Remona Aly
Friday 17 March 2017 The Guardian. G2

Extremely British Muslims review

And so, for the final episode of Extremely Brummie Muslims – sorry, Extremely British Muslims (Channel 4) – we get right into the nitty-gritty of people’s lives in Birmingham – even down to how they enter a toilet. “You enter with your left foot,” explains Abdul, a white convert, “because if you were to fall dead, you’d fall backwards if you’re on your left foot. But if you’re on your right, you fall forwards. So you’re not going to die inside the toilet.” This is life- or death-changing stuff. No one wants to be found face down in a pile of Andrex rolls.

So far in the series, we have seen Birmingham’s “halal dating” circuit – like the Asian Muslim version of First Dates without the romance or Fred Sirieix; a mosque committee crammed with old Asian men chatting about the local lord mayor; and a niqab-wearing woman ride a quad bike. And then there were the beards. Lots of beards.

Last night, we saw Abdul moving menacingly up the stairs at 5.23am. He enters a dark room, flicks the switch and wakes up two bleary-eyed teenagers. He’s on a mission. We know because he can’t stop rubbing his hands together. “You’ve got seven minutes, then we need to go to the mosque,” he says to the squinting younglings. Music is added to ramp up the comic tension.

Who didn’t feel sorry for the two boys – especially those who know the pain of getting up for dawn prayer? But those are the rules, and that’s what this episode is all about. But each time another rule flashed up on screen – non-contextualised Islamic diktats that left even Muslims thinking: “Oh, God, am I meant to be doing that?” – it made me shudder. I mean, who likes rules? After the strength of episode two – a nuanced exploration of the identity and social challenges for young Muslim men – this felt a bit limiting. To me, the premise brought up a lot of backward, narrowly interpreted and culturally loaded opinions, such as music being considered “haram”, and women yet again being discussed in terms of whether they should have head (and face) coverings.

Still, there is a lot to be said for a programme that gets up this close and unfiltered, with cameras in the homes – even the bedrooms – of Muslims. It was filmed over the course of a year, allowing the makers to gain the trust of those filmed, with the result that Extremely British Muslims felt intimate and organic.

The most gripping scenes were between Abdul and his non-Muslim brother, Lee, who used to attend English Defence League (EDL) rallies across the country. On their visits to each other, with their families, having frank chats in the back garden, they reminisce about the good old days. “We liked going out and getting wrecked, didn’t we?” says Lee. Abdul, you didn’t! Oh, but he did. “The party was always at our house,” he smiles – is that nostalgia or regret? They laugh together about Abdul’s ginger beard, while Lee admits he used to think Muslims were baddies and that, by attending EDL rallies, he was “sticking up for his country”. Asked if he would ever go to the mosque with his brother, Lee gives an honest no, prompting Abdul to say: “If any of his friends saw him in a mosque, that would look bad.”

There is understanding there and love. “At the end of the day, he’s my brother, and that’s what comes first,” says Abdul. OK, Abdul, we forgive you for waking up the kids at 5.23am.

Other characters included grime singer turned new dad Zaidan, who was torn between two lives, and loud, confident, strident Sidra, who served to upend stereotypes about Muslim women who wear the niqab. She stole the final scene when, in tears, she described what it was like to be on the receiving end of abuse. “It’s hard. It’s no joke,” she managed to say. “I just want freedom to practise my religion.” Can’t argue with that.

Best one-liner from the series? “The only extreme thing around here is the size of the rats, bro.”

While this was a specific look at proudly British Brummie Muslims, many of the themes resonated on a common level – such as trying to keep families together, hoping to find a soulmate, struggling through life and dreaming about future. And it is not black and white. As the little girls say, when asked what it’s like to be a Muslim in Britain today: “It’s complicated.”

This article first appeared in The Guardian, G2 on 17 March 2017. To view it click here.