The Pursuit of Happiness – Happy Muslims, Creativity and Political Agency
A few weeks ago The Honest Policy launched a ‘Happy Muslims’ version of Pharrell Williams’ feel-good ‘Happy’.
By now it has been followed by several other initiatives such as a German video:
One from Egypt:
One from Chicago, US:
One from Abu Dhabi:
And one from the Netherlands:
And several others, just check Youtube. In that list you will see several critical responses to it as well. We can distinguish at least four types of criticism that I’ve seen in regard to the UK and Dutch versions (I haven’t checked the debates in other cases):
Much of the critique was about Muslims who are giving in to ‘Western’ ideas of the good Muslim: someone who shows his/hers allegiance to the country they live in. What gets included in the category of the good Muslim is central to the reproduction of dichotomies between humanity/creativity/happiness in relation to the West on the one hand, and fundamentalism/ terrorism/inhumanity/angriness in relation to Islam on the other. The next comment is exemplary for this type of critique:
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).
Related to the first and building upon it is that Muslims through these videos are internalizing the stereotypes that are imposed on them. A critique that is very much related to analysis of racism, orientalism and Islamophobia in the sense that is pretty much how racism works: it gets internalized by the ones who are targeted by it:
I ain’t happy | Escape The Cage
How can we claim to actively fight the stereotypes that plague Western perceptions of Muslims if we operate under the veneer of those very prejudices? 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”. We never play by our rules, we only seem to be efficient when reacting to standards imposed upon us. That’s not smart. The worst “Other-ing” is that which one imposes upon oneself. Self-enslavement, unknowingly absorbed, is the most dangerous form of bondage. Failing to understand that by the very act of attempting to defy dehumanising stereotypes, we have (in)conveniently bought into the status quo’s sophisticated trickery, and have done an unprecedented disservice to ourselves and to our heritage. The result is, to put it bluntly, amateurish and we frankly do not have the right to complain about negative portrayals of Muslims by Western discourse-setters if we have chosen to submit ourselves to such narratives.
A third category of critique pertains to tapping into pop culture and the figure of Pharrell who has featured in rather misogynist pop videos before. In this sense the Muslims in the video trade in the stereotypes of the angry Muslim for the misogynist imagination of pop culture.
‘Happy British Muslims’ sparks unhappiness
Bopping to substandard R&B tracks is a thing many self-respecting folk (whether Muslim or not) might confess to with sheepish embarrassment. That stuff’s catchy, no one’s denying it. But to gloat about it under the banner of a marginalised religious community gives the impression of trying to compensate for something.
The issue I want to raise is, why buy into an aspect of pop culture that sends a message of brainless conformity, as opposed to positive contribution?
I use the term “brainless” deliberately because of what Pharrell has been associated with. I refer to his feature in Robin Thicke’s controversial single “You know you want it” which was banned in 20 student unions across the UK for its “rape-promoting content”.[ii] The same Pharrell who also produced the song’s video featuring Robin, rapper TI and himself alongside a handful of near-nude models being generally demeaned.
The conservative critique focuses on the issues of happiness and the role of women in the video. The latter are regarded as dancing provocatively in the video and some see the line ‘happiness is the truth’ as a secular message that opposes Islam as the truth.
My thoughts on #HappyMuslims video | Islam21c
The image which came to mind after a few moments was of slave masters watching their slave girls/boys amuse, dance and entertain them as they twirl their moustaches happily. Yes this is a metaphor and our brothers and sisters are not slave girls, but what is worse is when a Muslim makes that conscious decision that what they have from their Deen and their values just isn’t “good enough” and thus “let’s use the medium of popular culture instead regardless of whether it fits an Islamic ethos or not”. This is of course the real slavery. The slavery of the mind. The music etc wasn’t so depressing for me; it was watching a people fall even more into subservience.
– Any women who claim that females dancing is not provocative or sexual, is either naïve or just plain miskeen. And any man whom claims the same, is, well, lying. Ladies, you could dance like Peter Crouch and men would find that sexual! Men don’t think like you. You lift an elbow out and just wiggle your head forget about anything else and you just provocation-ed off the provocation-meter. You want to do that, keep it for your fella’s eyes only please.
– It’s amazing just how strong that feeling of inferiority amongst liberal and secular Muslims is. That is definitely the major concern here, not the music or dancing. Folks used to call it a inferiority complex. That’s outdated now. We need to call it an “inferiority crisis”.
These different categories are not exclusive and in fact are very much related to each other: they all pertain to how to resist particular oppositions, imaginaries and stereotypes that are imposed on Muslims? The producers and the people who participate in the video are criticized for tapping into and reproducing those imaginaries in different ways.
Happiness as political
My first reaction about the UK video and after the Dutch networks announced their video was in line with much of the critique I have highlighted here. And as one of my interlocutors stated on my Facebook page why should Muslims be happy when in the Netherlands they are submitted to all kinds of racist statements, when there is a terrible war in Syria and when in Burma Rohingya Muslims are persecuted? Why shouldn’t we be angry then? In fact we should be angry now and this video is depoliticizing the whole Muslim issue making our grievances invisible. After some thinking I still agree with these critiques but I have also a few doubts in particular because it ignores an important part of the message of all the different videos: escaping social pressures, happiness, fun, and the diversity among Muslims themselves. As the Honesty Policy stated they wanted to “rethink the rulebook of religious expression”, for a community which is “eclectic, creative and competent”.
As such the fun and happiness displayed in the Happy Muslim meme is of course highly political. It shows a group of Muslims performing a capacity to stop noticing the negative social imaginaries and miseries of the world while at the same time attempting to tame of violence of the racist impositions and the frustrations of feeling powerless against the injustice in the world.
It is I think a mode of double resistance. First of all it is a protest against the imposition of the social imaginary of the angry Muslim basically reducing all Muslims to violent, intolerant and uncreative robots. Second it indicates an area where Muslims, against all odds, are themselves in a way participants experience as ‘finally something fun and positive’ and in a way that challenges the idea that all Muslims are the same by showing their diversity. Also it indicates an attempt to make themselves visible. Although Muslims often disappear as unique individuals in the debates as they are often seen seen as representatives or examples of this and that, the videos state ‘here we are as Muslims and we are all different and unique’. Of course that is also tapping into a cultural development that highly privileges authenticity and individualism (with all its down sides) but it is still a type of resistance anyway.
Silencing the alternative?
Of course, this is a bit speculative since I would need to know more about the motives of the makers and participants and so far I have only seen their facebook postings. I’m engaging in it anyway because I’m wondering if the four categories of criticism I listed here do not fall into a similar trap as the people of the videos are accused of: reproducing the divide between us and them and between the West and Islam. Moreover the criticism appears to make a plea for a type of resistance that is completely separate and not informed by the stereotypes and imaginaries imposed upon Muslims and I wonder if that is possible at all.
It seems as if we think that if people are using happiness, fun and diversity as their main message, we are saying by definition now you are succumbing to Western standards instead of being yourself or being Islamic? But surely there are more repertoires of a good life than Western, Islamic or being yourself? We make highly detailed analysis of how Muslims are trying to create a feeling of belonging to other Muslims or ethnic groups, but we criticize them when they perform their search for belonging to the Netherlands and we see that as being submissive to the negative social imaginaries and Islamophobic policies? What does that say about our own analysis? Is it based upon only two distinct and non-related categories of oppression and opposition against oppression? Why not a different reading as well? Why not the reading, hey here we have a bunch of Muslims and against all odds, against you saying we are all the same and against you trying to exclude us from the important debates and policies, here we are, we are all the same and different at the same time and no matter how violent your policies are, you cannot touch us, we are still happy?
Furthermore I wonder if these critiques do not ignore the idea that governmentality and resistance are always highly related and mutually constitutive. It is precisely through those government policies which are devised to manage integration and radicalization, that Muslims are objectified as governable targets and where the subjectivation of Muslims – as Muslims – occurs but it is also that which creates, informs and shapes the potential for resistance. This means yes resistance is always highly informed by the same social imaginaries it tries to resist and in this case highly informed by the same orientalisms, sexisms and pop culture shallowness it actually tries to resist.
But at the same time happiness, fun, and creativity are all located within wider alternative national and religious geographical imaginaries and as such constitute a critique of social and political injustice, and demands for a more just, satisfying and equitable future. The enactment of happy Muslims within a context of people telling them how to behave, religious conservatism, racism and war can therefore be seen as a political demand for humanity itself and drawing a space where they are left alone by outside pressures. While the above mentioned critique may be warranted (and I think it is) it may also amount to silencing those Muslims who engage in a type of activism which may not have a determinate political effect or one that we have a hard time recognizing and acknowledging.
Of course these comments mainly pertain to Happy Muslims as a transnational phenomenon. Which political effect they exactly create or what type of political agency we are witnessing here is of course for determined by the concrete local political context as well, making Happy Muslims from the Netherlands partly different from Happy Muslims from Gaza:[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4gu27QVzOc]
See also at Allegra Lab: To Be #HAPPY Muslim Or Not To Be – #ANTHROISLAM By Raana Bokhari