Every step you take. I’ll be watching you.

Mobeen Butt and Dr Claire Chambers join the debate on BBC2’s recently broadcast Muslims Like Us and ask whether this is a new form of Orientalism.

We both have experience of working with television and radio producers, who have asked us to suggest contributors for programmes on Islam and Muslims. The word that often comes up is the desire for ‘edgy’ participants.

The tagline for Muslims Like Us [aired on Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 December at 21:00 on BBC2] was ‘Put ten British Muslims with contrasting world views in a house together and press record’. Ten self-identifying Muslims were assembled in a house in York for ten days, totalling 240 hours, and their interactions were edited down to two 60-minute programmes.

Like its Big Brother counterpart, it was always going to be controversial, and casted for people to clash. It included liberals, hardliners, Sunnis, Shias, converts, white Muslims, black Muslims and Asian Muslims, male and female Muslims, a gay Muslim, an immigrant, and Muslims from different schools of thought. Kieran Smith, the Creative Director (Factual) at Love Productions describes the programme as a ‘constructed documentary’.  Richard McKerrow, who set up Love Productions with his wife Anna in 2004, (selling a majority stake to Sky in 2014) has remarked, ‘You have to push boundaries, and that means you might do something that other people perceive as crossing a line.’ So in Muslims Like Us, ‘edginess’ is manufactured; situations and confrontations have been set up.

Even before the programme aired the press had already picked up on one housemate’s contentious past and associates, asking why he was being given publicly funded airtime to propagate his views. Then again, the same press have repeatedly been only too happy to give a platform to the likes of Tommy Robinson and Anjem Choudary to help stir things up and help sell papers.

Fatima Salaria, a senior commissioning editor for the BBC said, ‘It was really important for me that that voice was represented, but he had to be adequately challenged.’ She added, ‘It would have been wrong for us not to have had him’.

Mobeen Azhar, the series producer, said: ‘I think it’s really important for someone like Abdul Haqq to be seen as a 3D character, to understand where he is coming from. So often we hear this idea that Muslims need to do more to challenge those voices in the community, and here you see that for real. These are the conversations that go on behind closed doors every weekend.’

Let’s hope the viewing public saw ten very different self-identifying British Muslims with multiple identities, demonstrate what they believe, how they conduct themselves, and how they interact with one another.

Muslims have been in the spotlight for some time and, with Western intervention in Muslim countries likely to continue, the placement of Muslims in the media as ‘the other’, problematic, and objects for study is set to continue. In the present case, some social media commentators have drawn a comparison with Orientalism’s heyday and even the ‘human zoos’. Is history repeating itself?

 

Mobeen Butt is the founder of the Muslim Museum Initiative (http://muslimmuseum.org.uk/), which explores the 1400 year old relationship between Britain and Islam, and celebrates the arts, culture and heritage of Muslims in Britain.

Dr Claire Chambers is Senior Lecturer in Global Literature at University of York and the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 17801988 (2015) and British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers (2011).