Big Brother – Watching Muslims.
Friday, December 16th, 2016
Muslims Like Us aired on Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 December at 21:00 on BBC2. The tagline for the show is, ‘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.
People on social media had been speculating for some time whether the programme would be another of those alarmist, stereotyping , othering, ‘Muslims are bad’ programmes the mainstream British media seem all too eager to churn out. Take Channel 4’s What British Muslims Really Think by Trevor Phillips, or BBC1’s Panorama: The Battle for British Islam for just two recent and disputed examples.
In the present case, some social media commentators have drawn a comparison with Orientalism’s heyday and even the ‘human zoos’. However, the reality TV format and ‘social experiment’ idea behind Muslims Like Us have been around for years now. Big Brother premiered on 18 July 2000 on Channel 4, and immediately became a huge ratings hit. This was true not only in Britain but around the world, as its format was sold internationally. Its success has made Endemol Shine Group (owned 50% by 21st Century Fox and 50% by Apollo Global Management) huge amounts of money. Perhaps the interest to peep into other people’s lives is a natural human instinct. Isn’t that what many academics and researchers (like us) specialise in? That said, at least within academia there is, or should be, a drive towards ethics. With TV production, by contrast, the bottom line is nearly always viewer numbers and wider publicity in print and social media.
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. Mobeen once asked what was meant by ‘edgy’ and whether it denoted those who are provocative, controversial or possibly insensitive to Islam. In a roundabout way, the producer agreed with this summary.
Kieran Smith, the Creative Director (Factual) at Love Productions describes the programme as a ‘constructed documentary’. So this is not a ‘fly-on-the-wall’, observational documentary; situations and confrontations have been set up.
Love Productions were behind the BBC hit series Great British Bake Off and The Chronicles of Nadiya. They also produced Channel 4’s Benefit Street, Immigration Street and Make Bradford British.
The biggest complaint about The Chronicles of Nadiya, which followed the Great British Bake Off 2015 winner, Nayida Hussain, as she travelled around and explored the culture of Bangladesh, was why it was limited to only two episodes. By contrast, Channel 4’s Benefit Street and Make Bradford British were seen as controversial, and Immigration Street was forced to stop after only one episode.
Richard McKerrow set up Love Productions with his wife Anna in 2004, selling a majority 70% share to Sky in 2014. He has remarked, ‘You have to push boundaries, and that means you might do something that other people perceive as crossing a line.’
But how does their most successful programme The Great British Bake Off push boundaries or cross a line? Is that line left for programmes about minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups?
Like its Big Brother counterpart Muslims Like Us, 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 for different schools of thought.
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 − as are the Orientalist stereotypes colonialists once propagated.
Is history repeating itself?
By Mobeen Butt and Dr Claire Chambers
Mobeen Butt is the founder of the Muslim Museum Initiative (http://muslimmuseum.org.uk/), which explores the 1400 year 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, 1780−1988 (2015) and British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers (2011).