Extremely British Muslims PI
Thrust under the spotlight in recent years, Britain’s growing Muslim population has become a section of society scrutinised more than any other. As the number of Muslims in the UK reaches three million, fears of British Muslims living increasingly separate lives frequently dominate the news agenda.
Made by a BAFTA award-winning team, this brand new series provides an eye-opening view of British Muslim life, through privileged access to Birmingham Central Mosque and the lives of the community it serves. As Donald Trump continues to try to ban some Muslims from entering America, this series - filmed over a year in a city where a baby boy is more likely to be called Mohammed than any other name - looks beyond the headlines to find out what its like to be a Muslim in Britain right now.
The series provides new insights into an often-closed community, centred around one of the largest mosques in the UK and Western Europe. Told through the stories of some the mosque’s 6,000 congregants, the series unfolds in their day-to-day lives, exploring three themes – finding someone to marry, the identity crisis facing young Muslim men and the challenges faced by British Muslims trying to reconcile the rules of their faith with life in modern Britain.
All The Single Muslims
Episode one, All The Single Muslims, follows young women and young men as they endeavour to find spouses through the mosque’s Marriage Bureau service, their families and through Muslim dating sites. In particular the film focuses on the stories of 30-year-old Nayera and 24-year-old Bella who, caught between their 21st century lives and the expectations of an older generation, are struggling to find the right partner. Bella is choosing to go through the mosque to find a husband, but admits she is sometimes envious of romantic dates, first crushes and kisses, “You know when you watch, like, rom-coms and stuff and they’re like, let’s go for weekends away to Paris.” But a meeting with a potential match, arranged for her by the Marriage Bureau, involves her being introduced as ‘the candidate’, whilst being observed by her mother and sister.
Nayera struggles to find common ground on a meet-up arranged through a Muslim marriage website. The man's requirements of a wife who will look after him, cook him dinner and prioritise his kids, meets robust opposition from Nayera. She explains her conundrum: “I think race isn’t important to me but religion is important because it’s a fundamental part of who I am. Similarly, it would be very, very difficult for me to marry someone who isn’t British or at least Western, just because that’s also a fundamental part of who I am.”
The women aren’t alone. 28-year-old Ash is resisting his mother’s attempts to arrange a marriage with someone in Pakistan. “I said ‘no mum, we’re from different parts, from different worlds’. My mum says ‘what do you mean? She talks English’… I was just baffled by that, I was like, right, ok, so, all I’m looking for is somebody that speaks English, shouldn’t be too hard - I could find one at the bus stop right now. Yeah, looking for a little bit more than that mum!”
With more marriages breaking down than ever, according to the Mosque, the film also explores how women can seek a divorce through the Mosque’s Sharia Council. An Islamic court that deals exclusively with divorce applications, it’s the only one in the country with a female judge on the panel. Lots of the women who come here have had an Islamic wedding but are not married by British law.
Fatima wishes to be granted a divorce on grounds of emotional abuse and criminal behaviour. She had gone against her parents’ wishes when she first married him. She regrets rushing into the marriage. The presiding judge Dr Amra Bone reflects on her case: “This is a marriage of choice, meaning that she met him. The wife is discovering afterwards, oh he has been on drugs and so on and so we think it’s very important for the family to play a role in finding out what the boy is like before, you know, anything happens and in cases where they’ve already fallen in love it is in fact too late.”
Boys to Men
Episode two, Boys to Men, is about young British Muslim men trying to find their way in the shadow of the news headlines. It centres around the stories of fish-finger sandwich-loving, Waz and Nav, two young men accustomed to stereotyping because of their beards. A few years ago both were living lives on the wrong side of the law but made an active choice to re-embrace their Islamic faith and turn their lives around. Now they have to navigate the risks of how it looks when they go paintballing and they joke about whose beard makes them look more like a terrorist: ‘They probably think you look more likely to blow yourself up than me, see I could get away with the hipster…” laughs Nav.
But when fresh terror attacks take place, conducted by Muslim men born and raised in Europe, Waz and Nav reflect on being part of a ‘lost generation’ of young men who are made to feel outsiders in the UK. “What makes someone British… Do I have to make more effort to go see the Queen or something... I don’t know what I have to do to be part of these British values?”, asks Nav. "Everything about me is British,” says Waz, “I see myself as British not as Pakistani... I like the British culture more than I like the Pakistani culture. And it’s dangerous if other kids don’t feel that way…” he warns. “If you make these kids feel victimized, you’re gonna make them feel different…they’re gonna separate themselves from everyone else… And I know we’ve got to do more too. We can’t just withdraw…my community’s got to be more outward looking.”
The Chairman of the Mosque, Mr Afzal, complains, “I mean all the time, [it’s] 'Muslim, radicalisation and extremists'… people are just fed up now… they don’t want to hear this any more, ‘extremists, extremists, extremists’… all the time… I personally feel the Muslim community is being more unsafe, being harassed, and they are becoming more uncertain about their future in this country, the way they are being stigmatised…” But when Mr Afzal speaks against government plans to inspect Mosque schools, he sparks a controversy, accusing then Prime Minister David Cameron of Islamaphobia.
Waz helps Nav get a job with the emergency disasterrelief charity he works for. As they return from a trip, helping refugees who’ve made the dangerous boat crossing to Greece, Waz and Nav are delayed by police at the airport for several hours. Whilst Nav is angered by the experience, Waz, who has been stopped several times before reflects: “When you look the way that I do, of course they’re gonna stop you, why aren’t they gonna stop you? You look like the last person that was on the news like doing whatever he was doing so, they are just doing it to keep everybody safe, aren’t they?”
There are thousands of rules originating from the Qur’an and other books, detailing every aspect of daily life. This film follows some of Birmingham’s Muslims trying to live their lives by them. White ‘revert’ Abdul used to be called Shaun before converting to Islam six years ago. After marrying a Muslim woman from Pakistan, he now finds himself a stepdad to a daughter and two teenage sons. The boys are used to a more relaxed interpretation of Islam, and Abdul, who has found comfort and discipline in following the rules, struggles to get them to do the same.
In the same months when Abdul was converting to Islam, his brother Lee was at an English Defence League demonstration against the opening of a Mosque in their town. Abdul believes both of them were seeking a sense of belonging: “I can understand you know that both the EDL and let’s say Islam they can provide that sense of brotherhood but I mean, I would say that nothing compares to Islam when it comes to brotherhood. Islam is a complete way of life.”
There is such demand from people wanting to check the rules correctly that the Imams at the Mosque run a daily telephone helpline. Mohammad Imtiaz who takes calls about everything from divorce to leaky bladders, says: “You get people who like to follow Islam to the fullest. But we shouldn’t get tied up in small things like, ahh you’re not allowed to wear a silk shirt, you’re not allowed to wear gold. It is all down to the strength of your belief. Its what’s inside that counts.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Sidrah chooses to interpret one rule to its fullest possible meaning. She is one of the small minority of British Muslim women who choose to wear a face veil or niqab. Born and raised in Britain she is a youth worker. She’s also on a one-woman mission to fight prejudice against Muslim women who choose to cover up. She is giving a talk at Birmingham Central Mosque about the rules for dressing as a Muslim woman. The film follows her on the streets of Birmingham as she tries to drum up an audience of both Muslim and non-Muslim women. “People do think that because I wear this, because I’m covered, I am oppressed, sat at home just cooking for a husband, doesn’t know English; people say you’re a terrorist, you’re Taliban. No. It’s actually my own personal choice and it’s freedom of choice.” Her husband, recently arrived from Pakistan agrees. He did not ask her to wear the veil and says he enjoys her being the "man of the house".
Sidrah’s cousin Amber has recently started to wear the headscarf. Sidrah discovers that Amber’s teenage sons, who adhere more strictly to the rules of Islam, have been lobbying her to also wear the face veil. Sidrah confronts them: “You can’t force anyone. Islam has no room for force. When I was young, my brother would tell me, oh you should wear it, you have to wear it. I said no I will wear it when I want to wear it. I mean it is everyone’s active choice to do it.”
27-year-old Zaidan is big on the Birmingham Grime scene and has spent the last two years trying to make a career in music. But since marrying into a more conservative Muslim family, he has promised to give up the Grime and change his ways – something he struggles with. “If I was a good Muslim I would have to be praying five times a day, I would have to give to charity. When its Ramadan I would have to fast. That is basically the rules of Islam innit. I feel like I’m torn between two worlds and I’m struggling to be me, be the person that I am and at the same time, be a good Muslim.”
Series Director: Paddy Wivell
Series Producer: Fozia Khan
Executive Producer: Zac Beattie
Prod Co: The Garden Productions
Comm Ed: Amy Flanagan