Friday, May 2, 2014

'HAPPY MUSLIMS': to be or not to be...


Maryam Sakeenah

While the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video would not have in itself elicited a response more than a fleeting bemused scepticism, it was impossible to get over it and move on, given the 2 million youtube views, the reams of commentary and discussion it generated. The short clip apparently became the biggest issue in the issue-ridden Muslim world, judging by social media ratings. Ardent supporters of the attempt to showcase Muslims in the West as adaptable and ‘happy’ people, as well as bitter opponents of such meaningless and inappropriate depiction of Muslims, all jumped into the fray- soon enough, there was a raging storm in a teacup.

It all signifies the contradictions, polarities, sensitivities and contentions rife in the Muslim world- like a bubbling, gurgling, steaming cauldron.

The video aims to present an image of Muslims in the West as flexible, creative, adaptable, well-integrated, cheerful and positive-minded, so as to dispel negative stereotypes that have dominated public imagination in the West since 9/11. Imam Johari Abdul Malik from the US comments on the video: ‘The narrative about Muslims is so often about being hungry and angry, people have started turning it around using the social media...’

Underlying this, however, there can also be sensed a desperate attempt to assure that ‘we are like you, too’- a desire to be accepted, owned and integrated into Western society. This desperation can be understood in the context of the consistently rising Islamophobia in these societies.

However, the problem with this appeasing, placatory attitude is not so much with Muslims as it is with Western societies. These societies seem to be growing increasingly ethnocentric, losing willingness to embrace diversity and to allow distinct ethnic, cultural and religious identities to survive and thrive without either being compelled to Westernize to be able to integrate, or being socially marginalized. This goes against the essence of the values of pluralism, tolerance and coexistence at the heart of Western liberal tradition that it prides itself in. It is ironical and interesting to note that while the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video was doing the rounds, Tony Blair reminded the leaders of the Western nations to ‘move the battle against Islamist extremism to the top of the political agenda.’ The same day that the video was released, the English Defence League held a demonstration outside London’s largest mosque against Islam in Britain. On this backdrop, given the very grave challenges that beset the Muslim world, attempts like the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video appear little more than pathetic. The efficacy of the video message as a response to a pervasive anti-Muslim campaign is highly questionable.

But that is not the only troubling thought. Equally disconcerting, if not more was the impulsive and inane, utterly dispensable video rejoinder to ‘Happy British Muslims’ video, made by some Islamic groups on the internet titled ‘Happy Muslims, HALAL version.’ This video removed the images of all women and re-released it as acceptable by Islamic standards- minus the laughing, clapping, singing females. This reflects a lopsided, immature and almost obsessive fixity on juristic intricacies of Muslim law without even a cursory understanding and appreciation of the spirit of Islam. Such fiqh-obsessed shallow-mindedness is often manifested in moral panics among Muslims over the visibility of Muslim women.

It is deplorable that the makers of the ‘Halal’ version who deservedly educed ridicule and censure utterly failed to grasp the idea of true happiness in Islam. For one, given the plethora of grave predicaments we are caught in, the despondency, frustration, defeatism, confusion and hurt, the cluelessness about the future, the directionlessness and leaderlessness, the wars, civil wars, socio-political crises and the rising monster of sectarianism- these aren’t the happiest of times for Muslims anywhere in the world. Empathy is an essential component of Islamic brotherhood- the fact that a Muslim must feel the pain of another Muslim (no matter how geographically distant) as his own. I wonder how I, as a Muslim, can clap and cheer my deep sadness away? Brecht writes,
‘Truly I live in dark times!...
A smooth forehead
 Points to insensitivity
He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!’

 The prospect of declining life and time and the impending oblivion of death, and the eventuality of accountability in the eternal life is the grave and inescapable truth one must confront. The Prophet (SAW) said, ‘If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.’

Happiness in Islam is not the be-all and end-all. It is not to be pursued, but in its deepest sense, it comes to those who discover and live out their purpose in life. Orwell writes, ‘Men can only be happy if they assume that the purpose of life is not happiness.’ Fun and entertainment as temporary relaxation have a place- and a significant one- but happiness in Islam is gained by tasting the sweetness of faith through complete self-surrender to God. It is attained by giving and selfless sacrifice. ‘By Time! Man is in Loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds and exhort one another to the Truth and exhort one another to patience.’   (The Quran)

Imam Johari quoted earlier, was perturbed by the image of Muslims as ‘hungry and angry’, but one cannot wish that away or pretend that is not the case by cheering and smiling away into the camera. Yes, Muslims writhe in the throes of poverty, starvation and crippling oppression, but happiness is attainable to those who do their small bit to help alleviate some of that.

This idea was tried to be conveyed in another video rejoinder titled ‘Happy Muslims: Sunnah Version’. It is a brief, beautiful and simple message that reflects the Islamic ethos of happiness- it shows clips of Muslims rescuing and saving lives of the calamity-stricken, and ends with the line, ‘This, my friend, is happiness.’ However, this video was blurred and poorly made, and circulated briefly in a few closed Muslim circles. It never went viral. And here is the very heart of the problem: the voicelessness and disempowerment of the Muslim visionary, and that ‘the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ (Yeats)