- Can I Make You A Muslim? [intro to the programme]
- Review of Episode 1
- Review of Episode 2
- Review of Episode 3
(Updated 21 Dec.) Review of Episode 3: With trembling fingers and bated breath, I clumsily fumbled with the remote control, in my haste to find the channel that would deliver the nail-biting conclusion of the reality TV saga that has been, Make Me A Muslim.
Okay, so I wasn’t that desperate to catch the last episode, but like a great number of other British Muslims, I was certainly more than a little curious to see how our seven intrepid explorers fared, after three “gruelling” weeks of intense Islam-awareness training. And the verdict is…
Well, it’s not as simple as that really. My reaction to the third instalment of the show was not as strong as it had been to the previous two episodes, possibly due to the many topics covered, including personal hygiene, charity, “islamic” swimwear, and party-planning for Muslims. But by far the most anticipated segment of the entire programme was the climactic “moment of truth”: what did the volunteers have to say about their experience of Islam?
For some strange reason we were only shown the responses of four volunteers: Hayley, Luke, Phil and Karla, but it seems that each came away with something very different. In addition, there was a clear correlation between the nature of the participant’s response and their willingness to co-operate with the mentors:
Hayley and Luke were by far the most open-minded of the bunch, and threw themselves fully into the exercise from the beginning. Hayley’s willingness to participate may have stemmed from the fact that she was already on a path of spiritual discovery long before joining the show, having investigated many diverse religions, whereas Luke was on the lookout for a more practical solution to a life without much meaning, other than sex, booze, sex, and more booze. Thus it was no surprise that Hayley was greatly moved by the spiritual aspect of the deen, especially the five daily prayers (salat), whereas Luke appreciated the manner in which it granted him the self-discipline to clean up his hedonistic lifestyle, resulting in a heightened sense of inner-peace. Though both volunteers displayed genuine respect and admiration for Islam, even suggesting that they would consider the religion for themselves in the future, it is unclear whether either agreed with its theological foundation; that is, did they leave the experience actually believing in the oneness of God?
Negative (or rather, “not-so-positive”) reactions
Phil and Karla were definitely the most reluctant of the volunteers; Phil just couldn’t find it in his lard-hardened heart to give up his pig meat, and Karla had many issues with being told what to do, full stop. They both fulfilled the prediction that several of us had prophesied prior to the airing of the show: that imposing the legal restrictions of Islam onto unwilling participants can often do more harm than good. However, even though neither seemed to be that impressed with the deen, they didn’t leave the show completely empty-handed.
Phil came away with a much healthier attitude towards Muslims in Britain, mainly thanks to his experience working in a Muslim-run grocery, where he witnessed first hand that we can be honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types, much like himself, contributing to society in many meaningful ways. He was also introduced to a young, Muslim man – who happened to be a trained soldier in the British Army – I’d really like to know what the readers thought of that, as personally, it made me a little bit uncomfortable.
Karla the Christian came away with… well, with a fiance! Her “lapsed” Muslim partner, Ash, decided to make things “halal” between them and proposed to her on camera. Though Imam Masroor was happy for them both, he was also more realistic about the difficulties they would face as both as a mixed-race, and more significantly, a mixed-religion couple.
Though Ash’s thoughts on his experiences were not shared with the viewers at home, at times it did seem as though he had reconnected with his Islamic roots, even volunteering to call the athaan during the retreat weekend of episode two. However, I suspect that Karla’s continued presence, and in particular her especially vocal negativity, proved too much of a deterrent for him to fully commit to the deen during the three-week period. It is sad to think that marrying Karla may make things even worse, but I still pray that Allah guides them both, and grants them happiness.
There is definitely a lesson to be derived from all of this: there is more than one way to share Islam, and the choice of whether one selects the direct “this is Islam” method, or the indirect “Hi, I’m your friendly, neighbourhood Muslim” route, should be tailored to the individual whom you are dealing with. This means actually taking the time to get to know them as real people, and not just as labels. I believe that this was especially highlighted by the case of Luke:
Within five seconds of meeting him, it would be clear to anyone that Luke is a gay man… a very gay man. For some Muslims, especially Muslim men, this would either turn them off the idea of associating with him completely, or if they were indeed “brave” enough to spend some time with him, they may be tempted to launch straight into a “homosexuality is forbidden – all gays are hell-bound” type of conversation. Before anyone takes that statement the wrong way – I completely acknowledge the position that Islam takes on open homosexuality – but isn’t a sinner more than the sum of his sins? As I explained above, Luke was the most “practising” of all the men who took part in the trial, to the extent that he even left an alcohol-soaked hen night – where he refused to drink – to pray the salat. TO PRAY THE SALAT, PEOPLE! Okay, so we have no idea whether he did it as a “real” Muslim, but to me, that is still really big! Especially when you consider how many Muslims neglect their prayers whilst attending weddings and other such functions – or even for no particular reason at all (may Allah protect us from that). I also think Imam Masroor’s caring and approachable manner – especially in the way he encouraged Luke to grieve for his deceased father – really helped him to open up to Islam. This reminds us that we need to take a far more personal approach to dawah, and somehow try to battle against any preconceived notions about how likely someone is to accept the message of Islam – how could we possibly know such a thing, anyway?
With regards to my final verdict on Make Me A Muslim: I still stand by my original criticism that the producers tried to cram far too much into one show, which lead to a lack of character development in the case of several participants, and a general neglect of many interesting story-lines; for example, whatever happened to Kerry, the glamour model? I also suspect that the dramatic nature of the first episode was some kind of clever marketing ploy to get us to tune into the following two instalments. In addition, I’m not really sure how non-Muslims have reacted to this series, though I pray that it did achieve the objectives of raising public awareness of Islam (though explanation of the basics tenets of the faith was lacking), and in turn, reducing public mistrust of Muslims. However, the fact that I was able to learn something about my own religion from witnessing the experiences of six non-Muslims, strongly suggests to me that this little experiment in reality TV wasn’t a complete waste of time after all, insha’Allah. In fact, I would actually like to see a follow-up edition of the programme, in order to find out if any of the participants actually went “all the way” and took the shahada – now that would be nail-biting stuff!
But back to the present – where do we go from here? Sharing our thoughts with one another is one thing, but how about sharing them with the people who decide what goes on telly in the first place? I’ve very recently been made aware that Channel 4 has started a new series called “The TV Show“, where the first programme was dedicated to the topic of “How should TV deal with Muslim issues?“. You can catch this show (as well as the whole series of Make Me A Muslim) via 4 on demand – oh wait, you can catch it via 4 on demand, if you have a Windoze PC. Mac users (like me) can take a running jump, apparently. Pfft! Anyway… we have been invited to share our views on the debate, and if enough people participate, they will consider doing another show on the same topic in the New Year, insha’Allah. So please visit the site, and articulate your views in a polite and intelligent manner. And don’t forget to tell them who sent you!
(Updated 17 Dec.) Review of Episode 2: After my negative perception of yesterday’s episode, I wasn’t actually planning to review the series “Make Me A Muslim”, any further, as I frankly expected more of the same. And to be perfectly honest… I was completely wrong to do so.
Maybe it’s my mood, maybe I’ve had more time to reflect, but in my opinion, today’s episode was a vast improvement in many respects. I do believe the main reason for this was that more emphasis was placed on the spiritual nature of Islam, rather than just the rules and regulations; in fact, even Muslims forget that spirituality is at the heart of this great religion (I’ll be the first to put my hand up to being guilty of this). Thus I expect that many more viewers were able to relate to the events that took place during this installment, insha’Allah.
To recap the episode, the entire group of participants was taken on retreat to some random farm location for a weekend. On the first day, they were asked to fast – the proper Islamic fast, with no food and no water during daylight hours. I felt sorry for them, only because I know how much non-Muslims fear the fast (“No water? OMG, I’ll DIE!”), and the worst part was that this took place during Summer, so the fast lasted for 17 hours! I don’t even remember fasting for that long during the period of my own short life, so good on them for going through with it (though it wasn’t without the odd complaint).
On the same day, the group were taken on a nature hike (again, poor them, you wouldn’t see me exerting myself during a 17 hour fast), and for a good part of the day, were encouraged to reflect on their lives in private, especially their past experiences. Many of the group remembered the deaths of loved ones, which eventually culminated in a cathartic grieving experience for volunteer, Luke, who lost his father in a car accident when he was ten years old. Imam Masroor (who once again proved to be the real star of the show with his approachable style, masha’Allah) encouraged him to visit his father’s grave and leave a message, as a way of finally saying goodbye and moving on with his life. We were privileged enough to be allowed to share in this extremely personal moment, and as I watched Luke break down in front of the headstone, alone in his grief, I couldn’t help but join him with a few tears of my own.
Death is the greatest of reminders, and fasting, isolation, and contemplative meditation are extremely powerful weapons in the arsenal against one’s personal desires; they ground you in the reality of this temporary existence. And even with the amateur dramatics that took place during the retreat weekend, it did seem that most of the group members benefited on some level from this spiritual exercise.
Another interesting aspect of today’s episode was that many of the complaints and issues that the non-Muslims raised, especially concerning the pressure that the women felt to observe hijab, and the idea that the volunteers were being “judged” by some of the mentors for their less-than-Islamic conduct, mirrored the experiences of existing Muslims. This is a problem that we all face on a regular basis, as we struggle to practise the deen: enduring the severe discomfort of being scolded by the “haram police”, or even falling into the ever-ready trap of handing out sincere advice in a less than tactful manner. Much has been written on this subject, and I for one am the last person to advise on the artful skill of naseehah (so I’ll recommend this previous MM article instead), but perhaps the Muslim viewers can take this aspect of the programme as a reminder to be more careful in our approach, with both Muslims and non-Muslims, when it comes to sharing Islam.
Although it was great to see that the volunteers seemed to be getting more out of this week’s experiment in Islamic living, it was worrying that the same could not be said for the mentors; namely sister Dawn, who is a British revert. The rebellious nature of certain volunteers, combined with the intrusiveness of the reality TV experience, placed great pressure on her ability to keep a calm and level head at all times. Overall she has been very restrained, masha’Allah, even in the face of some very rude behaviour, but it’s clear that she is reaching her limit on patience – which is fair enough; she is human after all! As we say all too often: Islam is perfect, but the Muslims are not; may Allah give her strength.
Overall, my personal opinion is that the good derived from today’s instalment overcame the bad, insha’Allah. Considering the negativity I expressed in yesterday’s review, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re now left wondering: “what’s in store for the final episode?”. This time I won’t make the mistake of assuming the worst – nor even the best, for that matter – I’ll simply leave it at: “I don’t have a clue; let’s just wait and see, shall we?”. All I know for sure is, that this time, I won’t be tuning in for the drama, but for rather for the Islam-a… Ahem.
Review of Episode One: For those who can’t be bothered to read the following review of the first episode of Make Me A Muslim (click here for my introduction to the programme), i’ll summarise it for you in two words: absolute rubbish!
Now, you see what I did there? I took an entire hour of programming, stripped away every nuance and detail, and decided to only concentrate on the most negative aspect, all for the purpose of causing a reaction in the reading audience. That, my friends, is the true summary of this show.
My criticism of this production is not based on a religious point of view, but rather an “artistic” one. The presentation of every individual involved, whether it be the mentors, the volunteers, or even Islam itself, was far too shallow. Selective editing and the aggravating voice-over commentary aside, I believe the main problem was the sheer number of people involved. They tried to squeeze the opinions, lives, and experiences of eleven complex individuals (both mentors and volunteers), into a one hour programme. The result was that each character became a two-dimensional entity: the volunteers were represented by their individual vices, e.g., Luke the “gay”, Kerry the “tart” with the big boobs, Phil the pork-pie eating, beer-guzzling, porn-watching, taxi driver-cum-defender of the British realm (especially against the importation of hand-lopping, women-stoning Shariah to the UK), etc; in turn, the mentors were represented by their alleged intolerance for such vice, and in the case of two imams, their inability to speak English clearly, and relate to the culture and people that they were dealing with. True Islam was given even less airtime, with a casual mention of the five pillars at the beginning, and a brief description of the daily prayers about 15 minutes towards the end of the programme. This resulted in the unfair portrayal of Islam as being nothing more than a set of rules, and the participants as being as no more than a set of moral deficiencies. Where was the supposed reality of “reality” TV?
But even in the depths of such superficiality, there were a few moments of heart-moving authenticity. For instance, the tangible, emotional trauma experienced by one volunteer, Karla, caused by the refusal of her Muslim boyfriend’s parents to accept her, helped us to understand some of her more erratic behaviour. I also think that the lead imam, Ajmal Masroor, was the only saving grace of this entire production. In my original entry, out of respect, I automatically assumed he’d be the “kind [of imam] that we would all be proud to have in our local masjid”, and alhamdulillah, I believe that my assumption was proven correct by his charismatic and highly personable demeanour.
Still, I did find myself repeatedly asking: “What exactly is the point of this crazy experiment?”. Reaching the end of the show, Imam Masroor finally delivered the answer during a dinner conversation with Phil – by far the most rebellious of the group. If Phil (and perhaps by extension, the rest of the non-Muslim audience) would be prepared to step into the shoes of his Muslim neighbours, it would help him to understand that Muslims are “normal” people, who eat, and drink, and “go to the loo”, like everyone else. And in return, Phil’s co-operation with the mentors would help them (and perhaps by extension, the rest of the Muslim audience) to better understand him. However, rifling through people’s closets and fridges, in an effort to weed out “contraband” material, and making insensitive comments about their personal lives, was not the ideal way to achieve mutual respect and community cohesion, IMO; the goals were noble, but the methods chosen proved to be somewhat misguided.
There are still two more episodes left to air in the series. Even though I have little hope that things will get any better, due to the continuing problem of too many characters, and too little time, I will still be making efforts to watch them – mainly for the same reason that I can’t resist “rubber-necking” when I pass by the scene of a horrific car accident. Antagonism can be quite entertaining, and even addictive, and I fear that this heavily emphasised aspect of the show will be the only thing that keeps people glued to their screens for another two weeks – not their desire to learn about true Islam.