‘Make Me a Muslim’, a documentary on British women who have converted to Islam which aired on BBC3, addresses an issue that continues to be mulled over following on from the 2011 census results. The documentary looked at women from varied racial, ethnic and social backgrounds, and gave anecdotal accounts of the unique situation and struggles faced by each woman in the wake of her decision to accept Islam, as a faith as well as a way of life. The producer of the programme, Emily Hughes, in a post on BBC’s TV Blog, made it a point to mention that she hoped to “to challenge stereotypes about Islam,” a lofty but commendable aim. The question remains, was this aim achieved, and what does the documentary tell us about the perception of Muslims in Britain overall?
For a documentary on BBC3, the standard of ‘Make Me a Muslim’ was about as high as can be expected. Critiques of style and form aside, one of the most obvious shortcomings of the documentary was the choice of presenter, British model and ‘born-Muslim’ Shanna Bukhari. Whether or not Shanna was chosen purely for added entertainment value, given the contrast between her approach to Islam and that of most Muslim converts as well asthe controversy she faced after wanting to represent Britain in the Miss Universe pageant in 2011, is for the viewer to decide. While watching the programme, however, it was hard not to keep asking the question: why choose someone who does not prioritise Islam as a way of life to learn more about Muslim women for whom Islam is everything? Shanna Bukhari’s inability to relate to the most basic of Islamic customs was cringe-worthy, but as some commenters on the blog pointed out, even more disappointing was this extended focus on the presenter’s own internal conflicts instead of the wider issues faced in Britain by converts and Muslims in general. In that sense, despite the best intentions of its makers, ‘Make Me a Muslim’ unfortunately did not to do what it said on the tin.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the documentary stemmed from the attitude of its presenter. Shanna lamented the judgment that Scottish traveller Alana placed upon her clothing, yet refused to leave behind her own prejudices and preconceptions in the making of this programme (perhaps unsurprising, considering she is a model by profession and not a journalist). One of the most telling signs of Shanna’s West-centric attitude was her description of herself as ‘not pretty’ when wearing the Muslim headscarf, and no thought was given, nor any comment made afterwards, to explore further what “pretty” actually means, or that it can mean different things to different people, individually as well as within cultures and faiths, or especially that the Western attitude of “hair + make-up + revealing clothing = pretty” is something to be questioned in itself. More than looking pretty for one’s own expression of femininity (something which many Muslims, scholars or otherwise, will confirm that Islam is not in conflict with), this disproportionate, nigh on exploitative emphasis on a woman’s appearance within Western society does in fact happen to be one of the causes for British women converting to Islam, a point confirmed by Lauren Booth after she adopted Islam in 2010. Not only is this key point largely overlooked by the documentary, it is undermined further by the attitude of the presenter.
Unsurprisingly, some comments on Emily Hughes’ blog post were unsympathetic towards the women whose stories were discussed; others were simply nasty. Despite being ideally placed to do so, ‘Make Me a Muslim’ failed to explore in greater detail the real status of women in Islam, and the fact that this, and not romantic love, brainwashing, or delusion, is what continues to attract non-Muslim British women to the faith. The programme stopped short of discussing how this paradigm shift is a rejection of the superficial, objectifying attitude towards women so prevalent in Western society, of the page-3 culture which permeates into a programme like Countdown (where a maths genius feels the need to force-feed her physical attractiveness to the public through an endless selection of short, tight dresses), in exchange for an attitude which emphasises that one’s self-worth is based on the internal and not the superficial, on intellect and character and not on bra-size and make-up. It’s the kind of nuance which a ‘Modern Muslim’ like Shanna Bukhari has great difficulty recognising, in spite of being born into Islam.
And within these labels is hidden another elephant in the room which continues to be overlooked, this polarisation of ‘Modern Muslim’ versus ‘Conservative Muslim’ within British discourse, as though a Conservative British Muslim were necessarily something “un-modern”, backward, continually in need of (or in opposition to) intellectual and societal progress. Nowhere in the programme is this more obvious than when Shanna meets Ayesha, a revert who is a model and ‘Modern Muslim’ just like herself. As a Modern Muslim, Ayesha is described as being cool and fun, seemingly all the things that a Conservative Muslim isn’t or cannot be. Yet today millions of Muslims in Britain, and millions more around the world, know and practise Islam as a faith which emphasises steadfastness in values but also, far from being opposed to modernity, a faith which adapts and moves with the times. An entire generation of fun, cool, intelligent practising Muslims who have been raised and educated in Britain see no conflict between Islam and modernity. Yet through Muslims such as Shanna Bukhari (ill-informed of their faith, conflicted within themselves, and portraying this confused self-identity as a representation of other British Muslims), these labels and their negative influences will regrettably continue for a long time yet.
– This article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website on 31 Jan 2013.