WHEN I heard that a new sitcom revolving around a British Muslim family was to hit our television screens, I was intrigued to say the least. Most of all I was curious to see how Citizen Khan – which follows self-appointed “community leader” and businessman Mr Khan and his British-Pakistani family – would be received, particularly by the community it portrays.
Having struck up a friendship with the show’s writer and main star, Adil Ray, following my participation in the Channel 4 documentary Make Bradford British, I knew he was not one to shy away from controversy.
On that front, at least, the show is an unqualified success. In the wake of the first episode the BBC received more than 200 complaints that the programme stereotypes Muslims and insults Islam. A further 20 were fielded by Ofcom, which is now considering whether to launch an investigation.
Sadly, after the backlash that followed my own, fleeting appearance on television, it was exactly what I had expected.
After appearing on Make Bradford British – a programme which sought to explore our sense of national identity – I was attacked by a section of the Muslim community who believed that I had insulted and misrepresented Islam.
As a result, they felt they had licence to hurl abuse and criticism at me through all forms of social media. No one liked the fact that on the programme I had worked in a pub and also challenged a male who appeared to be a very devout Muslim. Nor were they happy that I was unrepentant following the show.
That experience means I am not surprised by the controversy Citizen Khan has generated. What I have found particularly troubling, however, is the fact that the most vehement objections relate to the representation of issues that will be all too familiar to so many Muslims of my generation.
The scene that sparked most of the initial complaints was that which showed Mr Khan’s youngest daughter, Alia, flicking through a magazine, then hastily putting on a hijab and fervently reading the Koran when she heard her father approaching.
This sense of conflict between multiple identities is something many second generation Muslims are all too familiar with. Alia is a perfect representation of the struggle between wanting to explore one’s individuality and the desire to please and conform to the expectations held by one’s parents and elders.
It’s a struggle that many first generation parents have failed to grasp, however, resulting in subsequent generations essentially leading double lives where on the one hand they are conforming and submissive to their parents’ culture and traditions and on the other readily explore notions of independence and self awareness.
So why all the fuss? Girls like Alia are all too common – every Muslim in the UK will know at least one – yet when she is presented to them on their television screens there is uproar.
The reason for this is simple. Many within the Muslim community are in denial. They will acknowledge privately that characters like Alia exist, but once they are placed in the public sphere that acknowledgement transforms into resistance: a resistance to publicly accepting that this character exists and is representational of many young second and third generation British Asian Muslims.
Why? Because publicly accepting that there are girls like Alia out there – and acknowledging the baggage they carry – means that action has to be taken and the community must look inwardly at itself.
The introspection this requires is something the community feels it can do without. It is far easier to cry out that the Koran is being defamed and disrespected and for members of the community to take it upon themselves to become defenders of the faith and denounce anyone who opposes them as a traitor to the religion. You just need to visit the Citizen Khan Facebook page to see this phenomenon in full effect.
It is for this very reason that I applaud Citizen Khan and its writers. In effect they have held up a mirror to my community: a mirror which reflects issues we can no longer ignore.
Adil Ray should be commended for being brave enough to take on these issues and make light of them, essentially saying that we are like every other community, be it Irish Catholic or Jewish.
On our part, rather than being defensive and emotional about it, we should be able to laugh. Laugh at the fact that we are normal. Laugh at the fact that for the first time we are not being portrayed as terrorists or shouting banshees.
Because if we lose this opportunity to show that we have a sense of humour we are in danger of forever being seen as a morbid, dark and isolated community lacking the ability to laugh at itself.
I find it particularly telling that Citizen Khan’s creator cites the comedian Dave Allen, an Irish Catholic who wasn’t afraid to poke fun at his own community, as a key influence.
“The biggest, most important thing you can do is laugh at yourself,” says Adil Ray. “You then negate anything anybody can ever do, it’s the ultimate weapon. If you can laugh at yourself it doesn’t matter what anybody says to you as you’re laughing already.”
Through his sitcom, Ray is now giving the British Muslim community the chance to do exactly that.
It is an opportunity it should grasp.