Reduced to proving my life is human because it is relatable valuable because it is recognisable but good GCSEs, family and childhood memories are not the only things that count as a life, living is.
This will not be a “Muslims are like us” poem
I refuse to be respectable
Instead, love us when we’re lazy, love us when we’re poor
Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy riding, time wasting, failing at
school, love us filthy
Without the right-colour passports, without the right sounding English
Love us silent, unapologizing, shopping in Poundland,
skiving off school, homeless, unsure, sometimes violent
Love us when we aren’t athletes, when we don’t bake cakes
when we don’t offer our homes, or free taxi rides after the event,
When we’re wretched, suicidal, naked and contributing nothing
Love us then
Because if you need me to prove my humanity
I’m not the one that’s not human.
When my mother texts me too after BBC news alerts
“Are you safe? Let me know you’re home okay?”
She means safe from the incident, yes, but also safe from the after-affects
So sometimes I wonder which days of the week might I count as liberal
and which moments of forehead to the ground am I conservative?
I wonder if when you buy bombs
there’s a clear difference between the deadly ones that kill
and the heroic ones that scatter democracy?
I wonder if it should rather be “guilty, until proven innocent”?
how come we kill in the name of saving lives?
how come we illegally detain in the name of maintaining the law?
Excerpt from This Is Not a Humanising Poem by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan
And so, the question asked by poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, also known as “The Brown Hijabi”—a reference to her racial and religious identity, whose above excerpted poem went viral in 2017, with more than 60,000 views on YouTube, is what does it mean to be a “good or ‘Muslims like us’ Muslim” in Britain. This question is not new. In fact, I attempted to answer it when I conducted my doctoral research in Birmingham, England in 2007–8. At the time, I concluded that “by elaborating Islam as incommensurable with British norms,” and marginalizing “those citizens for whom religion is a primary identity,” national calls for integration and assimilation of Muslims will continue to go unheard. 1 I had hoped that by now, over ten years later, there would have been more significant strides made in addressing how best to integrate Muslim sensibilities into the British public collective. Instead, post-Brexit, fearmongering about Muslims and questions of British Muslim belonging, morphing into questions of loyalty continue to persist, resulting in an increased percentage rise of Islamophobic attacks against Muslims in Britain, 2 further complicating and impeding the Muslim effort to identify and belong to Britain. Take, for example, on March 6, 2020, in a tweet announcing his new extended play record and short film titled “The Long Goodbye,” English, Muslim descent, actor-rapper and social activist Riz Ahmed writes: “My country’s broken up with me. We had our ups, but now it’s broken down. Let me break down this whole f**kry.” 3 In an interview, which I believe reflects the underpinnings of this work, Ahmed laments: “There is a limit to how much you can shape-shift, to people-please, to fit in … I’m going to embrace not fitting in. To create a community of not fitting in.” This article takes up this sense of fatigue, focusing on how young British Muslims culturally express their social ambivalence and dislocation. In her book, BRIT(ish), author Afua Hirsch points to the problems of belonging as a “uniquely British problem.” She writes: “We have convinced ourselves that if we can contort ourselves into a form of blindness then issues of identity will quietly disappear” (10). However, Hirsch insists, with which I am inclined to agree, “threatened identities don’t fade away quietly; they become defensive, and fight back with new confidence, pride and desperation” (22). This piece is not about engaging with what Hirsch calls the “soothing language of diversity,” but instead grapples with how British Muslims discursively negotiate their critical points of difference and its complicated entanglement with social policies, which arguably flatten diversity of experience and erase complexity of identity.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the most current census shows that approximately 50 percent of the UK’s Muslim population was born in the UK. 4 And yet, in post-Brexit Britain when addressing the perceived “Muslim Problem,” where the spectacle of young Muslims joining ISIS as foot soldiers or as “Jihadi” brides, or the headlines of the Rochdale sex abuse scandal 5 continues to foreground the collective British memory, British Muslims continue to face accusations of unsatisfactorily responding to questions of identity, home and belonging. The public discursive terrain continues to spread moral panic about the toxicity of Islam and admonishes Muslims as “hard to integrate” by painting Muslims in one-dimensional, reductive strokes whereby men are defiant terrorists and sexual predators, and women are acquiescent to patriarchy. This work reflects on this notion of failing to “fit-in” with Britishness, and instead, illuminates how young British Muslim cultural producers are choosing to reproach the censure of “not belonging.” When asked to foreground his Oscar-winning documentary The Long Goodbye, Ahmed refers to the film as a break-up to letter to Britain, or rather a response to the feeling that he was dumped by Britain after Brexit. He explains: “She [Britain, or Britannia] calls me when she needs me.” However, for Ahmed there is no longer a reciprocal relationship, adding “I don’t need you to love me for me to love myself. I don’t need you to tell me that I belong here… You can say what you want but I ain’t going anywhere.” 6
In the footsteps of Ahmed, I look at how second and third generation Muslims in Britain are more vocal, uncompromising, and less afraid to interrogate the myth of shared British culture and values. Moreover, I explore how this group of young Muslims, whom author Shelina Janmohamed names “Generation M … bound together by a core underlying worldview that their faith and modernity go hand in hand” (5), resist calls to become “normal” good Muslims and are less willing to respond to the rebuke of “clashing civilizations.” This study aims to capture how “Generation M” seeks to unapologetically assert their particularized racial and religious difference, and re-site the boundaries of home and belonging by mapping a different cultural performative discourse through creative word and images. I analyze forms of this expression as sites of contestation, in what cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls “cultural play of difference,” occurring in “contradictory space,” where Muslim minorities reframe their experiences, challenge dominant messages about their group identity, problematize the essentialism of Muslims, and construct a counter-public—a distinct British Muslim public discourse and cultural narrative specific to Muslims in Britain.
I focus on how young Muslims in Britain are contributing towards a discursive and visual public culture of “British Muslimness.” I investigate how these Muslims produce and consume innovative forms of cultural expression: visual art, music, fashion, film and poetry, looking at how these multimodal forms particularly interact on digital platforms. Social media, for example, offers a new discursive landscape where British Muslims are actively using aesthetic driven communities (YouTube, Instagram, TikTok) to produce self-expressed visual content. Crafting what author Su’ad Abdul Khabeer terms a “Muslim cool” aesthetic—an aesthetic grounded at the intersections of Islam, white Western normativity and racial and ethnic experience of minority communities (3), these British Muslims are attempting to make visible what is often rendered invisible. Here I want to make the point that Khabeer’s discussion of Muslim cool reflects a contemporary iteration of a longer history of Black Islam in the United States. However, I believe the theoretical framework of aesthetic and thought which roots the Muslim cool as a concept in the United States, i.e., finding one’s own knowledge of self can provide language to ground this work as well. Addressing this search for selfhood, in her essay “Riot, Write, Rest: On Writing as a Muslimah,” British author Sumaya Kassim asks the question:
How can I write about the Muslim subject when the voices that hate her are so loud? If my audience are people who suspect, in their heart of hearts, that they are modern and I am anachronistic relic or an aberration, how can I be heard? (285)
British Muslims, like Black Muslims in the United States, are searching for ways to tell stories, and disseminate their creative work in a society that Kassim deems is “purposefully designed around [their] erasure” (283). For these content creators, it is not about performing a “palatable Muslim identity” (287), but rather forging a conceptual space outside the constraints of traditional media where Muslims can draw attention, relying on Kassim’s words: “to the power of refusing to back down, of refusing to indulge racist sensibilities, orientalist assumptions” (287). British rapper/activist, Lowkey, in a recent YouTube video, calls them “culture creators” and sees their acts as “placing windows or mirrors where there were once walls.” 7 I analyze both visual and textual forms of British Muslim cultural production uploaded on digital platforms. By examining these cultural modes of expression, I position myself as a spectator—to be able to see how they look, sound and act, and what they do to define and disrupt the narrative on their own terms. I consider their active roles in Muslim self-making and talking-back and pay attention to the ways in which their content production engages with the idea of who Britain is as a country, how they intentionally seek to unsettle the dominant narrative about Muslims, and push for social justice, and a rethink about multicultural policy in Britain.
Debates surrounding immigration and multicultural policy are not a new phenomenon in Britain. The first large-scale Muslim immigration began in the 1950s, comprising of unskilled male workers, mostly in their early 20s, with rural or farming backgrounds. In 1962 and later in 1968, as a response to the growing “public debate over the desirability of larger-scale immigration of ‘coloreds’” (Nielsen 2004, 40), the state passed the Commonwealth Immigration Control Act, which proposed to tighten citizenship laws and limit the right to automatic entry for Commonwealth citizens. To circumvent the restrictive resettlement legislation, there was an increase in family reunification: the migration of wives and children.
The British response to immigration was an increasing fear of the unassimilability of the minority population, who did not share a “British” national culture. For example, Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP, proffered several statements, including his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech 8 that reinforced a racialized construction of Britishness. To Powell, immigrants:
represented a threat; a body of people alien and antithetical to the interests of the dominant society, individuals and groups, lacking inherent cultural qualities and the desire to integrate with indigenous society and polity (Abbas 2005, 154).
Moreover, he described immigrants as “invading hordes” and spoke of the “terrified white working-class family reduced to racial minority in their own street” (Favell 2001, 105). Powell foresaw an inherent danger in allowing a multi-racial society and thus called for the “end of non-white immigration” and “for subsidizing the repatriation of immigrants from New Commonwealth states” (Fetzer and Soper 2005, 28). Although the Conservatives expelled Powell, his position on race and immigration was not unique, and in fact, did reflect larger national xenophobic concerns.
These criticisms levelled at Muslims in Britain for failing to integrate surface again prominently in the “Rushdie Affair.” In October 1988, British Muslims protested the content of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), a book, though in fictional form, that ridiculed the revered Prophet Muhammad, his wives and his companions. British Muslims demanded the state to ban and withdraw the book from public libraries. The “Rushdie Affair” was a significant turning point in shaping popular imagination and national policy debates on multiculturalism and antiracism. The affair reinforced public perception that Muslim minorities did not share the dominant values of British society and posed a threat to social cohesion. And, for Muslims, whose demands for redress were largely disregarded, it served to alienate further the Muslim population from the British polity. British Muslims now recognized deep inequalities of political power and saw limitations to their citizenship. They believed, rightly so or not, that the state did not support their religious interests.
It wasn’t until 1997, however, when a race-relations think-tank, The Runnymede Trust, published a report entitled “Islamophobia—A Challenge for Us All,” that we see a formal state acknowledgement of anti-Muslim hostility. The authors of the report coined the term ‘Islamophobia’ (antecedent to anti-Semitism or xenophobia) to describe the nature and the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain. They identified Muslims mostly as being of non-European descent (non-white), and therefore the targets of cultural and religious racism because of an anti-Islamic bias. The report claimed this anti-Islamic bias underscored public debate about Muslims, which in turn, “fostered discrimination in employment and schooling, hate crimes, and mischaracterization in the media” (Klausen 2005, 57). Despite this effort to identify Islamophobia as a point of state concern, there has been however, very little movement to intervene, dissect the structures of power, and address Muslim community trauma. A most recent example of the way Islamophobia resurrects itself from the abstract is “Punish a Muslim Day,” where anonymous letters were sent to people in six communities in England, including London, Bradford, and Birmingham, awarding them points for committing acts of violence against Muslims. 9 It should not come as a surprise then, that Islamophobia continues to be a central consideration in the lives of British Muslims.
While today, the British Muslim story continues to be firmly rooted in this history, I strongly believe Brexit was the catalyzing force in mobilizing young Muslims on social media. In the 2016 Brexit (portmanteau of the words “British” and “exit”) referendum, when the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union, we see the echoes of the aforementioned objection to immigration in Britain. Many critics saw the majority’s decision to “Leave,” as a referendum not on economics and trade but rather a signal of the ideological cleavages within the country over immigration, identity and social values, fundamentally focused on “differing understandings of ‘us,’ different fears and prejudice about threatening outgroups (them), and polarised debates about social change which are shifting who ‘we’ are” (Sobolewska, 4). These presumed identity divisions profoundly shaped and continue do so, the negative view of immigrants and minorities in public discourse. For example, in The American Conservative, titled “Unmaking England,” author Benjamin Schwarz offered a biting critique of mass immigration in the UK. Reflecting on the black immigrant from Jamaica in 1950s, he contends that the “cultural distance that separates him from a white British native is certainly small, as he probably Anglican, likely cricket-playing, possibly war-time veteran, schooled in England’s history and literature.” However, he saves his indignation for Muslims in Britain, suggesting that “different cultural and ethnic groups have affected Britain in different ways, accusing particularly Bangladeshis and Kashmir Pakistanis for not integrating” (code word Muslim). He writes: “The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis form a metaphorical foreign encampment rather than an immigrant neighborhood.” This discomfort with rise of ethnic diversity, coupled with ongoing issues with radicalized Muslim individuals served as flashpoints to mobilize British voters. White people saw British cultural identity under threat, and as such, envisioned Brexit as a measure of immigration control, securing the literal and metaphorical borders of Britain. In his book, They, author Sarfraz Manzoor, notes the motivation of one such voter: “It’s all about immigration … it’s not about trade or Europe or anything like that, it’s all about immigration. It’s to stop the Muslims from coming into this country” (329). Again, these ideas of national identity and belonging continue to embroil public policy debates in Britain, returning always to the question of assimilability of Muslims. For Muslims, the vote on Brexit served as a stark reminder of their tenuous relationship with the state.
Over ten years ago, I had looked at this very question of home, belonging, and integration of Muslims in Britain. I had concluded that diasporan aesthetics (Muslim-centered media, Muslim fashion) was lending itself to the development of a modern British Islam. Filtered through multiple discursive traditions, and with access to more than one cultural idiom, a generation of British-born Muslims, in contrast to their parents, were producing a more complex form of belonging, an identity which affirmed their British and religious hybridity. However, despite this move in a positive direction, nothing has changed in cultural and racial politics in Britain. In a recent podcast, titled Brown Baby, host Nikesh Shukla, author of the book The Good Immigrant, searches for ways to raise his own kids, in what he describes as “racist, misogynistic (also Islamophobic, my words) Britain.” In episode two, guest Meera Syal reflects on these ideas and says “Twenty years ago we thought we had these battles, so you wouldn’t have to have them (speaking about her children). It’s depressing to me that you are still having to have to fight these fights. We thought we done this all for you.” So, I return to the questions I posed in my earlier research, but now through a lens relevant to today. I believe it is important to explore the relationship between visual culture and power, how it circulates and creates meaning, particularly on digital media, by showing how useful social media platforms are in providing a space for counter-cultural contestation and discourse through their OWN forms of expression.
Some recent examples of young British Muslims engaging with oppositional narratives in their creative work include Riz Ahmed, whom I mention earlier in the article. Notwithstanding his recent Oscar nomination for his acting in Sound of Metal (2019), also released the earlier referenced album “The Long Goodbye” in March 2020 dedicated to his emotional “breakup” with Britain—a direct response to the Brexit vote. The album is accompanied with an 11-minute short film by the same title (can be found on YouTube) 10 which follows the life of a British South Asian Muslim family as they prepare for a wedding, when suddenly a group of white supremacists break into their home, drag them into the street and execute them. The family pleads for help as white neighbors look on in concern, but do not intervene. Through a combination of rap and spoken word overlaying the film, Ahmed describes the intractable reality for communities of color living in a xenophobic post-Brexit Britain. Speaking about the film in British Vogue, he comments:
I wanted to talk about how it feels to be here [in England]. It feels heartbreaking, man. It feels enraging. It feels like it’s not real. When you’re in a relationship, sometimes you’re looking for someone else to validate you. And when you’re rejected, you internalize the idea that you aren’t worth anything. I’m feeling rejected by Britain, but I am f**king British. I am Britain. So evaporating that illusion of duality is really empowering. (Hattie Collins)
In a series of interviews promoting his work, Ahmed emphasizes that the film is not about rejecting Britain but rather an expression of despair for the place he calls home, characterizing the relationship as “toxic.” He wants to find a place where he no longer needs to leave a “part of himself at the door.” By subverting the narrative of who is the victim and who is the aggressor, Ahmed captures the contradictions felt by British Muslims today. It shifts the intense focus away from the hypervisibility of British Muslims and societal fear of their presumed violent radicalization, and instead, the story amplifies the vulnerabilities felt by non-whites in white spaces. His film reorients the viewer from seeing Islam as a place of fear towards brown Muslim bodies having to be fearful of the white colonial center.
Like Ahmed, contemporary artists also have attempted to take control of the gaze not only through creating their art, but also gaining visibility by posting images of their work on social media sites. Sofia Niazi, for example, posted a series of GIFs on Tumblr, 11 depicting “the daily routines of women whose lives have been shattered by the systematised injustice brought about by the ‘war on terror.’” Artist Hanaa Habibi also explores how the everyday lived experiences of Muslim women serve as politicized tropes in the geopolitical debate on Muslimness and Britishness. Her graphic POP portrait series 12 playfully depict a cartoon woman in hijab with slogans such as “Made you look,” and “Hear no evil; See no evil; and Speak no evil.” Both artists through their art, present a very public negotiation with the discourse that defines Muslim women in monolithic terms. Specifically, in the context of the very real othering of hijab-wearing women in Britain, their works create a space where Muslim women transform from silent and invisible to agents with a political purpose. Lowkey, in the earlier referenced YouTube video, talks about this democratization of space, particularly on social media, where there is a widening of expression for artists. He sees the potential for creators to “thrust into public consciousness the idea of a different way … that an alternative is possible.” 13
Perhaps the best example of this public engagement of contesting difference are The Halalians. The Halalians is a comedy skit show, where comedians produce and post short videos on Instagram, depicting the realities of Muslims living in Britain. Empowered by digital media, The Halalians use comedy as a vehicle for public engagement to both, protest against the discursive mischaracterization of Muslims, as well as to reassert their religious and cultural identity. Their posts measure at 7 percent engagement, a strong number given that anything above 6 percent is considered very high on Instagram. 14 One segment called “Ask Muslims Anything,” for example, films comedians responding to questions posed by actual non-Muslims. The questions such as “Do your parents stone you when ur bad?” or “Why are Muslims so scared of pigs?” underscore the way in which mainstream discourse racializes Muslims as fundamentally different. So, by reframing “truths” about Muslims through humor, The Halalians are able to one, bolster community building and a sense of belonging among Muslims in Britain, and two, are able to critically redirect the gaze onto non-Muslims. It is useful here to include Michael Warner’s distinction between public and counter-public. Warner characterizes the public as a self-organized, social space created by “reflexive circulation of discourse.” (62). Counter-public, while similar in structure to the public, encompasses discourse which is not “merely a different or alternative idiom, but one that in other contexts would be regarded with hostility” (86). According to Warner, those in the counter-public maintain their awareness of their “subordinate status” (86) but try to “counter” a different way of imagining. Returning to The Halalians, there appears to be an unironic understanding of their presumed social status as Muslims and yet, in the counter-public, they offer no apologies and instead, find a way to remediate Islamophobic rhetoric into humor.
What conclusions can we draw from this work? It should be said that British Muslim media (TV and magazines) had long provided an alternative to mainstream outlets. There is, for example, an Islam channel, and Muslim-centered magazines. However, what is new is the way digital media does “politics” in the mainstream—it is the act of “talking-back,” and bearing witness through visibility (boyd). It does not operate in the parallel but rather expands the existing space to create new communities and engage in communal activism across borders. It is what authors Nisbet and Myers call a “symbolic space not necessarily bounded by traditional national borders.” Further, the space provides the flexibility to find creative ways to subvert dominant discourse through both language and visual images, which can then be shared with ease. Again, quoting Lowkey: “We live in the age of de-terrorialization … they don’t need a passport to watch this.” By blurring state borders, the internet, he argues, is an equalizing force where artists have the potential “disrupt the social order.”
What the above samples of work bring into view is how digital media cultural producers are aligning their activity with activism to contest structural norms and geopolitics. The digital platform is now combining personal and political through digital storytelling—something that was not very visible before. Drawing a parallel, I refer to the work of authors Bonilla and Rosa who study the digital protest around the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. They write: “whereas in face-to-face interactions, racialized young people … might not be able to contest the meanings ascribed to their bodies, in through their creative interpretations on social media, they are able to rematerialize their bodies in alternative ways.” In a similar function, British Muslims are calling into question established practices which, using Saskia Warren’s framing of Islamophobia works as a “kind of violence that places limits on social and physical mobility.” Instead, young Muslim creatives are exercising critical agency over the construction and circulation of their own narratives whereby they “disrupt normative, hierarchical and dominant white spaces, and shape alternative lines of social formation at multiple scales.” Saskia Warren terms this articulation “ruptural politics.” They are not so much interested in negotiation, but rather they rest comfortably as being situated as the “difficult or unpredictable ‘other”” (119). For example, in a recent Instagram story, Mariah Idrissi, best known as first hijabi person to model for H&M, pronounces to her 92,000 followers that “I believe it is our responsibility as the Africa diaspora or South Asian diaspora to complete the mission of building back home.” By underscoring “back home,” Idrissi consciously complicates the notion of “home” for British-born Muslims, further reinforcing the conservative criticisms that for immigrants, the UK is a temporary home for economic benefit, with a larger goal of ultimately returning home. In a follow-up post, months later, she screenshots the text “Oppression comes in many forms.” She follows with “Our Prophet Muhammad PBUH sent his followers to Abyssinia when they were being oppressed in Makkah, his life and teachings were an example for us.” Then she asks the question: “Time to make Hijra?” Hijra meaning migration, Idrissi leaves it up to her followers to decipher the coded meaning behind her post. I read her post as perhaps a search for “home” as an embodied concept, where “home” encompasses a notion of belonging. Idrissi and others like her are “talking back”—using social media interactions to both contest social discrimination and marginalization and further reinforce their British Muslim collective identity.
In another example, the hashtag #WhatBritishMuslimsReallyThink was launched on April 10, 2016 in response to a magazine cover of The Sunday Times magazine with the headline “What do British Muslims really think?” The headline accompanied an article titled “An Inconvenient Truth” by Trevor Phillips, a political figure in British politics who argues that British Muslims fundamentally differ from British people in general. The hashtag on Twitter was intended to be used by members of the British Muslim online community to share their version of “What British Muslims really think” and thereby deride the negative portrayal within the article. What is clear from the shared responses to the hashtag is the group identity embraces the difference underscored by Phillips and instead, establishes and promotes an unproblematic sameness around British Muslimness and no imperative to perform Britishness. The significance of this practice occurring in the “networked public,” to use danah boyd’s terminology, is that it builds an imagined community sharing the same space. Authors Jackson, Bailey, and Welles’s research in #HashtagActivism further takes on this point highlighting the importance of “digital labor of raced and gendered counterpublics.” They write: “counterpublics, the alternative networks of debate created by marginalized members of the public, [highlight and legitimize] the experiences of those on the margins even as they push for integration and change in the mainstream spaces” (islastudj.8.1.0057iii). The ability to disseminate collective thoughts and ideas, coalescing into “larger collective storytelling” (islastudj.8.1.0057), through the use of hashtags in particular, extends the communicative reach from those who have been excluded from traditional media.
This performative discourse enables British Muslim creatives to destabilize dominant ideologies about themselves, to question the validity of authority, and at the same time provides a space for “affirmative self-identification,” and the “unapologetic portrayal of their complex lives.” As author Mirjam Aeschbach writes: “Both the ability to ‘talk-back’ and have a voice as well as the process of identifying with an available subject-position are a necessary condition for any notion of agency and subjectivity to exist.” For Muslims, the hope is to move beyond the familiar fighting for space and responding to criticism of difference and instead, just be understood.