SHAFAQNA – Channel 4 this October finds itself at the heart of a brewing scandal as critics have accused the network of fanning sectarian-based hatred and xenophobia in its would-be attempt to explore ‘Muslim life’ in the UK.
While the premise of the documentary appears innocent enough – a social experiment one could argue to delve into the secret world of Muslim Britain to assuage fears and deconstruct bias … only the documentary was architected around such bias. Worse still, the documentary very premise is weaved around a perverse, and one must admit, covert form of religious ethnocentrism since it conflates nationality and religion to present Islam as the faith of the proverbial ‘other’.
If the Romans were first in line in ingraining the idea that foreigners were inherently barbarians, we most certainly have carried that tradition forward. So much for pluralism and multiculturalism …
In all fairness Channel 4 merely stumbled upon one of Britain’s less talked about hang-ups. As far as people are concerned Muslims are by definition foreign, and by extension: brown. The idea that Islam is a world religion has yet to compute.
However repulsive this concept may be it remains nevertheless true that Britons look upon Islam, and Muslims, as this imported aberration that stands in negation of their values, sense of national identity and religious traditions. Sadly Britain is not alone in its peddling … most western capitals now reek of self-righteous ethnocentrism, convinced in their sacrosanct sense of grandeur and racial entitlement that Islam is what goes bump in the night.
So much so in fact that such values as compassion and empathy no longer hold towards Muslims. To the risk of stating the obvious, I must say that we don’t appear to have moved beyond the horrors of the 1930s. If anything we have become better at packaging our bile.
The belief still holds that Christianity is white, and Islam, brown. By Christianity I am referring to westerners’ sense of religious identity, not the faith in itself. Christianity can not be held responsible of its flock’s misgivings, no more than Muslims should be made to apologise on account of the terror an elite has risen in their name – all the while wielding swords against their communities.
Never mind the fact that before Christianity was labelled ‘white’ its was born in a little corner of the world we call today the Middle East. Never mind as well that a person’s beliefs cannot be tethered to geography or national sovereignty … implying that it could is so ludicrous I would rather not give it any oxygen.
Excuse my sarcasm but Christianity did not flew into Europe by way of Scandinavia. More to the point it should not matter. Color is only skin deep … literally. Such pointless prejudices ought to be relegated as a thing of the past, instead of polluting our public discourse.
While I’m willing to accept that Channel 4 wanted in fact to step into a Muslim shoe for a week to better deconstruct bias and humanise a religious community following decades of media bashing, I’m not clear on the reasons standing behind Katie Freeman’s physical transformation.
This is how The Independent puts it: “Katie Freeman went “undercover” as a British Pakistani Muslim for the programme My Week as a Muslim, wearing a hijab and prosthetics to make her nose bigger.”
“The most offensive bit is the gross exaggeration of features of the face, and that blurs the line, pandering to stereotypes of race and religion actually,” Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, told The Independent.
“They did not have to do the ‘blacking up’. You could have taken somebody who is willing to talk to Muslims but in that journey experienced what Muslims experience by shadowing, using a secret camera, listening to what happens around women’s role in Islam, this could have been done without pandering to some quite silly 1920s stereotypes.”
Mr Mughal accepted the premise was “coming from a positive place”, but added the manner in which it was executed was “offensive”.
“You can still make it really interesting for the public you don’t have to end up doing something quite covert and unsettling and racial that has crossed the line,” he said.
From where I’m sitting Channel 4 only really succeeded in ingraining sectarian ethnocentrism further, completely missing the point that Islam like all world religions, remains an invitation to all communities beyond all manners of differences.
It is irresponsible at this particular juncture in time to conflate faith and nationality. Others before us have done so with catastrophic consequences … is our memory truly that selective?
By Catherine Shakdam – Director Shafaqna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies