“A new national story is being written right now about who we are”, says Riz Ahmed in his landmark speech at the House of Commons that talked about the alienation a lack of media representation may have on minority communities. I’m not sure I completely agree with him on some points, notably that having more diversity on television will change the perceptions of extremists, but it may certainly open the doors for discussion on identity issues. In the context of Muslims, this notion can only take fruit if we don’t replicate the story that has been churned out repetitively over the last decade.
In British media, Muslims have been shown with little diversity often hailing from South Asian origins, such as India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Many will remember when an Asian Muslim family moved into Albert Square in Eastenders and were shown to suffer from some of the same social ills that the rest of its characters were – lies, deceit, affairs, and so on. Then, in typical soap opera fashion, one of the family members disappeared only to return after a few years having rediscovered her faith by wearing hijab and, yet again, having similar storylines as before based on deception and lies. While this is all wonderfully diverse and displays a level of awareness by the BBC, it still shows that we have a long way to go in being represented accurately or even just ‘normally’ within the media. In that sense, I completely agree with Riz Ahmed.
As an actor of Asian background, he took us on a trip down memory lane where, in the 90s, it was a celebratory novelty to merely see an Asian face on TV, so when Goodness Gracious Me made its debut with its ridiculously funny yet painfully truthful sketches about Britain’s Asian community, myself and thousands of others were thrilled. In hindsight, I feel that the representation of Asians as Muslims on Goodness Gracious Me was far more skewed towards inclusivity as opposed to the exclusive and homogenous nature Muslims are represented in the media today. The irony is that when Muslims make an appearance on television, they are almost always of South Asian heritage and holding onto the very same ancestral values that they were shown to hold on Goodness Gracious Me, so then the question begs itself – why is it that the media representation of Muslims is almost always Asian?
With Britain’s Muslims having a rich history that dates back 300 years, it’s not surprising that most of the three million population is of South Asian background particularly after the mass migration that occurred after the Second World War. This point is well-known by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. What is lesser known is how diverse British Muslims really are and how much the variation in their socio-economic status has a direct impact on their representation in the media. Indeed, it’s of little surprise that the diversity of Muslims in the media is still so Asian-centric given that many of them are from relatively middle-class backgrounds compared to their, say, Somali counterparts. The situation becomes dire when we see that none of these media personalities, many of whom are highly active and well-known within the British Muslim community, use this privilege to get ahead, but aren’t speaking out about this lack of representation among Muslims. Adil Ray is a notable example with his depiction of Mr Khan having been such a huge success that he managed to launch an entire three seasons of Citizen Khan that not only stereotypes the average Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham, but has also mocked Muslim women and the hijab. Many Muslims have spoken out against Citizen Khan’s stereotypes, but it would be interesting to see how many of them would take issue if the same stereotypes were applied to a comedy about a British Black Muslim family.
This past week, we saw what was perhaps the most inaccurately named reality documentary show on Channel 4, Extremely British Muslims, where the British Pakistanis of Birmingham comically navigate the complexities of trying to find a life partner. It was like watching an Asian version of Blind Date complete with the older members of the community playing Cilla Black. References to religion seemed more Asian-centric and rooted in culture than from Islam itself. Given that a third of the country’s Muslims are concentrated in London, surely such a documentary would have been much more interesting in the cosmopolitan environment of the capital city where Muslims are ethnically diverse instead of focusing on certain insular, culturally ghettoised communities? In fact, the name of the show was, at best, lazy on the part of the producers and, at its very worst, racist for ignoring multifarious ethnic communities across the country that are also Muslim. Where were the Nigerians, Turks, Moroccans and English converts?
Regrettably, what these examples in the media show is that Asian Muslims hold a monopoly over Islam and its representation. By accurately portraying the diversity among British Muslims will serve to not only foster an understanding between the different communities but will also diminish the image that Muslims are a homogenous group. The truth is that we are all different and have unique experiences and by failing to represent the diversity, we are at risk of continuing to propagate stereotypes about Muslims. Our story will not change unless we acknowledge that Asian Muslims in Britain aren’t the dominants of Islam or its representation in the media. British Muslims are a richer community than ever and this is the story that’s in danger of being ignored.