Upon hearing about the BBC’s new two-part television show – Muslims Like Us – my first response was one of concern. Not, I’m sorry to say, concern about stereotyping, and the infantalisation of British television viewers. Rather, the altogether less selfless concern that the show might prove to be a little too close to what we are hoping to achieve with our own British [Muslim] Values research project. Our project involves lending cameras to different Muslims in Eastern England, and asking them to produce their own films about the relationship between British Values and Islam. In this, we are – I should say from the outset – benefiting hugely from the input of our fantastic project partners at BBC Voices: professional journalists who provide training and support to amateur and especially young film-makers learning about media production. Muslims Like Us purports to ask similar questions. But it does so via a ‘Big Brother’ strategy of selecting 10 Muslims – seemingly cherry-picked with confrontation in mind – to live in a house together. And then to introduce non-Muslims into this house. Bowtie-wearing, war memorial-visiting, non-Muslims.
In some ways, then, I might not have worried. Our research – whatever its flaws – seeks to allow different Muslims the chance to narrate their own stories about British [Muslim] Values. What, for instance, do ‘British values’ mean? Who gets to decide? How do discussions of ‘British values’ impact Muslim communities, and so forth? The BBC show, in contrast, works to position its Muslims as characters in an already-unfolding drama. This is a drama where Muslims and non-Muslims are depicted as separate actors – physically separate, indeed, until the latter are, temporarily, brought into the fold. The actions and arguments of those ‘Muslims like us’ are made meaningful, moreover, by sporadic sub-titles and a faceless narrator. Their stories are edited and structured by equally faceless photographers and directors.
One similarity between these two projects, however, is in our concern – and the television show’s apparent concern – with the existence of diversity across Muslim communities. A constant refrain throughout Muslims Like Us is that significant differences exist between Muslims connected by a faith, but differing by their ethnicity, age, gender, denomination, sexuality, occupation, and so forth. This emphasis – important in my view – was a major driver of our research project which, if nothing else, will hopefully help to destabilise simplistic constructions of Muslims and Islam as homogeneous entities. What is peculiar in the BBC’s engagement with this question, however, is the way this recognition of diversity is turned – from the first minute of the first show onwards – into a very specific question: ‘What makes a good Muslim?’.
This question – which effectively structures the programme – is curious for at least three reasons. First, we – the viewers – are never asked to reflect on what seems to me (as a non-expert) the obvious preceding question: ‘what makes a Muslim?’ No doubt such a question evades easy (perhaps, any) answer, but how are we to evaluate the ‘goodness’ of Muslims without first knowing what criteria might be employed. Second, it wasn’t clear to me either why ‘goodness’ is important at all for the programme. To be fair to the show, the participants do directly tackle this question (and its vagaries) head on in a series of brief insets part-way through the first episode. But, why ‘goodness’ – whatever that means – should be the criteria by which we evaluate ‘Muslims like us’ (or by which those Muslims should evaluate themselves or eachother) is never explicated. Third, this structuring of the programme around ‘being a good Muslim’ also reproduces contemporary political discourse which has – in the post-9/11 era, particularly – frequently been organised around an especially troubling good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy, perhaps nowhere more evident than in debates around radicalisation. The characters in this show, clearly, have their own views (and sometimes their own handouts!) about how this dichotomy works, or should work, in practice. But, how valuable is it to guide public conversation in this way?
Perhaps I missed something in the programme, and perhaps there do exist good reasons for these stylistic and narrative structures. I should also make it clear that I am no expert at all on Islam or on popular culture (let alone on the intersections between these two entities). For a non-expert like me, though, the predictable screening of Muslims debating terrorism, gender relations and homosexuality was rarely illuminating or even entertaining (although there’s a good chance that BBC 2’s viewing figures will outstrip those of our films). At least my initial concerns about the programme’s potential infringement on our research were, in the course of watching, thankfully overtaken by other (hopefully, less self-interested) concerns.