I ain’t happy

“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


14 thoughts on “I ain’t happy

  1. Salaam Yasmin. I’d like to somewhat clarify your position on this. Are you familiar with the persons in the video and the work they do?

  2. This is a well written article and your argument could make sense however I think in this case you are projecting. Your entire argument is based upon your own interpretation of what the purpose of this video is. I’m of the opinion that you are actually the victim of the same ‘orientalist’ scheming that you preach about. You’ve found a way to attack and defend against an argument that you’ve created yourself.

    You talk about ‘not falling in to the trap of acknowledging stereotypes’ yet you are the one who has interpreted in this context and then written about asking people to interpret it in your negative and quite cynical way. This screams paranoia and does exactly what you advise against. Politicizing something quite innocent and drawing attention to issues of stereotype unnecessarily.

    Personally I think there is more of a valid argument with respect to the music and dancing as there could plausibly be a scholarly Islamic discussion about it. However your contention is purely political and therefore not really of any benefit to the Ummah.

    Where I agree with you that there is much to be unhappy about in this world, there is also much to be happy and grateful about. Being perpetually unhappy is not part of the Sunnah, ‘even a smile can be charity’.

    I’m sorry if I’ve been relatively vague but I have work to do.

    I hope that Allah guides us all, and brings happiness to everyone in this life and the next. Ameen.

  3. Stating that our happiness should be contingent on others is basically saying that no human being should ever be happy, ever.

  4. Your opinion in this article is one that is reasoned through using a strictly western gaze. It seems you are saying any act done by Muslims can be questioned only in relation to the West, what does it mean to the West? in this case you are saying ‘Does the video enforce Western stereotypes? or not?’.

    When a more powerful position to take, one taken by those who have made this video is to not recognise Western stereotypes at all, and to do something simply for our sake.

  5. Yes, the intentions of the makers of the video can be good, but why do we have to show ‘happiness’ by dancing to a ‘music’ ? Is this the only way people or muslims can show happiness? This video may be aimed to non muslims, but how about muslims who will watch this and think hey, I can do the same, looks like its halal. Another question, are we truly happy, while so many of us killed in Syria, Burma, Afganistan and CAR, tortured and raped in prisons? Can we really forget about them? Imagine Syrians who lost their entire family and now disabled watching us like this? They probably will feel abandoned and sad that we are living the ‘life’ and happy’…

  6. Dear brother and sisters,

    I respect your views and opinions but here the question is not that either it conveys a positive image of Muslim to the world or the Muslims themselves. Please don’t get emotional as far as the Islam is concerned. ‘Music’ itself a debatable question in Islam so I think we should not waste our time on pity arguments sorry to say because if we try to justify that Muslims are not terrorist but peace lover it means we second the claim of being terrorist or extremist etc. Muslims do not need justification if they can make difference between right and wrong and know what is good and bad. Therefore, In a nutshell, do not compartmentalize things especially regarding Islam because more you broken in pieces, more difficult to assemble resulted debate after debate and no solution.
    So think broadly and live happily.

  7. Pingback: The Pursuit of Happiness - Happy Muslims, Creativity and Political Agency - C L O S E R — C L O S E R

  8. I was disappointed to say the least with the standard of feedback to this blog post. I’ll keep it short- I don’t have a problem with the video whether it’s the song or the dance. I would have happily participated in the video if it were to have a bit of fun (and if it didn’t care to include only Muslims). The problem lies in the title of the video which in 3 words reveals how ignorant and misguided we are as a community in dealing with the issues we face. Simply put, Muslims do not need to do this. They do not need to resort to creating a video entitled ‘Happy British Muslims’ just to be seen projecting ‘British values’. Even if it was called Happy Muslims I could perhaps accept it. But the ‘British’ part reveals that the makers have played into the agenda of people who try to reinforce the Muslim prejudice in this country. It also shows that these elements have been successful in alienating Muslims so much so that they need to do this to create an ‘alternative’ perception. I doubt it has helped.
    I couldn’t agree more with the points made by the writer of this blog. It is an eloquently written piece and more convincing than any counter-argument I have read.

    • Agreed.
      I believe this video came out during a time in which the whole West was yammering on about Brits and other Westerners, “joining ISIS”. Now, we know much of this was not true, but, I believe this video was put out to convince the mostly unintelligent that it is not all Muslims. I found it silly. But, I find this sort of grouping of any peoples pretty offensive.

  9. Interesting take and I agree with much of it.
    I have watched this video, more than once, and this is what I took away from it:
    1. Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists (and I wish it went further toward that point.)
    2. Even Muslims are, “with it”, socially, and musically and,
    3. Muslims come in all shapes, sizes, and (especially), colors.
    I do understand you point; how can most (or any?) Muslims truly be, “happy”, when so many Muslims are suffering? Personally, and though I am not Muslim, I find myself very unhappy over the position so many Muslims (and Arab Christians) are in. I am unhappy about this every single day, or at least part of every day. So, how can they be, “happy”?
    Perhaps one point of the video is this: though we are unhappy and even disgusted by what is done to fellow Muslims and Christians, especially in the Mid-East, we can all be happy and show out happiness, during some parts of our days. Honestly, the most gracious people I come across, daily, are Palestinians. They are probably Muslims and Christians (though, as an atheist, I don’t ask and I don’t particularly care what they believe.) And, isn’t happiness shown through grace? Sure, they are in a horrendous position, but, even they experience and show joy some of the time.
    Maybe I just didn’t read enough into a video that is probably a selling tool for Pharrell? Perhaps I simply, “missed it”. But, I don;t think so…

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