Remona AlyWednesday 14 December 2016 The Guardian
Was Muslims Like Us a helpful portrayal of Islam in the UK?
I 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 – high viewing figures and 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, racial prejudice and cultural difference, 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.