Extremely British Muslims fails to see where Islam ends, and culture begins

I wanted to like it, I really did.

But Channel 4’s Extremely British Muslims, which aired last night, unfortunately missed the mark when it came to showcasing the lives of everyday Muslims in the UK.

I understand the three-part docu-series, with the remaining two episodes still yet to air, aims to dispel ideas that British Muslims are intolerant to western ways of living and refuse to integrate. It’s a valid concern with the news reporting on a large number of UK born Muslims flying to Syria to join the so-called Islamic state because they feel disenfranchised with Britain. Case in point: Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John.

However, I found it troubling that a show, dressed up as the first look into British Muslims, was solely set in Birmingham. Of course the city has a large Pakistani Muslim population and is home to one of the many UK Sharia courts in the country within Birmingham’s Central Mosque, but this led to the entire first episode focusing more the juxtaposition of Pakistani and British culture, and not being Muslim.

We saw fashion graduate Bella Nabi and aviation engineer Nayera struggle to find suitable men who they could potentially marry. For both women the struggle wasn’t finding someone who was Muslim, if anything that was the easy part, it was finding someone who didn’t subscribe to the idea that a woman should be at home cooking and cleaning while the man went out to work. I don’t consider myself an expert on Islam but even I know these are fundamentally cultural issues, not religious ones.

Nayera sat through a truly awful date with a man who said he saw raising children as the woman’s responsibility and he didn’t think it was fair on him if his wife went out to work because then who would cook dinner? Fortunately for Nayera she challenged him relentlessly on his stoic idea of marriage. Realising she wasn’t going to back down he suggested they call it a night and get the bill.

There was also 28-year-old Ash, who initially said he wanted his wife to merely bring him and his friends tea and then fade into the background. Again, the idea of a wife being obedient and existing to wait on you is the result of culture, not religion. But you ended up feeling bad for him after his mother started getting involved in the process and suggested he marry this one particular girl because she’s Pakistani and can speak English. Nothing more.

For a show as groundbreaking as Extremely British Muslims, it seems to have fallen into the trap of mistaking Pakistani culture for Islamic teachings. Pakistan is a Muslim nation, but not all Muslims are Pakistani. It would’ve been more insightful if viewers saw Muslims from all racial backgrounds express their thoughts and feelings on being a British Muslim. Where were the Somali Muslims? African Muslims? Or even those who have converted (or reverted – whichever way you want to put it) to Islam?

I could be wrong. There are still two more episodes to air and next week’s episode could include a diverse range of Muslims that will help give a truer picture of Muslims in the UK. I just don’t know why the producers didn’t think to travel across the country speaking to Muslims from Leeds, where GBBO winner Nadiya Hussein hails from or London where Sadiq Khan is the city’s first Muslim Mayor and campaigns endlessly for inclusivity and understanding when it comes to Muslims in the UK. These two public figures, along with Zayn  Malik and Mo Farrah et al. have done incredibly well to represent British Muslims, it would have been fascinating to see if they had any impact on how ordinary Muslims see themselves in the UK.

I’m sure the producers mean well and believe they are doing good by giving everyday Muslims in the UK a platform, but it’s just irritating that culture – as it always seems to do – got in the way of giving viewers a real look into Muslims in Britain.


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