As a practicing Muslim, I would just like to state a standard disclaimer routinely utilized by Muslim believers for any matters concerning discourse regarding our faith: Any falsehood I speak comes from me, while all truth comes from God's infinite wisdom.
The Muslims are invading! Yes patriot-citizen, you read that right. They began by swarming the streets of the British Isles and have crossed the pond into Chicago and Washington D.C. -- and are threatening further takeovers! They are talking the world by storm. What's going on? Have the lost the "War on Terror?" Has Red Dawn 3: Muslim Edition commenced?!
Yet what if I told you that most non-Muslims are absolutely delighted at this invasion, while the people most upset by this are Muslim themselves? I know... I just hit control+alt+delete on your brain.
Well the Muslims are indeed taking over... our cyberspace. Through their e-jihad, they have boldly declared: All your internets are belong to us. And their dastardly weapons? A series of viral videos in which they display their creative energies to Pharrel's irresistibly catchy pop-hit "Happy." Like the armies of Internet memes and videos of cats before them, they have indeed taken hostages: All of our collective imaginations as we seek some temporary escape from the realities of the non-virtual world.
The Dark Origins
It all started as the brainchild of The Honesty Policy, a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the general Muslim community needs more spaces for self-expression without shame or judgment. They describe themselves as "A group of young and curious Muslims saying what you're thinking. Honestly." The video creators further summarize some of main goals of their video as follows: "We Brits have a bad rep for being a bit stiff, but this video proves otherwise," blogs The Honesty Policy, who made it. "We are HAPPY. We are eclectic. We are cosmopolitan. Diverse. Creative. Fun. Outgoing. And everything you can think of."
Whether you think they succeeded in accomplishing their goals or not is an issue that is an open issue in which reasonable minds can certainly disagree. I personally believe that this video is a masterpiece; a genuine work of art. Young and old; women and men; South Asians, Arabs, Turks, Persians, Africans, and white Britons... the video brilliantly illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt just how vibrant and diverse the UK Muslim population is as a family of communities.
I also find it remarkable how the video-makers initially seemed to set out to debunk a stereotype of all of their fellow countrymen, but in the process shattered some misconceptions that the greater world harbors of Muslims. Mission Accomplished in my book -- but again that is just my humble opinion and another mind can certainly reasonably and respectfully disagree. Having such honest and relevant debates within Islam and Muslim communities around the world will only strengthen this great faith and its followers.
Charge of the Holier-than-thou Haterade Brigade
Now cue the entrance of a small but vocal minority of holier-than-thou ivory minaret sheikhs and armchair mullahs who have condemned the video as "misguided" at best, if not outright "satanic." In their books, not only are such videos demeaning and pointless exercises, but they are categorically haram (forbidden) and the creators do not even have the right to make them while daring to call themselves Muslim.
Honestly, I don't get it. I have genuinely tried, and I objectively cannot understand what the fuss is about. This video is probably one of the tamest videos I have ever seen in my life --leagues tamer than that which we regularly see in American pop culture and European commercials -- or the pop scene in the Arab World and Bollywood. Yet this faux-outrage necessitated the creation of spin-offs which were somehow even more "Muslim friendly" (READ: They took all the women out), which themselves came under attack by the same Haraam-and-Bidah Brigade.
Indeed to hear their take on it, a growing series of viral videos now threaten to defile all Islam stands for. Not the takfiris who terrifyingly don't hesitate to declare their fellow Muslims as "enemies of God" worthy of extermination. Not the devastating civil wars and vicious Muslim-on-Muslim sectarian bloodletting from Pakistan to Nigeria. Not the soul-crushing authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa which control all aspects of social and economic life and eliminate any meaningful outlets for political, artistic, and personal expression. Not abject poverty and staggering wealth-gaps; nor a critical lack of educational opportunities, gender equality, government transparency, or basic medical care. No, the true enemy of Islam and its 1.5 billon Muslims is... some excessive hip-shaking? Men and women appearing in the same frame (never mind if they are married or family members)?
A Convenient Red-Herring for an Inconvenient Truth
My initial reaction to such knee-jerk opposition by the haram kill-joy squad? Two words: Hypocrisy and Denial.
I am reminded of a stand-up routine by one of my favorite comedians: Ahmed Ahmed from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (who I had the pleasure of seeing perform live at Vanderbilt my junior year!). Here is his take on many of the Muslim haters of his standup routine:
"Ahmed I don't like it when you joke about Islam okay? That is haraaam! That is against God!... yeah I'll take a Heineken. Just hypocrites!"
Even if these fire-and-brimstone critics have never tasted a drop of alcohol or... danced publicly?... in their lives, their hypocrisy is nevertheless in play as it goes hand-in-hand with denial of the greater socio-cultural issues affecting our American and European ummahs.
As a first-generation American Muslim, I can testify that it's not always easy growing up Muslim in America. Please don't get me wrong: Despite its shortcomings, this is still a country which guarantees everyone the freedom to worship as they please. Indeed given the shocking restrictions that many countries -- including Muslim majority countries -- places on their citizens, American Muslims have long taken pride in declaring that it is easier to be a Muslim in America than in many predominantly Muslim countries.
Rather, what I mean by my statement is that the obstacles posed by aspects of mainstream American culture act as a life-long test for young Muslims striving to practice their faith. Many if not most young Muslims at some point will have a drink and/or try marijuana. They will go to parties with their friends where they will dance with members of the opposite sex. They will enter into relationships the parentals would not approve of, neglect their daily prayers, backbite, fail to check up on their parents and siblings, and fall short of Islamic ideals in a million other ways. This is especially true with regards to college life, and I can personally testify that the only things which kept me on track was the mutual support of my friends -- both Muslim and nonMuslim -- as we helped each other navigate the complexities and freedoms of early adulthood.
A Global Phenomenon
Yet all of this is not just true in America, but is an objective reality in most if not all of the Muslim world:
If you ask how many times a week do you go to church or how many times a day does a Muslim pray -- they're supposed to pray five times -- the person will report their values or their aspirations. That's what they're saying. They're saying I wish I prayed five times a day.
A fully funded study in three Muslim countries validated what any 10-year-old Muslim kid could have told you for free: We all make mistakes and fall short of our expectations sometimes. We have all struggled and we continue to struggle to stay on the straight path, but it is a special struggle for which we will be all the more rewarded for, God-willing.
Rather than embracing or genuinely acknowledging this reality, this has sadly become an unbearable inconvenient truth for far too many Muslim elders, who dare not come to grips with regarding their own adolescence nor an issue they are truly prepared to openly and honestly address with their faultlessly-Muslim children. So instead, they redirect their vitriol and outrage at any attempts for creative expressions by members of their own community. The enemy isn't dominant cultural forces at home or abroad. The culprits aren't scantily-clad female artists and dancers-or male artists such as Fares Karam and Shah Rukh Khan* who crudely objectify them. No, the true crime is creating videos featuring modestly dressed Muslim men, women and children who dare to express their happiness and content with life. The true offenders are our community's young artists, activists and dreamers.
All of this begs the question: Just what are they afraid of? That the world might see its Muslims as passionate, fun, relatable and fundamentally human -- just like everyone else? If so, I have just have one more question: Just how much is FOX News paying you to help support their agenda? Because seriously I have law school loans to repay and if they are recruiting...
Hypocrisy and denial indeed.
The Modern Mountaintop Monks
I am certainly no expert on Islam, and citing Qur'an verses and hadith is a tricky business. Both require a proper analysis of the historical socio-political context in which they were revealed and proclaimed respectively. Indeed if there is anything I learned this semester in my Islamic Law Seminar, it is that citing Hadith is especially tricky as the body of valid hadith is anything but a fixed universe. Indeed the sheer volume of hadith is staggering, and what constitutes "valid" hadith is itself not settled territory even among Islamic scholars and experts.
Thus as much as I avoid entering hadith wars like the plague (and the very reason for my disclaimer at the very beginning of this article), I would like to share one particularly powerful narration which personally speaks to me on the issue of proactive civic engagement:
Somebody asked, "O Allah's Apostle! Who is the best among the people?" Allah's Apostle replied "A believer who strives his utmost in Allah's Cause with his life and property." They asked, "Who is next?" He replied, "A believer who stays in one of the mountain paths worshipping Allah and leaving the people secure from his mischief.
In accordance with this hadith, actively trying to make a difference in our world in whatever capacity you can with the genuine intent to "serve Allah's cause" is considered to be far more noble than living a monk-like life dedicated to worshipping God in isolation, even if said refrains from active mischief. One can reasonably imagine that God would have an even dimmer view of the ivory minaret scholars and armchair mullahs who categorically and publicly denigrate and condemn their fellow brothers and sisters rather than practicing tawadu (modesty and humality) and seeking to enter a real dialogue with them or trying to make their own positive impact on our world.
The old adage speaks true: It is far easier to condemn and criticize than to act. In the Muslim context, it is far easier to quote a few specially-selected hadith and simply play the haraam or bidah card rather than to actually look at a problem which exists in our society and then apply your creativity, intellect, and energy to try and come up with a solution. In one of the most brilliant scenes of the original British video, the video-makers have masterfully foreseen and pre-emptively satire this reaction by some segments of the Muslim community. Barely 40 seconds into the film, the happy-go-lucky vibe of the video abruptly comes to a screeching awkward halt when Cambridge University Professor of Theology Timothy Winter (aka Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad) stares down the camera and then...you'll just have to see for yourself if you haven't already!
Join Us or Respect Us in Peace
There are so many noble causes in today's world, from fighting poverty and disease abroad to fighting for civil rights at home. Fighting ignorance, bigotry, hatred, intolerance and fear through the educative power of creativity and art is as important and worthy of a cause as any, and one that a growing number of Muslims-young and old, men and women, of every race and national origin-are whole-heartedly embracing. This is indeed an enormous task, and you would be most-welcome to join the team.
Otherwise, with all due respect, please don't stand in the way of your brothers and sisters who have pure intentions and are humbly striving to make the world a slightly better place in whatever way they can. If you will not support us with your words of encouragement, at least don't stab us in the back with your words of spite and contempt. We already have enough bigots and haters to deal with, but alas we will endure because as the noble Qur'an teaches us:
The servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk on the earth in modesty, and if the impudent offend them, they continue their way saying: "Peace." (Al-Furqan 25: 63)
*No hard feelings King Khan... I've long been one of your biggest fans!