My Week as a Muslim was shown on Channel 4 last night. The programme was yet another attempt by Channel 4 to engage with the British Muslim question, this time from a very different perspective, but one that did not necessarily challenge any of the dominant stereotypes or wider social processes that lead to misrepresentation and misrecognition.
Over the last two decades, every single aspect of the lives of Muslims has been peeled away.
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We know more about Muslims than we know about any other community in the country, and yet we still do not understand them. What they eat, how they live, what they wear, what they believe, what they fear and what they need or want have been mulled over countless times.
Perhaps it is not them, but indeed wider society as a whole that needs to change. Perhaps it is a question of assimilation over integration.
Different starting points
It would seem that, for now, Britain has very much given up on multiculturalism based on diversity, equality and inclusion. It has retreated into a much older approach to welcoming differences into society, which is to absorb them, rendering them invisible in the light of the greater picture.
However, Muslims in Britain have not been integrating, whether by choice or because of wider structural determinants. It very much depends on circumstances as every Muslim in Britain has a different starting point, a restricted set of choice frameworks and a historical legacy of migration and settlement in a post-war context with which to contend.
The programme normalised existing forms of Islamophobia by not challenging the institutional and cultural dynamics of its formations
The lack of choice is a function of discrimination, racism, Orientalism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
A lack of agency on the part of Muslims to change, adapt and fully integrate into society is because of fear, low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, limited resources and missed opportunities. None of this is about Islam as a faith system.
A problem of content not intent
There are a number of problems with some of the thinking behind the programme but there are some positives that can also be taken away.
Undoubtedly, it was a touching human story, reflecting on the journey of an English woman whose existing lack of knowledge, interaction and objective information on Muslims had twisted, distorted and wholly maligned her perspectives.
A change based on self-realisation was wonderful to see and - at times - moving. It reflects the skills of great documentary making. Kate, the Englishwoman on her journey, was willing to challenge her fears, her current understandings and her sense of disillusionment with these "others".
While the browning up of Kate, the donning of the garb and the somewhat wobbly looking prosthetic nose was an attempt to fool others, however, it did have the negative outcome of racialisation.
The programme makers clearly conflated race with religion, loading the category of Muslim with particular genotypical and phenotypical features, suggesting that being Muslim is tantamount to historically loaded racialised categories such as white, black and Asian.
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Muslims from across the world are of every hue. It is the differences that come together to make a unique whole that make Muslims a global community.
Furthermore, the programme normalised existing forms of Islamophobia by not challenging the institutional and cultural dynamics of its formations. The overall message was superficial, which is that if we are all simply nice to each other and talk to each other, we can change outcomes.
While surely this is a positive memo, the problems behind Islamophobia are much deeper and longer in the making. Any attempts to bridge relations in the current climate will always be susceptible to the wider institutional and structural factors at play. It means that any positivity to come from the programme would only last a short period before memories fray or events, sadly, alter the landscape yet again.
And there was more than a whiff of Orientalism scattered throughout the programme. Saima’s daughters being "exposed" to Kate while only showing their feet and hands on camera played right into the Victorian fantasies of some.
'It's not me, it's you'
My Week as a Muslim, all said and done, was never not meant for Muslim audiences but a clear proportion of society that has never encountered a Muslim in person, having only read about the category, the group or the associations with being Muslim from subjective headlines and stories in the mainstream press.
If we can move beyond the problems of aspects of the content and the telling of the wider story, Kate's transformation and the wise and solemn words from Saima, her host for a week, remain as a poignant reminder that good is in the hearts of all. But it can be thwarted by the malign intentions of others who foment divisions as a rule.
The problems behind Islamophobia are much deeper and longer in the making
In the light of how the Manchester Arena bombing earlier in 2017 became a focal point as the programme was being made, the overall outcome, specifically for majority Britons who need further convincing that Muslims are ordinary folk, has to be seen as a positive.
Not so much for Muslims, who remain in the eye of the storm, but for society as a whole, elements of which continue get their news and information from sources that have little interest in objectivity, analysis or even, on regular occasions, honesty.
- Professor Tahir Abbas FRSA is currently Visiting Senior Fellow at the Department of Government, London School of Economics. His recent books are Contemporary Turkey in Conflict: Ethnicity, Islam and Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), and the four-volume edited collection Muslim Diasporas in the West (Routledge, 2017). He recently published an article on the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot, published as ‘The Inside View on the “Trojan Horse” Plot and British Muslims in Schools’ in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (2017).
Photo: While the browning up of Kate, the donning of the garb and the somewhat wobbly looking prosthetic nose was an attempt to fool others, however, it did have the negative outcome of racialisation (Channel 4)
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.