To be a ‘Happy British Muslim’ or not – that is the question

Last week, a YouTube video was released in the UK by a group of young Britons. In the space of a few days, one million people viewed it worldwide. There have been many videos made with Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” since the original video was released – yet this was apparently the first time a video was released that was not based on geography alone, but also on religious affiliation. The “Happy British Muslims” video evoked something of a strong response in the British press, mainstream and otherwise – arguments in favor and against – but one wonders if the point of it was actually overlooked in the midst of the sea or arguments that have erupted.

There were several sets of objections to the video –from within the British Muslim community, and beyond it. A number of Muslim voices on social media felt the video’s Muslims represented a certain subsection of their community (based on the faces they recognized, although no-one could actually identify them all), and did not represent them. Ironically, their concerns were shared by some anti-Muslim voices in social media, who insisted that for every “Happy Muslim” there were those who were sympathetic to extremism and radicalization. For both objecting crowds, the video was deceptive.

The reality is, of course, no video could actually be representative of such a diverse set of groupings in the UK – it’s not feasible to do so, particularly in a four-minute video. It certainly showed something of the breadth of ethnicities within the Muslim British community – but beyond that, it couldn’t claim to be representative. But the video’s makers, the “Honesty Policy,” who insist on anonymity and shy away from fame, never made any such claim. Certainly in the past decade, particularly since the July 7 bombings in London in 2005, different groups have claimed to represent the “silent majority” for clearly political purposes– but the Honesty Policy never made such an assertion.

Social and political problems

Another common critique was that the video did not seem to take note of the dire social and political problems facing the Muslim community of the UK. As such, again, it was deceptive in some shape or form, as it seemed to insist on portraying a “happy community,” which, on the contrary, has every reason to be irate. Islamophobia and the “War on Terror” have impacted the development of this community tremendously in the past decade in particular. The post-colonial history of much of that community, given that much of it originates from countries that are former British colonies, would mean then, according to this critique, that any “happy video” should accurately reflect this overall socio-political context and the angst it inspires.

It’s probably the most “unhappy” part of the video – it is, in itself, a reaction to feeling alienated from existing community structures and institutions – both Muslim and non-Muslim

H.A. Hellyer

It is important to be able to deconstruct social phenomena against a wider political context; otherwise, critical lessons can be lost, even when intentions are good. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to show shadowy forces supported this video in order to mislead the public. Why such a connection ought to be assumed, is perhaps an argument that needs to be made, as opposed to being taken for granted. Some reactions did seem to be intensely curious about who the makers of the video were. They insinuated connections to right wing anti-Muslim groups, set on some sort of “assimilationist” agenda, who wanted to show non-Muslims some sort of “sanitized” version of the Muslim community – but again, there does not seem to be any evidence for that kind of assertion.

Indeed, one might ask if these assumptions are actually counter-productive. Many of these criticisms instinctively attack the video under the hypothesis it is trying to ingratiate Muslims to a particularly type of Western hegemony – a pole of power deemed to be negative and destructive. But this interpretation of post-colonial analysis, ironically, takes the same pole of power as its starting point – just in reverse. Whether one is trying to ingratiate oneself to a particular hegemony, or define oneself against that hegemony – the hegemony is still the center of gravity in the universe.

Is it not, perhaps, more beneficial to focus on crafting a more creative and nuanced viewpoint, that is based on certain positive principles, rather than simply negatively reacting to some “other”? Or is it simply easier to be reduced to engaging in caustic labels like “coconut” (i.e., “white” on the inside, but “brown” on the outside), which actually play into the same sort of racially defined paradigms that post-colonial theorists warn against?

Commitment to faith

The makers were quite clear in their commitment to faith, and their British consciousness. In terms of religion, they were open about their love for Islam – and not simply in an abstract fashion, but in a way that was mediated by an engagement with religious scholars of their spiritual tradition. They took quite seriously, one could see, what religious scholars actually thought. The participation of TJ Winter (otherwise known as Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad) was not a stamp of approval of all of the actual scenes in the video – he was not involved in editing – but he did make it clear he appreciated the overall intention behind the initiative, even while there were certain aspects he disapproved of. Something, he announced, the makers of the film would have clearly known – but he related to them and to their spirit. The religious discussions vis-à-vis certain aspects of the video – some more technical, others more comprehensive – will no doubt continue, with varying degrees of religious literacy employed in this modern and post-modern world.

Could the “Honesty Policy” have been more creative in how they did it, as opposed to being part of a broader mainstream? Perhaps – indeed, that’s a very pertinent point – but it would be a legitimate point to make about all the videos out there, including ones made in Gaza, Egypt and other Muslim and non-Muslims communities worldwide that made such videos. Could they have tried to get others involved in the video? Perhaps they could have – but why should anyone assume they did not try to do so in the first place? Indeed, discussions with those in the video indicate that they did try, very hard – with the limitations any group of twenty-something, young people would have.

Beyond all these speculations of what the video was or was not – what was the video actually declared to be, and what do we know of those who made it? That, perhaps, is what is being overlooked most in the midst of these discussions. It seems, frankly, quite simple – a negative impulse and a positive imperative. These were a number of Muslim British youth who sought to find a way to express creatively a sense of joy and celebration, beyond the venues they felt existed already. It’s probably the most “unhappy” part of the video – it is, in itself, a reaction to feeling alienated from existing community structures and institutions – both Muslim and non-Muslim. Why? That, one would think, is perhaps the key question many of the critics ought to be asking. One hopes the video-makers will be able to take on the criticisms that have come their way. Thus far, they seem to have welcomed criticism – even if such criticism was made poorly – and with any luck, they will come away with a more sophisticated understanding of what they want to achieve.

As for the positive imperative – that is also clear. These young people wanted to express something joyful, through their own identity as young, British, and Muslim people, showing something of the diversity of their community, with creativity and good, straightforward intentions, without some insidious motive. They promise to return with more projects, which many will be waiting for. In the meantime, one hopes this video can be taken for what it was through the eyes of those that made it, rather than what those who did not make it, project upon it.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
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