Thursday, 15 December 2016

Muslim "Reality" TV Show

The clever people who brought The Great British Bake Off to our screens had another brainwave and recruited ten Muslims to live in a house together for a week or so. B.A. and I watched with great interest, and we often felt sorry for these poor people. After watching each of the two episodes, I went to Twitter to see what others thought, and so many people demanded a "Christians Like Us" show that nightmarish visions of disparate Catholics all screaming at each other in the kitchen about Pope Francis danced in my head.

Because I once wrote about a British TV show and at least one of the cast, Googling himself, read what I wrote about him and wrote something confused in the combox, I won't mention the Muslims by name but by archetype.

Praying in Front

The Neo-Trad. The Neo-Trad was a young Black British convert from Christianity, a boxer. He has been in prison for attempting to travel to Syria on a fake passport. He upset all the others by citing the Koran and the hadiths for his beliefs and was therefore the focus of everyone's attention.

The Bully. The Bully was a supposedly good-natured young Black British convert from Christianity, a comic. He runs a soup kitchen and won hearts of viewers in the first episode by crudely saying that his religious philosophy included not being a  "d***". He lost those hearts by going insane when someone else took the onions he had bought out of his own pocket (for probably no more than 89 p) and cut them up.  "Who's the Bully cooking for?" I wondered. More on this theme anon.

The Victim. The Victim was an Asian Scot who was filmed brushing his beard a lot. He was there because he identifies as gay. He insisted on a "coming out of the closet" ritual, which divided the Muslims in the room, naturally. There was some discussion if you can be gay and Muslim. "Surely not if being gay is your religion," inwardly snarled little Dorothy. When the Victim wasn't brushing his beard, stealing onions, entertaining gay friends or explaining what "a bear" is, he was pawing at:

The Ambiguous. The Ambiguous was a bear-like Asian Brit whose family told him he was marrying his cousin, and his reaction was surprise and acquiescence. He has never met this girl but chats with her often on the phone. For an guy soon to be married he was strangely passive about all the hugs and caresses he received from The Victim. When the house was entertaining an English Young Fogey, the Ambiguous did an entertaining impression of a bashful young miss in a hijab.

The Philanthropist. The Philanthropist was a young Syrian visitor of a peaceful and heroic disposition. In the first episode, he helps the Neo-Trad in his attempts to convert the people of York to Islam, and on his way home attracts the attention of a self-described member of the English Defense League, who wonders what the filming is about. The Philanthropist is delighted and attempts to befriend the EDL guy. When the EDL guy says he hates ISIS, the Philanthropist declares that he also hates ISIS, as they have destroyed his country. The EDL guy is taken aback. It's clear he doesn't want to think a Syrian Muslim could ever be his friend, but it was obvious The Philanthropist had made him think. When the joyful Philanthropist goes home to tell everyone about this, he is given absolute hell by The Bully.  The Philanthropist replies something along the lines of "You are right, brother. I apologize."

Incidentally, there was no evidence the kid was a paid up member of the EDL. The British poor love to shock people by claiming association with far-right groups. Friends canvassing in my area were often told by tenants that they were voting for the BNP. There wasn't a BNP candidate for miles. More on the indigenous British poor anon.

Praying Behind

The Beauty. The Beauty was a polite but self-assured young South Asian Londoner, a genius with the make-up bag, fashionably dressed, and if she wanted to be the friend of any one of us, we would be in awe that anyone so cool wanted to be our friend. She didn't wear hijab, and got angry when the Neo-Trad gave her pamphlets against "Free-Mixing" of the sexes and modest dressing.

The Intellectual. The Intellectual was the one woman who covered her hair. Unlike the Beauty, she seemed to have a scholarly interest in Islam. She was South Asian and went on at length about British values being racism, colonialism--all those things we would never associate with, e.g., the Mughals or the Ottoman Empire. She believes music is "haram" but to show good-will went along to the Beauty's planned karaoke night.

The Shia. Like the Intellectual, the South Asian Shia woman gave evidence of having read Muslim scriptures. She has a star turn in the second episode when the Neo-Trad refuses to condemn the murder of Shias by other Muslims and she is so mad, she cries. The Neo-Trad apologizes off-camera, and the Shia tells the tale, once again putting the focus on Mr Neo-Trad.

The Elderly Hippy. The Elderly Hippy was a "well-spoken" Englishwoman married to a South Asian man. She  is now about 70 and wears a light shawl over her head, Pakistani style. She shouted a lot and threw her meagre weight around, possibly under the impression that because this works for Pakistani grannies, it would work for her. It didn't. She was livid whenever the conversation returned to racism. B.A. couldn't stand her, but I felt sorry for her until she said "Wear a hijab on your tongue, girl" to the Beauty. Maybe Asians find this lovable in old Asian ladies, but nobody with an ounce of English or Scottish blood thinks this is charming in aged English hippies.

Not actually praying

The Lapsed. The Muslim twitterati were in stitches over her explanation that she doesn't pray in traditional Muslim ways but by writing letters to Allah. In short, middle-aged, West Asian, possibly Muslim in Name Only, as doesn't have much interest in religion, actually

Here is a link to the episodes, so I can go straight to my general observations now.


First, the dominant figures of the show were the Neo-Trad, who gave the impression that there was something more to Islam than feeling good about doing good, and the Beauty. The Neo-Trad and the Beauty were clearly attracted to each other. This is hardly surprising as the Beauty was the most feminine woman around, and the Neo-Trad was the alpha male everyone else was afraid of.  Scarily, the Neo-Trad was the only man who made Islam sound interesting and life-changing. The Philanthropist merely reminded me to be a better Christian.

In the last minutes of the second episode, the Intellectual binds the Beauty's hair up in a cloth, and the the Neo-Trad practically blushes. The Beauty herself seems a bit overwhelmed by the Alpha Male's delight, and I was pleased to see more evidence for my pet theory, which is that religious conservatism hands womanly  certain kinds of women power on a plate.  Meanwhile the Bully was too obsessed with his own victimhood (including at the hands of other Muslims) as a black man to take the Alpha Male mantel from the Neo-Trad.

Second, the official charity shown was mighty cold. The Bully was supposedly a good guy because he runs a soup kitchen. One wonders how pleasant this soup kitchen is, for when he was about to cook for his housemates, he made that incredibly unpleasant scene about the onions. The Victim took it very personally and then went out into the garden for a cry.

The Beauty was annoyed when the homeless Englishmen she met in a York soup kitchen blamed their homelessness in part on immigrants--first mentioning the Poles, incidentally--because of the battle for social housing. The papers did not bother to report that these homeless guys also admitted their own fault. The Beauty looked miffed as soon as they mentioned immigration, and to do her justice I think she would have thrown a strop even if they hadn't mentioned "the Asians." They did, so she did throw a strop, which the homeless guys were probably hoping for. (I suspect they mentioned the Poles thinking the Bollywood-pale beauty might be a Pole.) Maybe in Pakistan the homeless crawl at the feet of their benefactors, but this is Britain. The British poor don't crawl.

Not having heard of the Preferential Option for the Poor, the Beauty told them that if her parents hadn't come to Britain, she wouldn't have been there, and they wouldn't have had lunch that day.  Twitter was delighted at her sass, but this was--of course--total nonsense. Not only do British soup kitchens predate the Beauty, they probably predate Islam.

I am of two minds about shouting at the homeless for their political opinions. If I were serving soup to homeless Mohawk Indians in Toronto and they complained about white people hogging Social Services, I wouldn't throw a strop. I wouldn't feel at all menaced by the opinions of  homeless indigenous people. On the other hand, maybe that is because I have so much social privilege, it would be like a duke dueling with a footman in a Georgette Heyer novel. By telling off the homeless, the Beauty showed she thought she and the homeless Englishmen were social equals, and if so, good for her.

Third, I am not sure what lessons the BBC wanted us to take from their show, but here's what I got out of it: Muslim women do not have to wear foreign or offensive clothing to be considered "good Muslims." At the end of the day, wearing a headscarf (let alone the ugly black bag, as one Muslim woman called the jilbab) is a matter of personal choice, just like wearing a political button or a mantilla at Mass. You can argue on feminist grounds that Muslim women can wear whatever they want, but you can't argue this on Muslim grounds without annoying all the Muslim women who prefer to wear western dress in the west---or, indeed, their own non-Saudi indigenous costumes.

Fourth, I am glad the organizers cast a Shia, for FINALLY the ideas of sect and sectarianism in Islam have been introduced to the great mass of TV-watching British people.

Fifth, I was disappointed in Episode 2 that so many of the cast refused an invitation to see a Second World War memorial. (Naturally the Elderly Hippy was one of them.) You could almost read the RACISM COLONIALISM MURDER thought balloons over their heads. The irony is, of course, that the thousands of British (which at the time included vast numbers of South Asians) who lost their lives in the Second World War were fighting a staggeringly racist, colonialist, murderous regime. Saying no to a night out in a bar is one thing, but turning up your nose at a war memorial--in Britain--is something else entirely.

UPDATE: You will no doubt wonder why I have called someone all the newspapers are calling a fundamentalist, disgusting, outrageous, etc., etc., etc. a Neo-Trad. It is because I don't feel a need to distance myself from the young man and pretend he doesn't represent anybody else in the whole of Britain. Quite obviously he does, and he even has an argument. It might not be a good argument, but it is an argument. We were rather cross that he was not allowed to finish his sentences. "You should wear the jilbab because--" "SHRIEK BOO HORROR STOP!" "But homosexuality is haram because---" "OH! ARGH! SHRIEK!" One felt a bit sorry for the man.

 As a traditionalist Catholic, I am interested in what my religion has actually taught ubique et semper. As a neo-traditionalist Muslim, the young man is interested in what his teachers say "the purest form of Islam" is, but it's actually more Neo than Trad because it arguably dates from the eighteenth century.

The scariest person on the show was actually the Philanthropist because although he was a truly decent, humble man, he bowed down and kissed the feet of hatred because a stronger man told him to. Not good.

UPDATE 2: While mulling over who I liked in this show--besides the Beauty--I decided I also liked the Shia because she was able to shut up the Neo-Trad with a real argument, which was along the lines of "How can you complain about discrimination [against Muslims] when you discriminate against Shia?" I also liked the Young Fogey because he exhibited the old-fashioned English aplomb and humour one once expected English Like Him to have in social situations. Chippy class-conscious Twitter hates him, but he reminded me of my favourite Young Fogeys, and as for the disdainful remark about Nando's, B.A. also never wants to go to Nando's.


  1. I always find it hard to understand what people mean by "pure" Islam, because how can a faith so dependent on its original texts be much purer than it already is?

    There is a school of thought that likes to say that "Islam needs a Reformation". What only a handful of people appear to grasp is that it does not need a reformation because it already IS one, certainly from the perspective of Catholic or Orthodox religious history. It has the emphasis on holy writ, the priesthood of all believers, the lack of a central authority, the identification of the state with the faith and vice versa, that nearly all the Christian reform movements of the early modern era professed to want.

    The somewhat chaotic nature of Islamic theology, especially its moral theology and its view of the role of the state, shows us what might have happened if the protestant mentality in the Christian religion had arisen and triumphed in, say, the fifth century A.D. rather than in the sixteenth.


  2. Oh dear. Well, if the show is anything to go by (?), there is a myriad of ways of interpreting the texts so that you can dispense with all kinds of prohibitions.

    One of the tricky things about having only one or two men on the show willing to live by stricter tenets of Islam on the show, is it completely ignored all the Muslim men in the UK who do not, for example, drink alcohol. Naturally there are British Muslims who drink alcohol, but there are also a lot who do not. But from what I understand, the Koran is on the side of No Alcohol.

    1. Just as there are myriad ways of interpreting the Bible solar scriptura. See: thousands of protestant sects.

  3. Observation: it appears Islam provided neotrad with structure in his post prison life. No wonder he is a neo trad.