Thoughts on the #HappyMuslims and #Mipsterz Commercials
Whenever I’m at the mall, it never fails that my field of vision is forced to pinball from one area to another, bouncing around erratically, attempting to avoid either mall posters or styling and profiling female shoppers. I bear neither the businesses nor the shoppers any ill will, and it’s my hope that the message of Islam will reach them, but suffice it to say, I’m responsible for my own spiritual well-being, and I take it seriously that Allah has commanded us to lower our eyes in the Qur’an, and that the Prophet has commanded us to look away after the first glance.
When the #mipsterz video came out, I really wanted to understand what all the fuss was about, but couldn’t because the same mall girl styling and profiling was occurring in the videos. Hijabs don’t halalify second, third, and fourth glances at sisters attempting to perform some type of “cat walk strut” for all to view. Within a few seconds of turning it on, it was back off as there was no point in watching it from the edge of my peripheral vision.
The #happymuslims video wasn’t as bad from this perspective, but again, watching women dancing is something I wouldn’t do if I encountered nonhijab wearing women in the mall, and if our sisters were to follow the agreed-upon shar’i requirements of head cover, loose-fitted clothing, and not enhanced with cosmetics, that still wouldn’t give me a green light to check them out, whether they were doing something as unarousing as the robot (yeah, you know who you are), or something beyond that.
I’d be lying though if I didn’t mention that there was a part of me that enjoyed seeing people smiling and happy in the #happymuslims video, despite my religious reservations on music and concerns regarding hayaa’. Social media is often nothing but an onslaught of bad or worse news, and Muslim leaders on my newsfeed are more often than not sharing new problems or delivering passive-aggressive sound-byte shame grenades on everything imaginable and then wondering why no one connects with them.
Discussing the Discussion
As is often the case with Western Muslims, I grew up in an environment of unrestricted access to the Western experience, be it on the entertainment side of things or social relationships with women, irrespective of religion. Later in life, my understanding of religiosity changed and I became the person who, as one family member put it, you could not hold a civilized conversation with on religion.
What’s interesting is that one thing never changed—as an ignorant free spirit or as a rigidly conservative individual—I always considered myself to be a decent person of good intentions, someone who doesn’t harm anyone, a person who properly believes in His Creator and mostly worships Him correctly. I also didn’t understand where differing religious perspectives came from. Before studying our faith academically, the other guy was too restrictive. After studying and attempting to practice the faith more consciously, the people I left behind were intentionally lax and simply following their nafs.
It’s my personal belief that most of the discussions that have occurred on these videos have caused more harm than good. I emphasize here the discussions, and not the videos themselves because what I see from both sides are the same problems that plague our community during other controversial fiqh discussions. We continue to talk past one another as though we are enemies with the objective of being right. We continue to bash and backbite one another rather than looking for solutions that are inclusive and bring more of us together and minimize spiritual decay. We have no intent to try to understand one another authentically from that person’s perspective rather than a caricature of “the other”.
Some of the areas of concern I see coming up repeatedly are as follows:
1. Everyone has an Amazon Intention Reader
Isn’t it interesting that everyone is saying, “we’re not a monolith” or “we’re not being understood” or “you guys are caricaturing us”. Isn’t that why the videos were made in the first place, to address stereotypes and bad publicity? Speaking for myself, I do follow what many would deem a stricter interpretation of faith, but I’m not sure I’d call myself angry, puritanical, or the “Haram Squad“, or someone who is silent on issues like FGM or fighting against the cultural dehumanization of post-relationship Muslim women. I’d venture there are many Muslims like myself whose only concern here is that we don’t displease Allah . Other than that, who doesn’t like music, dancing, and otherwise having a good time? Who doesn’t like to style and profile a bit, dress well, and send pics to family and friends to see us in good health and spirits. Selfies do have some value.
Likewise, I don’t believe that when a group of people put together a media campaign to create a more positive image of Muslims in the West among our fellow nonMuslim community members, this doesn’t imply they are insecure, or that they’re brown nosing, or anything else that conjures images of rear end smooching. I don’t believe the men and women who put the #mipsterz video did so with an intention of exploiting the sisters they recorded, and I do believe that the people working on these projects are not only well-intended, but they do not see what they are doing as a violation of any tenets in our faith. They’re looking to put their creative talents and personalities forward in the service of our faith and helping the general Muslim community, and rather than demonizing them for the manner in which the message is delivered, we ought to at least validate the effort from their perspective, not our own. This doesn’t mean we can’t criticize the work itself and offer naseehah (advice), but it should be done in a way that doesn’t put others on the defensive.
I recognize that humanizing an opponent and attempting to empathize with their intentions can be hard for both groups, so if it makes you feel better, put a #myjihad hashtag somewhere within reach and try to put your best self forward again. If you can’t do that, then just walk away, knowing that the Prophet has stated Allah will create a home in Paradise for the one who leaves an argument, even when they know they are right.
2. Conflating the Trolls with the Everyone Else
I really hate using a negative name like “trolls” to describe any of our siblings in faith, but there it is. There are some people who are on the extreme fringes of our community, and they are not only ignorant that there may be other ways of looking at a problem besides what they know, they are rather obnoxious about how they go about sharing their views with the rest of us.
These types of people exist on both sides. Often they are laymuslims, but there are plenty of obnoxious accomplished bloggers, academics, and yes, even Muslim scholars. People who will state that differences of opinion are to be respected only to follow that up with telling you the difference you follow is wrong, backwards, antiquated, prehistoric, from the times of jahiliyyah, and decontextualized, nonwestern, and then some. I’ve seen it happen more than enough times that I’m jaded, but these troll-like inconsistencies are not Muslim problems so much as they are human problems.
The silent majority and all sides of these discussions are not throwing flames back and forth. We want people intelligent enough to lead our community out of the darkness of disagreement and into the light of unity. Let’s not make everyone who holds an opinion to simply be another manifestation of the troll who blows his or her stack around the internet. Instead, let’s take the time to understand where the other person is coming from and reflect on their views, demonstrate that we understand where they’re come from, and then share our views.
For example, when someone doesn’t understand why you believe music is prohibited, it’s possible they never knew such an opinion even existed to begin with, or that they don’t understand how religious law is derived. When I was told music was not allowed in my high school years, it sounded like gobbley-gook to me. I didn’t have a sense of grounding in the sciences of our faith enough to understand how such could even be. I again emphasize, take the time to understand people and their level of knowledge – don’t assume everyone knows what you know.
3. Not Understanding What Constitutes Good Leadership
What I have to say next will hurt a lot of people, but it has to be said. The majority of academics, Muslim scholars, activists with position titles, and more are not leaders. More accurately, they aren’t good leaders (since they likely have followers), let alone great leaders.
Great leaders will sacrifice their personal preferences in favor of moving the ball forward. They may hold positions, even strong positions, on certain issues, but that won’t stop them from turning down the volume on their own emotions about an issue and working with those they disagree with, trying to come to a proper resolution so that the rest of the community leaves aside the tabloid social media microcelebrity discussions and returns to more important priorities we all agree need work, whether it’s tending to our spiritual maladies, community service, or international humanitarian crises that we can affect positively for the better.
If you want to really understand who the great leaders are in our community and model them, take a look at the most successful organizations in terms of the spiritual and community benefit they bring with them. Whether you agree with everything they do or not, those are your best candidates for modeling success. Take a look at a person like Imam Siraj Wahaj, no doubt a great speaker, but more importantly, look at the congregation he started with, the benefit he’s brought to his neighborhood, what the Muslims and people of other faiths say about him, and his impact on the national Muslim community – that’s leadership.
Long story short, if all you read from someone is vilification about the “other” and they’re unable to break the cycle of finger-pointing, or are unable to articulate their views without thinking about the potential negative implications and blowback stemming from how they are dialoguing, we shouldn’t follow them on this issue, if not others. After the fatwas come down from on high disagreeing on what is and isn’t lawful, the rest of us have to live in the real world and determine practical, workable solutions that bring us together despite our differences.
As we are creating videos that humanize us to the West, we ought to consider how we can humanize ourselves to one another when we differ. Ivory tower bloggers, debaters, academics, and scholars who are unable to appreciate this point are poor leaders and should not be followed until they develop the maturity to see outside their own boxes. This again applies to all sides in many of these debates.
My Personal Disagreements with the Videos
A good deal of criticism has been thrown the way of the videos, but personally, I thought they beat around the bush. In summary, my own dislike of it stems from what I have been taught on the issue of music and the concept of hayaa’ as it relates to our sisters and what I may view of them.
On the issue of music, I follow the opinion that it is prohibited with some exceptions, and if anyone wants to understand what research I did and why I came to the conclusion I did, they can read the following book which discusses in detail the ruling of the majority, the minority opinion of past and present scholars which allowed all types of musical instruments, and discusses questions about the minority opinion for which I haven’t seen answers.
On the issue of hayaa’, I do believe that Allah holds both men and women to a higher standard than the rest of society. While it is true that both men and women are told to lower their eyes in the Qur’an, the teachers I’ve learned from explained this emphasis is stronger on men more than women. With respect to dress and conduct, my understanding from the verses which speak about women’s dress as well as the hadith which further explain this and the use of make up while both genders should be modest according to what is defined, the emphasis is more on our sisters with respect to dress and conduct that can draw attention.
There is no implication here that either men should stay home so they see nothing nor is there an implication that sisters stay home and become invisible so as to escape the notice of any man who may find any movement desirable. The idea is that both should be doing their part to avoid finding or causing sexual attention while going about their daily lives. What each gender does is complementary to its opposite, and it is when both take responsibility in fulfilling their side of the bargain that a synergy is borne from that cooperation. That synergy is a barakah that results in a respected, honorable, upright, ethical, and dignified community of both Muslim men and women.
Proposed Solution: The Coca-Cola Classic Happiness Machine
The #mipsterz and #happymuslims videos reminded me of those Coca-Cola Classic commercials where a bunch of people are in the middle of some action, dancing and having a good time, every other frame jumping from one group of young people to the next enjoying their bottle of coke in hand while in the midst of an everlasting party. The sun is always setting just right, and the hope is, via classical conditioning theory, that you’ll associate fun, youth, and happiness with Coca-Cola when you go grocery shopping, eliciting not just the mental image of the commercial, but the positive chemical reactions you felt will also be conditioned into you so that the next time you see that Coca-Cola classic.
With our own videos, the true goal isn’t to show women dancing, or to play music for the sake of it. The true intent of these videos is to humanize Muslims, to show them as contributing members of society, and to create those same positive associations (with good intention, no doubt). Can we do it without causing concern for hayaa’ in a sizable portion of the conservative community (I say conservative knowing full well many of you who participated in the video consider yourself conservative, don’t mind the generic terminology, you know what I mean ;) and without music?
Here’s another example from Coca-Cola Classic known as the Happiness Machine, which went viral in 2010:
No dancing, styling, profiling, or music in this video. If the Coke Company can do it, can our brothers and sisters in faith find their way towards creating viral videos with the same parameters? Because honestly, the videos that were put out were professional quality (from my layman’s perspective of videography, anyway), and I know a bunch of us would love to be able to watch it minus our conscience pricking at us, making us wonder if we’re displeasing Allah in the process.
On the music side of the discussion, I think it’s a great stride that #happymuslims used “Happy” because the lyrics are clean. And yes, that is progress because even those who permit musical instruments do so with the caveat that the songs don’t call to immorality, or are performed in a licentious way (i.e. vast majority of pop music, good-bye Wrecking Ball). But can we push the envelope a little further to voice-only acapella if we absolutely have to have something in the background? There are many examples on YouTube of artists performing covers of Top 40 songs as well as creating originals with nothing except their voices. I’d love to see more #muslimacapella artists, and their vocals providing the backdrop for a video of Muslims bringing happiness to their communities.
Disagreement is an inevitable part of the human experience. We can certainly disagree by venting and going for the jugular, or we can take strong principled positions, stay true to ourselves, AND work to bring about solutions that allow us to accomplish our goals and bring together the greatest number of people. While I don’t expect that what I’ve proposed is the one-and-only solution, I hope we can move beyond the tabloid nature of such discussions, leaving behind caricatures and stereotypes in favor of solutions that allow for respectful dialogue, whether we end in agreement or not.
What do you think the way forward is?