In the post 9/11 world, the “Muslim identity” has taken on a new connotation. What was once one of the three Abrahamic religions has become tarnished with stereotypes about terrorism, gender politics and being “anti-west”. The simplification of events thereafter has created fear and hostility towards all Muslims: the 9/11 bombers self-identified as Muslim, and the wars in Iran and Afghanistan that followed soon after radicalised mainly young Muslim men into acts of violence around the world. Channel 4’s documentary My Week As A Muslim gives a non-Muslim, white woman an opportunity to experience this racism first hand, supposedly to challenge her and others’ views about whether it’s acceptable or justifiable. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
A reasonable aim, but let’s interrogate the means. Katie, from Wilmslow, Cheshire lives within a Muslim community for a week. To give her a truly “authentic” experience, she is dressed in hijab, which some Muslim women choose to wear. She’s also given a makeover involving prosthetics and “darker shades of make-up”, which, as far as I’m aware, aren’t mandated by any interpretations of the Qu’ran. But, in 2017, we apparently still have to make the point that brownface isn’t okay. I am going to assume that we’re aware that because of post-colonial pastiching of people of colour, assuming a different race isn’t a costume to wear to a party. I’m also going to assume that most understand that it really isn’t hard to find a person of colour to play a role where you need to look like a different race for plot purposes. We are tired of explaining those frankly obvious reasons. Instead, let’s focus on why this production decision was more than just controversial and problematic, it was plain wrong. It works against the simple objective of highlighting that “racism is bad” by reinforcing the idea that Muslims are all the same, different from you and brown.
“It works against the simple objective of highlighting that ‘racism is bad’ by reinforcing the idea that Muslims are all the same, different from you and brown”
To put into context the absurdity of this: even the title, My Week As A Muslim groups together 24 percent of the world’s population as one identity. If you sit within this community, you’ll be versed of the differences between different strands. For Sunni and Shi’a groups the difference has led to sectarian violence in Iraq. Alawite Muslims are another minority sect that have experienced discrimination and prejudice, often from other Muslims, in Syria and Pakistan. I’m a non-believing, non-practising Muslim by birth from Bangladesh and I don’t know what “kind” of Muslim the majority of Bangladesh is, but I’m aware it’s a lot less traditionalist than, say, the kind practised in Saudi Arabia. Set against this context, the documentary, is, at best, a deeply flawed premise, and at worst, flagrantly stokes the prejudices that it is seeking to address.
The use of “brownface” – making Katie look Pakistani by giving her a prosthetic nose and fake tan – reinforces the idea that Muslims are one and the same, brown, and always “other”. Katie admits to having held views that Muslims dress/ act/are different, and, when she first sees a shopping street in Manchester, she comments on how it doesn’t feel like England. She is ignorant, perhaps from having little exposure to people with lives different to hers, but even at the end, when her views have changed, the repeated use of “they” when she explains that “they’re the same as us” stands out. A teenager of the family she’s staying with when “disguised as a Pakistani” (again, terrible choice of words, C4) makes the astute point that British Muslims are constantly having to go above and beyond to demonstrate that not Islam is not synonymous with terrorism. This documentary proves this point depressingly well: Saima and her family are willing to have Katie live with and participate in their life, correcting and challenging little Britain views she expresses, just to make her and others see that they too are British, born in Manchester, wear the same clothes under the hijab. That premise itself is flawed, implying it would be acceptable to treat them differently if they didn’t.
“For someone to decide unilaterally what the Muslim experience is, strips it of the value it gives people”
I’m no producer but perhaps Channel 4 could have considered demonstrating the diversity within the Muslim community, in the UK and worldwide rather than subtly validating the idea that they’re all “hijab-wearing terrorists”. Identity politics are tricky to grapple with at any time, and that’s because they’re complicated. What is it to be Muslim in 2017? My mother doesn’t wear hijab, rarely prays, doesn’t eat pork, believes in God, self-identifies as Muslim. Which of these behaviours and beliefs make her Muslim? Does it matter what she has in common with Malala Yousafzai? Or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia? Or with a Rohingyan refugee? Religion has different roles in different contexts and serves each individual uniquely. For someone to decide unilaterally what the Muslim experience is, strips it of the value it gives people by reducing it to a superficial set of characteristics.
Let’s for a moment assume that the documentary was titled “My life as a Pakistani-British Muslim woman living in the greater Manchester metropolitan area” – would it have been acceptable to “colour” her appropriately? In a word, no. Not even if you sampled all their skin colours and took the median hue and got L’Oreal to replicate it. We shouldn’t need to simulate experiencing racism for ourselves to show people that it’s wrong. The stores of human empathy are surely not that dry yet. If you wanted to highlight the racism people experience, you could have filmed someone experiencing racism and the impact that has. They will hopefully react like the Wilmslow passer-by who sees Katie getting islamophobic insults shouted at her stops and apologises on their behalf. If they’re not quite human-seeming enough, perhaps get them to talk about themselves. Their friends, family, hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears. We all have them. Even brown people.