Happy Muslims: Performing “Happiness” and “Normalcy”


I can’t believe I haven’t updated my blog since 2013! Most of my hiatus is due to being busy in graduate school and also working on a feature film. I’ll share some details about the film later in this post, but I first want to address a video that came to my attention a few days ago.

By now, most Muslims active on social media have seen the “Happy British Muslims” music video, which shows a diverse group of Muslims in Britain lip-synching and dancing (happily, of course) to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I noticed friends on Facebook sharing the video, but at first, I didn’t take the time to watch the video. However, after I noticed debates taking place, I decided to give it a view. Yesterday, a Chicago version of “Happy Muslims” was released online and I also heard about Boston and Toronto versions being in the works. Before I share my critique of these videos, I want to discuss a few conversations I’ve been seeing online.

So far, from what I’ve read, most of the articles framing this debate are reinforcing binary-thinking within the Muslim community. The articles state that there are two groups of Muslims that are dominating this discussion. The first group are Muslims who enjoyed the video and believe that it humanizes Muslims and helps break stereotypes. Obviously, it makes sense that many Muslims would support the video. After all, in Hollywood and mainstream western media, Muslims are overwhelmingly depicted as villains and terrorists (for over a 100 years!), so it’s refreshing to see Muslims being happy in a music video that has gone viral. The second group of Muslims, on the other hand, find the video sinful and incompatible with Islamic teachings. Their main criticism being that Muslim women are dancing in the video and that such “behavior” does not “follow the Sunnah.”

This debate continues to ensue on online forums, Facebook pages, Twitter posts, etc. However, the problem with this binary framing is that it ignores other perspectives that have not been receiving much attention (or being left out of the discussion altogether). One of these perspectives is concerned about the problematic messages the video reinforces politically. I believe Yasmin Jamaludeen’s powerful critique of the video touches upon many of the same concerns I had, but also so much more. As she writes:

What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”.

Like Jamaludeen, my problem isn’t with the dancing or music. In fact, I disagree with some of the Muslims who are objecting to the video on religious grounds. It’s outrageously sexist that a “halal” version of the video was made, where all of the Muslim women were edited out. By erasing Muslim women, they are being deemed “haram,” which is beyond horrible. I also don’t believe in shaming anyone who participated in the video nor am I interested in making personal attacks against the people who enjoyed the video. Jamaludeen also made it clear she wasn’t cynical about the people in the video and wasn’t attacking anyone, but rather expressing her cynicism about the agenda, which is what I’m interested in discussing. Specifically, what I’m interested in examining is how videos like these promote assimilation narratives that subsequently reinforce the harmful good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

One of the main issues I have with the video is that it follows a problematic, though common, trend we see from Muslims in the West who are attempting to “break stereotypes” or respond to Islamophobia. The common trend being that we have to assert our Western national identities in order to show the dominant culture that we are “normal” and “peaceful” people. In many ways, the problems I have with this video are the same problems I had with the “All-American Muslim” reality TV show which aired briefly on TLC (and faced Islamophobic attacks). I didn’t take issue with how Muslims in the show dressed, or where they worked, or whether or not they dated. It was with (and I know some people are probably tired of me saying this) the notion that we must be “proud Americans” (or proud Westerners) to qualify as human beings. It’s with the premise that we need to operate within the white non-Muslim gaze in order to claim our humanity; that we need to say, “Hey, look, I have barbecues in my backyard just like every other American! Look, I watch football games like you, too! We’re all American!” The title is cringe-worthy enough, too — what does “All-American” mean exactly?

National Muslim civil rights organizations promote these narratives too, unfortunately. In their PR campaigns, they’ll showcase images of Muslims proudly waving (or even wearing) American flags in the name of “breaking stereotypes,” as if performing Americanness (or Canadianness, Britishness, etc.) is the only way to prove to the West that we are human. Meanwhile, the Muslims who resist these narratives and/or question the legitimacy of white supremacist nations (often by addressing the racist, sexist, and violent colonial histories of these nations and the impact these forces have today) are categorized as “bad Muslims” – the militants, the extremists, the radicals, etc. Sadly, we see this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy also perpetuated by people in our own communities. I remember a few friends and I raised concerns about the way some Muslim civil rights groups were praising the “founding fathers.” In particular, we called attention to the fact that the founding fathers owned slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous peoples. The response we received from one of the representatives was a hostile one, accusing us of being “bad PR.” What message does this deliver to Indigenous peoples struggling against colonialism and genocide? What message does it deliver about Muslims in America and the agenda that some organizations are trying to promote (i.e. “we’re only concerned about our interests” over the rights of others)?

We saw the same pattern of the assimilation narrative in the awful Mipsterz video (which I believe is still worse than the “Happy Muslim” videos). With regard to the “Happy Muslims” videos, the critiques are again about how Muslims perform “happiness” for the white gaze to be seen as “normal” (“normal” meaning “just like every other British/American/Canadian person” and being seen as nonthreatening to white supremacy). An article on OnIslam.net, which wrote in defense of the video, concluded with a sentence stating that 83% of Muslims are “proud to be a British citizen.” To counter stereotypes, the message seems to always be: “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re proud British/American/Canadian/Australian, etc. citizens,” instead of “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re human beings.” It’s as if the only way to be respected and accepted in society is to show white non-Muslims that we are not only “happy” in their white supremacist nations, but also how we are “the Good Muslims,” or “proud citizens just like them.” Subsequently, this works to distinguish us from the Muslims “over there,” i.e. the Muslims who aren’t citizens of the West and characterized as being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” “unintelligent,” etc. (and as if their lack of citizenship makes them less human or their deaths less outrageous).

Indeed, Islamophobia and other oppressive forces from the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal establishment have tremendous effects on Muslims and people of color. I’m not saying that the Muslims who participated in the video are unaware or not impacted by these forces. However, what I’d like to call attention to is that we rarely see stories or videos that show Muslims resisting against state racism, assimilation, and other oppressive forces in their lives without being demonized for it. Are “happy” and state-friendly images of Muslims the only response we have to Islamophobia? Or, to phrase another way, are these images the only “appropriate” ways to counter stereotypes?

The argument from people who are defending the video is that the filmmakers are humanizing Muslims. However, let’s ask ourselves what it means to be human. Does “human” mean that we are only allowed to express one emotion, “happiness”? Does a “humanizing” depiction of Muslims mean we restrict ourselves to the narrow depiction of being “Good Muslims” and omit the other emotions (like anger and sadness) we experience for the sake of “proving” to white non-Muslims that we are not terrorists? I’m concerned with the ironically angry personal attacks that critics of the video are getting from fellow Muslims. Critics are labeled as the Muslims who “don’t know how to be happy” or “don’t know how to have fun.” Unfortunately, it goes to show how the good Muslim/bad Muslim is being reproduced, but also how oppressive “positive-thinking” politics can be, especially when they’re imposed on people who are expressing the opposite.  That is, if you aren’t “happy” or thinking “positively,” then you’re characterized as being “oversensitive,” “ungrateful/unappreciative,” or “too angry.” What does “happy” mean in this context anyway? Be happy and don’t talk about Islamophobia? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who do not perform happiness in the way the Muslims in the video do? What are the views toward Muslims who would be classified as “angry,” and are actively resisting against white supremacy and patriarchy? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who are disloyal towards the British government (or any government, really)? What about Muslims who don’t feel like they can “fit in” or may not even want to “fit in”? Aren’t all of these questions and concerns also part of people’s humanity?

There are ways to show Muslims struggling against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without portraying us as “helpless victims” or mass murderers. There are ways to tell stories about these struggles without relying on demonizing stereotypes. We can tell these stories without being primarily concerned with the gaze of the white non-Muslim audience. A few days ago, I read a really moving article by author Daniel José Older, who wrote about writers of color and the challenges they face in storytelling and publishing. In the article, titled “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” this part stood out to me the most:

The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair this month: “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

So we are wary. The publishing industry looks a lot like one of these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.

But let’s go back to this: “It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color, it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet of the majority white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture [Emphasis mine].

Yes. All of that!

The part about “writing past” editors and agents resonated with me the most because I believe it articulates how I’ve been approaching the feature film I’m currently writing/directing/producing (filming is about 70% finished). I did not want to make a PSA announcement nor was I interested in “educating” a white audience about Islam and Pakistani culture. I did not want the two Pakistani Muslim protagonists to be seen as representing “all Pakistanis” or “all Muslims.” Instead, I have been focusing on telling an honest and unapologetic story that treats these characters as complex, multi-dimensional individuals and human beings. I don’t mean “human beings” in the universal, colorblind, “we-are-all-human-therefore-race-doesn’t-matter” sense. I mean “human beings” as in owning our feelings, emotions, complexities, without being concerned with whether or not these characters make white non-Muslim audiences comfortable. In some scenes, these two characters are happy. In other scenes, they’re sad and conflicted. And sometimes, they are angry and disruptive. I’m sure some people will have critiques about the film and I’ll do my best to be ready for those criticisms (and own up to any mistakes I’ve made), but overall, I have found that not worrying or caring about the white gaze has been a very empowering process in telling this story. By the end of it, I hope it is seen as a disruptive film that challenges white supremacist patriarchy in education institutions and the workplace (where most of my film takes place), and promotes solidarity among communities of color. I also hope it’s seen as challenging assimilation and “American identity” in general. Of course, I anticipate white people watching the film and, if anything, I’d like them to think about how they can be allies (or improve their roles as allies), but overall, they’re not the target audience of the film.

Lastly, I’m not saying that we should see Muslims being “angry all the time” in contrast to all the “happy” videos that portray Muslims as “joyous,” “hip,” and “cool.” I’m saying that we do not see Muslims expressing rage or anger in videos/movies/TV shows that are seeking to humanize us. Too often, all we see are PSA or PR campaigns that are about “educating” non-Muslims that we are not “terrorists;” that we are just like them; that we are not actively challenging state oppression. If we see “angry Muslims” in mainstream media, they are terrorists, misogynists, and “oversensitive,” racialized Others who are “backwards” and “pre-modern.” Very rarely do we see stories or depictions of Muslims where we just are being and existing in all of our complexities without the filter of white culture.

While some people defend the “Happy Muslims” video (which seems to be turning into a campaign now in the West) and believe it helps “break stereotypes,” there are other stories that are left untold. I know there are other Muslim filmmakers and storytellers who are telling more nuanced and complex stories and not catering to the white gaze, but we do not see their work being promoted enough. We need to move away from this idea that we have to perform “happiness” and/or assert “American,” “British,” or “Canadian” identities to be seen as human beings. As Jamaludeen expressed at the end of her critique, we need to “start defining ourselves on our own terms.” The white supremacist nation-state doesn’t decide who is human or isn’t — our humanity is God-given and no one can take that away.