Over the past few months, Russell Brand has become quite the public hero. The rise of the eccentric comedian has managed to convince us all of the cliché to never judge a book by its cover. At first glance he seems to be yet another arrogant celebrity submerged in the illusion of a glitzy life – the perfect recipe for public hatred. But while this may have been true at some point, Brand has ‘re-Brand-ed’ himself as a political voice repentant of past sins and now a spokesperson for the working classes.
His first political engagement providing evidence to the Home Office select committee was particularly interesting. Attending dressed in a khaki vest and slouched on a chair he presented his views on tackling illicit drug use in Britain. At first, it seemed like a stunt where he simply wanted to display his disregard for authority, yet once people were able to overcome his peculiar attire and rather blunt manner, it became clear that Brand actually had something genuine to offer.
Since then, Brand seems to have been riding on the crest of a wave; appearances on Question Time (where he clearly was the most popular panelist), guest columns in broadsheets and even guest editing the New Statesman. Perhaps one of his greatest feats to date has been taking on one of TV’s most well known presenters, Jeremy Paxman. During the interview, Brand was stringently challenged on his calls for revolution, yet his responses left the juggernaut of Newsnight speechless. Unlike the majority of celebrities who seem to live in a fake world of opulence and indulgence, Brand has illustrated that there is more to him than his previously womanising and highly promiscuous celebrity lifestyle, that he’s a man of substance understanding the difficulties many face with a sincere desire to try and alleviate some of their troubles by becoming an advocate and taking politicians to task.
Perhaps Brand’s most intriguing public encounter was his interview with the Huffington Post’s political editor, Mehdi Hasan. For the first time, it provided a fascinating insight into ‘Russell Brand, the revolutionary’. The crux of Brand’s message centred on criticising the political class for working in the interests of banks and multinational corporations in their pursuit to increase profits (the ‘evil’ word, according to Brand) as they continue to damage our planet, whilst the poorer and weaker members of society continue to struggle in their daily lives neglected by politicians across the board. He also expressed that one of his motivating factors lies in his belief in God, and the unifying factor between us as a species is that we are all ‘Children of God’. Based on our divine bond and relationship with the Earth, he advocated that it is vital to care for those around us as well as the planet. While his political message was welcomed amongst an audience of leftists, Brand acknowledged, as he cited the spiritual motives for his political engagement, that the attendees of the event might have ridiculed his religious motivations, given that leftists have an inclination to atheism/agnosticism and don’t really ‘do God’.
It was therefore particularly surprising that when the floor was opened for questions, rather than probing his political ideas, there seemed to be a positive interest in Brand’s spiritual ones. One questioner even asked Brand if he had considered teaching his ideas on spirituality to the masses. Given the nature of the audience, this was a rather surprising turn of interest. Through establishing a following with his alternative political ideas, Brand managed to subsequently attract people towards his spiritual motives.
Living in a society in which most people assert that religion has very little to offer the modern world, what can the religious learn? Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of Brand’s persona lies in how people from across social classes find that they can relate to a wealthy, extravagant and frivolous comedian. He appeals to the working class through his own background, yet he concurrently appeals to the educated middle class through his wit, his intriguing (albeit Marxist) ideas, and the clear gift he has in conveying them through eloquent language.
Perhaps this ought to be the first question British Muslims must ask themselves as a whole: do we as a community really manifest our faith in a manner that appeals to individuals amongst the social classes in Britain, or is our appeal largely limited to ghettoised communities due to our own baggage? If the latter is the case, then one of the principle tasks we must undertake is to illustrate to wider society that we can relate to them, and likewise that they can relate with us.
Aside from the way in which he speaks and writes, Russell Brand further strengthens the relationship he has with the public through activism. He uses his mass appeal and fame as a platform for speaking out against various forms of injustice, ranging from the plight of Palestinians in Gaza (Brand frequently attends pro-Palestine rallies) to the effects of austerity amongst hardworking people in Britain, whilst banks continue to flourish at their expense.
It seems that for Muslims in Britain, activism stops at the level of online petitions. Muslims need to become the principle champions for the oppressed throughout society by having a unified voice in Britain that speaks for the children living in poverty and for the women who suffer domestic abuse. We must come to the frontline in defending institutions such as the NHS which are under the threat of privatisation. We need to have a reasoned voice in the energy debate, as fuel prices continue to hit the poorest families, and our continual reliance on fossil fuels causes further environmental damage. Whilst some might deem the notion of a ‘unified voice’ as wishful thinking, the furore around Majid Nawaz and his Twitter shenanigans as well as the recent Islamophobic article by the Daily Mail clearly illustrate that Muslims from various sections of the wider community have the ability to unite for a particular cause.
Of course, getting involved in such forms of activism is one of the things our faith teaches us. We are continually reminded in the Quran to be agents against oppression. It also teaches us to be at the service of the poor and needy within society, and not to be wasteful with the resources around us. Hence, if we were able to get involved in such faith-based causes and illustrate that our impetus for doing so lies in our spiritual and religious beliefs, perhaps the public may equally take a positive interest in the final revelation sent to man.
Of course, the best of examples lies in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. In calling people to untainted monotheism and, after a period of considerable struggle, he had an appeal within Meccan society that spanned from the slaves to the chieftains. He was a champion for the weak and oppressed and alleviated their suffering not only through finances, but by also being an activist for their plight. This gave him the means to spread his invitation to Islam far and wide. Perhaps the time has come for the Muslim community in Britain to undergo some deep introspection, and revive the prophetic method in engaging with society around us. In fact, it’s time for British Muslims to ‘re-Brand’ themselves.