“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave” – Assata Shakur
Today was a frustrating day. Everywhere, I was bombarded with the #HappyBritishMuslims tagline. I didn’t get why at first; I thought it was merely one of those vacuous hashtags that trend on Twitter. That was until I found the video below. Intrigued, I clicked the play button:
I thought it would make sense. I watched it repeatedly, allowing myself the possibility of having perhaps missed something, the moral of the story, if you will. But in the end, having exhausted all rational speculations, I was left to dwell on an uneasy mixture of embarrassment, disillusionment, and defeat. I have a few problems with what is evidently a PR campaign, and whilst many have been quick to label such objections as cynical, I would argue that they are founded on very legitimate and important grounds, ones that we are obliged to confront honestly.
Whilst it may, at first glance, come across as “just a bit of fun”, the seemingly harmless often ends up being deviously repackaged, presenting itself as the biggest thorn (and obstacle) in the struggle for inter-cultural understanding, awareness, and cohesion. Internalised projections of orientalism are lethal precisely because they are perceived to be unobjectionable, and unconscious assimilation of stereotypes has emerged as the biggest threat to Muslims and their identity in the 21st century, particularly to those residing in the West.
How can we claim to actively fight the stereotypes that plague Western perceptions of Muslims if we operate under the veneer of those very prejudices? What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”. We never play by our rules, we only seem to be efficient when reacting to standards imposed upon us. That’s not smart. The worst “Other-ing” is that which one imposes upon oneself. Self-enslavement, unknowingly absorbed, is the most dangerous form of bondage. Failing to understand that by the very act of attempting to defy dehumanising stereotypes, we have (in)conveniently bought into the status quo’s sophisticated trickery, and have done an unprecedented disservice to ourselves and to our heritage. The result is, to put it bluntly, amateurish and we frankly do not have the right to complain about negative portrayals of Muslims by Western discourse-setters if we have chosen to submit ourselves to such narratives.
If stereotypes are imposed upon us, which they sadly are, the most obvious trap we must avoid falling straight into is acknowledging them. And by zero acknowledgement, I don’t mean passive ignorance; rather, we should avoid, at all costs, adopting those stereotypes as the premise for our public engagements with the wider society, which this video fails to do. Ironically, it has fuelled the fire of bigotry. Dancing to Pharrell and force-feeding a shallow and superficial notion of ‘happiness’ won’t change anything, and it certainly won’t have an impact on the ingrained prejudices of the very people who have constructed false narratives and racist profiles of us, period. Nor does it defeat orientalism. It has credulously taken the bait and reinforced misinformed stereotypes, thus propelling the status quo precisely due to a lack of foresighted calculation and a lazy cognisance of the game that the Establishment has instituted.
These concerns have not surfaced in most of the conversations I have seen, and frankly, that is a prime example of the worrying reality that our community has become comfortably complacent, ready to constantly defend the faith rather than produce proactive social actors. This video does not speak for me as a British Muslim. Even if it is only because I am relentlessly unhappy – frustratingly unhappy and disillusioned with the state of the world, the daily massacres and injustices that we have become desensitised to, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There is too much pain being inflicted onto the impoverished, underprivileged, and oppressed for a bunch of Muslims from the West to be carelessly dancing in a futile attempt to prove to the West that Muslims are not miserable fundamentalists. And for the record, being dissatisfied with the world and honestly declaring my unhappiness doesn’t mean I’m a scrooge as some have assumed. Rather, it points to the fact that the very notion of my being happy is contingent upon the happiness of others. Altruism lies at the heart of the Islamic faith, and it pains me that some members of our community actively disengage with the very principles that the Islamic faith is premised on by making such assumptions.
This isn’t personal. I’m not cynical of those who put time and effort into this video; in fact, I genuinely believe that the people behind it set out on this initiative armed with the best of intentions and out of a noble desire to portray our community in a positive light. However, I’m cynical of the agenda it plays into and the narrative it enforces. As adherents of Islam, we are obligated to study, understand, and position ourselves astutely within the society we live. Foresight and intelligent engagement is lacking throughout this stunt, and that is to the detriment of the Muslim community as a whole.
Happiness, although appealing, is not a truth, as Pharrell claims in his lyrics. The struggle to overcome the self and to subject our individual (and collective) ambitions to the One is the Truth. We already have the answer to the problems of societal discord and oppression; it glaringly shines throughout Islamic philosophy.
When we stop attempting to defend ourselves as followers of a doctrine of Divine Essence vis-a-vis superficial standards of normalcy, and start defining ourselves on our own terms, then may we have hope of bridging the gap between our community and the world writ large. Until our minds are decolonised, don’t expect distortionary perceptions to perish.
“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves” – 13:11