’s the price of a society where there is universal freedom of speech, people can hold varying views, some of them unsavoury, and we have to live with it.
And here’s the key thing as far as I am concerned. What wasn’t really focused on proportionately was the damning (to the programme makers) statistics that proved it is those very universal freedoms that British Muslims love most about their country.
The truth is that the vast majority of British Muslims are not trying to fix a society they think is broken – they are just trying to live their lives. They are not trying to impose halal or Sharia – they are just making the most of their universal rights. They love their country and they are not trying to change this green and pleasant land into to something unrecognisable.
But programmes like the Channel 4 documentary will inevitably feed the paranoia – and the natural human need to give our fears a face. I was reading another story a few days after the programme where a Butlin’s holiday camp apologised after a (non Muslim) customer complained about the caricatured ‘Muslim baddie’ presented in a wrestling match, who the family crowd was encouraged to boo. On the other side of the Atlantic we have Donald Trump, much of whose success lies in that very same rhetoric and caricaturing. At the same time, crusading anti-Muslim websites are mushrooming and anti-Muslim hate speech is allowed to fester and grow on newspaper comment sections. Every time I see another keyboard warrior refer to the ‘paedophile prophet’ or to the ‘savage’ Muslims in our midst, my heart breaks a little more for our country.
Social media, meanwhile, has heightened the sense of paranoia on all sides even more, because it leaves no room at all for proportionality or nuance in our reactions. Perhaps this is where TV programme makers, newspaper publishers and politicians should focus some of their energies.
Aisha Iqbal Khan is also a staff writer with the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post.