Back in the 1980s, Doctor Who featured a storyline in which The Doctor was transported to a land ruled by so-called happy people, a land in which sadness is illegal and punished by the Happiness Patrol, who have the TARDIS painted pink, lock up blues musicians and execute so-called Killjoys in a river of strawberry fondant. In reality, the land is a colony in which the native inhabitants have been forced underground, and the happy message is reinforced by robotic announcements over the speaker system which reinforce the message “happiness will prevail”. (The secret police chief was loosely based on Margaret Thatcher, but the parallels with some of the self-proclaimed people’s paradises of the time are pretty obvious as well.) This enforced happiness was brought to mind by a recent video in which Muslims are shown dancing to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”, and the reaction in which the press declared that it shows Muslims can be happy, and dissenters who pointed out that it contains a number of un-Islamic elements were labelled as puritanical killjoys. (More: Fugstar, Muslim Matters, Peace, Bruv.)
There are a number of problems I have with this video. Of course, as a pop song it includes the use of musical instruments and most scholars say this is haraam (forbidden or sinful). That a lot of Muslims listen to music all the same is not news to anyone; what is distinctive about this is the presence of Abdul-Hakim Murad, widely respected as a traditional Islamic scholar, in the video. Scholars should maintain utmost propriety, particularly in public and particularly at a time when following difficult or unusual aspects of Islamic law are unfashionable, so as to encourage ordinary Muslims to do the same. This is not the same as if he was seen in a Sufi hadra (where musical instruments are almost never used), something that some Muslims have been comparing this with, which is a matter of sectarian disagreement. It’s just frivolous music. That he is involved says a lot about how far the community has come in the last 15 years, as back in 1998 he wrote under a pseudonym in Q-News:
Offered the choice between beautiful and ugly Western imports, the Saudis seem invariably to choose what is ugly. They reject their own music, but do not listen to Mozart instead, but to Michael Jackson and other exhalations of the damned degeneracy of America. They throw out traditional Arab or Ottoman furniture, and replace it with mock “Louis Farouk” vulgarity so extreme that it is produced in Europe largely for export.
A second problem is who the song is by. Pharrell Williams is otherwise best known for writing, singing on and appearing in the video for Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke (lyrics here), an obscene song that refers to women as bitches and which some regard as an ode to rape. (At least Michael Jackson called women ladies.) It’s true that most of the people who took part probably did not know that Pharrell Williams wrote Blurred Lines, and I am not sure if the authors knew it, but those of us who do know it shouldn’t be promoting it, or him. He or his record company may well end up making money out of people watching it, as Google have arrangements with record companies to pay for copyrighted content used in videos.
The biggest problem, though, is the culture of suspicion which it plays up to and justifies: the perception that as we eschew certain aspects of popular culture, we are somehow less integrated, and a video of “happy” Muslims smiling and dancing to a pop video makes us seem better integrated and less threatening. The problem is that this sets up a divide between “good”, unthreatening and “integrated” Muslims who elicit “joy” in popular culture, and those who shun it and can be portrayed as puritanical killjoys. As I saw when countering the anti-Muslim bigotry of the likes of Robert Spencer a decade ago, they will always judge Islam by those they dislike and dismiss the more moderate elements, let alone those willing to ‘bend’ so as to be better integrated or appear less threatening, as unrepresentative. Spencer used the phrases “religion of peace” and “tiny minority of extremists” like mantras, repeating them whenever an extreme group carried out an atrocity, while dismissing moderates whether they were orthodox or not.
We do not need to be seen prancing around to a pop video to prove that Muslims can be happy. We just have to have something to be happy about. The ending in The Happiness Patrol came when the police chief experienced unhappiness (after her pet stigorax, Fifi, pictured left, was killed in the revolution fomented by the Doctor and Earl Sigma, the blues harmonica player) and realised that happiness could only really mean anything if you experienced its opposite as well. A lot of us are happy because we have reasons to be happy, whether it has to do with Islam or to do with some personal event. On the other hand there is a lot to be unhappy about, both from a Muslim perspective (such as politicians making speeches inspired by a hoax conspiracy document about Muslim teachers as if it were fact, Muslim countries descending into civil war, and so on — and maybe having been harassed in the street for being Muslim, especially if one is female and wearing the hijaab — I know someone this happened to only today) as well as from things that are going on in our society, such as sick and disabled people being denounced as scroungers from the front pages of national newspapers and poor people having to use food banks in unprecedented numbers. In the Alice Walker book Possessing the Secret of Joy from the 1990s, it is mentioned that some European writer observed that Africans bore their sufferings because they possessed this so-called secret, and the narrator dismissed this contemptuously. Oppressors like to see their subjects pretend to be happy, bearing loads on their backs with a smile in the hot sun. This is really all we are doing by showing ourselves being “happy” to a song written and performed by one of the most offensive performers the dominant culture has recently produced.
Muslims (at least adults) are meant to be serious, not frivolous. The Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) said in a well-known hadeeth: “if you knew what I knew, you would laugh little and weep much”. We are not expected to be humourless or po-faced, but we must not take our amusement from what is unlawful or inappropriate. We will have people calling us spoilsports or killjoys for refusing to laugh at “mong” jokes, mother-in-law jokes, even rape jokes — ask any feminist (or indeed any woman) who has challenged men over these things. There have always been excuses when people call out entertainment which is cruel or immoral; either it’s for a good cause or the people behind it see it as just good clean fun. I had the same reaction when I challenged the RAG group at college when their magazine printed jokes about paedophiles and racist Irish jokes. The situation is not new to me.
The people who made this video have let the community down, and they should not be attacking those who criticise it for causing “disunity” or making us look backward. They knew that it would face precisely this criticism and they knew it would lead to conservative Muslims being ridiculed, yet again. The Honesty Policy, the group of anonymous bloggers behind this video (although someone must surely know who they are; after all, they approached people to make the video), claim that they “have big ambitions, and that’s to completely break down established methodology about how we go about doing things”. So far, they have proved that Muslims can jump on a bandwagon like anyone else and can prance around to a banal pop song like anyone else. Oh, and that we can be happy! But none of that’s news.
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- Hijabi versus liberal Muslima
- Honi soit qui mal y pense