Sunday, 16 December 2007

Make Me a Muslim

What can be said for another stab at the increasingly tired genre of reality TV by Channel Four? No doubt some overpaid but under-employed producer at C4 Towers thought a programme exploring Islam could breathe new life into the increasingly cadaverous format. And C4, always willing to stake its claim to 'Britain's most dangerous TV channel' went with the idea and commissioned a three-part series.

The premise of Make Me a Muslim is simple: Imam Ajmal Masroor and three advisors, Dawn, Mohammed, and Suliman, guide a group of volunteers as they try to live as Muslims for three weeks. The four contestants focused on in the first show are there for mixed reasons. Phil because he wants to learn about the Muslim point of view; Kerry wants to see the reactions she'd get dressed in traditional garb; Carla so she can establish a connection with the parents of her lapsed-Muslim partner; and Luke who is fed up of the vacuous hedonism of his life. Of course, it is pure coincidence Phil, Kerry, and Luke are a million miles away from Islamic modes of conduct - Phil is a big drinker, has "strong (i.e. mildly xenophobic) views" and loves hardcore porn; Kerry is a glamour model who loves partying; and Luke is a cross-dressing gay hairdresser.

Almost immediately we are treated to our first row. Moments after Friday prayers, Phil and Carla confront Mohammed and demand to know why "his people" want to impose Sharia law on Britain. The aggressive nature of the hectoring and/or the editing didn't allow Mohammed to get a word in edge ways except to say Sharia is a code of conduct applicable to Muslims only. Reflecting on the argument afterwards, Carla mused that "we need to fight for our rights" and feared we were "making big allowances". We're left guessing why and how this is the case.

With the opening over and the characters established, our spiritual advisors went into the contestants' homes to check their Muslim-friendly credentials. Ajmal noted Islam was not about "taking things away", and then did just that by removing porn, skimpy clothing, pork and bacon, and booze. At this point we begin following Luke and Suliman. Clearly, the friction is around Luke being gay, and Suliman thinks the solution to "curing" him is getting him to dress masculine, avoiding close friendships with women, and engaging him in more manly pursuits - such as Cricket. Mohammed is also enlisted to try and find him a wife. Understandably Luke is not comfortable with this and confronts Suliman about it. We are treated to the view beloved of religious homophobes everywhere: this is divine law; LGBT people "choose" their sexual preference; and the old favourite, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve". Afterwards Luke acknowledges that he won't be able to meet Suliman half way, whereas Suliman feels hopeful a dose of Quranic teaching will "straighten" him out.

Dawn takes Kerry shopping for Islamic dress, explaining how immodest dressing encourages extroversion, while modesty inculcates a humble disposition. Unlike Kerry, who is used to showing her body to make a living, Dawn, explaining why she covers, said "my body is for my husband. I want him to enjoy me, and no one else to enjoy me, because I love him so much". Modesty of dress was the centre of an earlier flare-up, where Mohammed ridiculously states covering protects women whereas skimpy clothing is invites rape. Quite rightly, Carla takes him to task for this locating the blame with the men who commit it. "It should be the men who are forced to wear blindfolds, women should be able to wear what they want".

All the examples above show the problems with Make Me a Muslim. As a show aimed at promoting an understanding of Islam it completely fails. However, it does fit the formula of reality TV like a glove. Slightly unusual people + unfamiliar situations = arguments galore. With this is mind, it's not surprising the Imams recruited for the show are deeply conservative, as they were sure to rub the contestants up the wrong way. The show does Islam a disservice by presenting strict adherence to Sharia law as the only correct interpretation of the Qu'ran. By extension, this sets up all Muslims as backward and alien to liberal and progressive values. In short, Channel Four's tacky race for ratings has presented a gift to Islamophobes, who will only have their prejudices reinforced rather than challenged.


Anonymous said...

this is the best explaination of the show so far. i was really disappointed at the choice of imams (except the main one of course) but how could you have a tacky reality TV show that wouldn't be used to create as much anger in the contestents towards islam...and thus the public.

Paul said...

"By extension, this sets up all Muslims as backward and alien to liberal and progressive values. In short, Channel Four's tacky race for ratings has presented a gift to Islamophobes, who will only have their prejudices reinforced rather than challenged."

I disagree and think you are missing the point or perhaps obscuring it. The show did not depict Muslims themselves as being alien to liberal and progressive values. It showed that Islam was alien to progressive and Liberal values. The show was about the religion and not Muslims themselves. Sadly the people who were chosen to partake in it also were consistently shown in a poor light; i.e. you would have to be some kind of exhibitionist floozy or hard drinking slob not to want to be a Muslim.