On Wednesday night Channel 4 documentaries aired “What British Muslims Really Think”. According to the host, Trevor Phillips, it is a unique new survey [which] reveals how British Muslims really think. And I can honestly say it was a treat. There is so much that can be said about this thinly veiled call to arms against British Muslims and so much to comment on the political implications, criticisms on methodology of collecting findings, problems with sourcing etc. But that can be found in numerous other articles written by a great many political voices across a great many organisations.
For me though, as I sat there aghast, watching this appalling and gross abuse of media power, my mind was reeling from the craftsmanship at work here. Maybe because the literary realm and the power of words is my field, or maybe because of my affinity for Tafsīr (the careful analysis of words, meaning and context), or maybe because it was blatantly obvious, I saw before me an artistic piece rich with persuasive conventions, suggestive language, rhetorical techniques, sensory devices and strategic cinematography all efficiently – oh so efficiently, no second to waste; no words allowed that didn’t pull their weight – pushing an agenda of moral panic, fear mongering, and purposeful damage to social and community cohesion, reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices about Muslim communities.
As such, when the editorial team asked if I wanted to write a response to the documentary, I pitched my angle – I asked to go right back to my university days as this should have been shown then, this was exactly what we should have studied. This was a lesson on using language, structure and tone to create a world of pure imagination, persuading the audience it was true, and rallying troops for a daunting end.
On Wednesday night we shared an article from the Guardian newspaper. Its opening lines were:
“What do British Muslims really think? That’s what Trevor Phillips asks in a Channel 4 documentary later this week. It reminds me of the question that I and many other Brits of colour are often asked: “But where are you really from?”
The question here implies that, whatever your Muslim neighbours may tell you, don’t believe them.”
The documentary was littered with such phrases. Under a guise of curiosity or innocent speculation, the constant suggestive statements slowly but persistently nudged the audience into adopting suspicion, fear and even anger over the growing “Mozlem Epidemic”.
“Just over 10 years ago … terror struck Britain. None of the bombers survived, but the menace they posed did not perish with them. […] It’s the extremist adherents of one particular faith, Islam, who have created a major fault-line in this country. […] Until now experts, community leaders and politicians of all stripes have tried to reassure the public that extremist views are held only by a tiny minority of British Muslims.”
As the introductory message, riddled with negative, fear-inducing lexis, is set forth, Phillips leaves the viewers with a hankering suspicion that they may be wrong; that the truth of the matter is that this is not in fact the case. Just as we would say ‘You may think it’s easy, but…’ or ‘She seemed really nice on the phone, but…’ or ‘I know the food looks nice, but…’ to begin an alleged expository documentary with a statement such as this sets a standard of expectation to the contrary; that initial beliefs have been flawed; that everyone has ‘tried’ to reassure the public that only a ‘tiny minority’ of British Muslims have extreme views but the fact of the matter is that the ‘terror [that has] struck Britain’ stems from ‘adherents from one particular faith, Islām’. We are now 1 minute into the documentary. Just another 46 minutes of this masterpiece to go.
We then have David Cameron, our Prime Minister, the leader of this nation, in his famous speech offering support to those ‘reforming, moderate voices’ that want to ‘reclaim their religion’. And then Phillips asks:
‘But is David Cameron right to say that most British Muslims share the same values as non-Muslims? And do they reject extremism and violent action in the same way as the whole of British society?’
I would never have thought that to question something David Cameron had said would be to paint Muslims in an even worse light. Apparently I was wrong. Phillips’ leading question here, typical of persuasive and suggestive speech, a question that would be entirely inadmissible as an interrogative question for its implied answer, tells the viewer the answer to expect. “No. Cameron is not right. No. British Muslims do not share the same values. No. They do not reject extremism and violent action. No. They are not the same as the whole of British society.” Already, in 1 minute 30 seconds, Phillips has succinctly and effectively drawn a dividing line between British Muslims and ‘the whole of British society’; he has perpetuated an ‘us and them’ belief.
As if to demonstrate his credentials and the subsequent credibility of the documentary he gives us a touching story of how his work has contributed to the invention of the word ‘Islamophobia’ and how he therefore must be an objective, honest, unbiased, observer, here to deliver facts on ‘the results of a unique new survey [which] reveal how British Muslims themselves answer these questions’.
‘Our findings will shock many’, he says. In other words, in case you couldn’t guess from my leading question: David Cameron is wrong. He suggests that this survey illustrates the ‘looming threat to our very way of life’. A survey on the opinion of British Muslims bears the signs of a looming threat to our very way of life. Looming. Threat. Were a viewer to turn away at any point in this documentary they would have been fed negativity after negativity, fear upon fear, and suspicion against their fellow British Muslims. From the outset, this documentary has a single purpose, and it is committed to fulfilling it. Bear in mind, we do not yet know the findings and we are exactly 2 minutes in.
As much as I would like to, I will not give a second by second account of this documentary. Suffice to say: through use of language and linguistic techniques, through emphasis, through effective pauses, through the very choice of words, Phillips portrays an image of a villainous, threatening band of terrorists living among us.
The best horror film begins on a presumption of normalcy: an ordinary home, a nice street, friendly neighbours. It is when this is inverted and subverted that we feel the most fear. You would expect to find horror at a haunted house, so what you get was coming to you. But the poor unsuspecting citizen going about their daily business who is suddenly ambushed by their butchers, bakers and candlestick makers they had known all their life is all the more pitiable. This is what Phillips ultimately warns the viewers of.
We are quite literally introduced to local butchers in South London while Phillips narrates that this survey gave a true depiction of what Muslims think because most non-Muslims only meet Muslims at work or out shopping. The poor butchers explained how they had been working there for years and always laughed and joked with their multi-racial customers, only to have Phillips swiftly add:
“But this isn’t exactly the encounter where people share their innermost thoughts.”
Read: this survey is true because what your Muslim colleagues or servicemen tell you are lies, the enemy lives among you. These friendly butchers aren’t sharing their innermost thoughts.
‘One place ICM researchers visited is Luton. The 2011 census records some 50,000 Muslims living here.’
The correct, and almost natural, manner in constructing this sentence is as follows:
“One place ICM researchers visited is Luton. The 2011 census records some 50,000 Muslims living there.”
His reference to Luton was distanced. It therefore follows that his use of indicative noun should also be the distanced ‘there’. However he opts for ‘here’. Why? As an isolated occasion, this means nothing. But following the ‘looming’ ‘threat’ of deceiving Muslims, the word ‘here’ serves to create a sense of imminence and proximity. They. are. here. Fifty thousand of them. Here. Give no chance to non-residents of Luton feeling safe thinking “at least those terrible people are over there”. No. Wherever you are, if you are watching this, they are ‘here’ in your vicinity.
He assures the viewers he knows ‘good’ British Muslims exist and gives a cursory nod at Nadia Hussain before immediately cutting to a forbidding and terrifying memory of a great tragedy in Britain, the culprits of which came from ‘just fifteen minutes away’. Again, imminence and proximity.
And again, Phillips, almost as if to say ‘Do you see, as I said:’
“The Channel 4 survey explored what Britain’s 3 million Muslims really think on a range of issues.”
Not what they say, not what they claim to be like, but what they really think, what they are really like. Continually drawing parallels with the good exterior and the contrasting evil reality.
Nadia vs. Terrorists.
What British Muslims say vs. What British Muslims think.
Good vs. Evil.
Solely the depiction of statistics on beliefs held by British Muslims regarding homosexuality, suicide bombing, violence, attitudes towards women, perpetuated this notion. Figures such as the 4% of British Muslims who demonstrated some form of sympathy to ‘sensitive matters’ were put on centre stage. The same clip was replayed of Martin Boon, Director of ICM saying
“That implies that just over 100,000 Muslims in the United Kingdom have some form of sympathy with violent acts.”
I wonder what the question was for 100,000 Muslims to have allowed themselves to be depicted as such barbarians.
I would like to focus on what the statistics were. 4% of British Muslims vs. 1% of the rest. That is 99% of the whole population have no sympathy for violent acts and 96% of British Muslims have no sympathy for violent acts. Stop the presses. We have a looming threat. Whereas the 1% of the whole population is described as ‘just a handful’ the 4% are given a substantive figure of 100,000. If we are talking figures, I would like figures. If we are talking handfuls, then that’s 4 handfuls of British Muslims with dodgy views.
“Britain’s political elite, both left and right, have preferred to believe that only a very small number of Britain’s Muslims sympathise with Islamist terrorism”, Phillips says in an almost mocking tone. Oh these children, believing things again, are we? “The survey suggests otherwise.”
– “Preferred to believe” i.e. blind faith, head in the sand, not facing facts.
– “only a very small number” i.e. “The survey says!” wrong.
Be afraid, be very afraid.
“The survey also suggests that everyone who has pinned their hopes on the rise of liberal and reforming British Muslim voices is in for a disappointment. Those voices are nowhere near as influential or as numerous as they need to be to make an impact.”
Disheartening words. Not just for the non-Muslim viewership but for the Muslims who spend every day working hard to dispel the myth of a brutal Islām, who work hard every day to demonstrate the beauty of Islām, who step outside identifiably Muslim living to be an example of the truth of Islām.
As mentioned earlier. I am not here to contest the accuracy of results or methodology. I write as a viewer and of the destruction this programme caused to a fractured community, of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, which is trying to build a society of cohesion and unity. To trust one another and believe the best in one another. What has happened with the ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude? What has happened to ‘united we stand, divided we fall’? This programme is a shame to those quintessential values made famous by legends. Every word of this documentary fuelled a fire that people toil every day to put out. Every word created fear of the other. Every word created a ‘chasm’ amongst the British.
If you watched this and came away with a negative perception of your British Muslim neighbours, watch it again. This time look out for the narrative being pushed. I have only covered 10 minutes of the documentary. There is so much more to be said.
“Words are powerful forces of nature/ they are destruction/ they are nourishment.”
It is evident which Trevor Phillips chose.
The directors of this documentary must have had fun. They tried their hand at an eerie reconstruction straight out of Watchdog. I can honestly say I feared for the lady’s life and well-being as she walked in a suspect part of the neighbourhood. She is filmed from a shaky-cam perspective as if she were the target of some perversion or murderous intent. She knocks on a door. A man opens it and lets her in. Don’t go in! I want to scream. She walks into a Dickensian setting. It is a dim, unsettling, uninhabited shack of a home. Paint peels off the walls and banisters. He ushers her into the back of the house. She timidly asks if she can ask him some questions. He never speaks. He only ever stares.
This is the only Muslim interviewee the viewers see. Thank you directors, for that choice selection of cast and setting to represent every British Muslim interviewed. Every piece of data you mention will be associated with this gentleman who lives in a bleak house. Even were every word said about Muslims in this documentary positive and comforting or indeed encouraging, it would be shattered by the image of this suspicious man plastered in every person’s mind.
Other spells of genius include a voice over of:
– “underneath these surface attitudes the trends are far less encouraging for those who believe in integration” accompanying an image of said Muslim man.
– “Muslims incorrectly or erroneously conflating what’s happening in Israel-Palestine with Jewish people who have nothing to do with Israel-Palestine or Zionism” accompanying an image of a bearded elder gentleman walking in Britain.
– “What if that framework (Qur’ānic guidance) collides with the values of wider society?” accompanying an image of a mosque in Britain.
– “the kinds of [terrible, abhorrent, violent, asocial] attitudes revealed by our survey” accompanying an image of men praying in congregation in a mosque.
– “I […] just got the aspirations of British Muslims wrong” accompanying an image of a mosque.
– “There is a problem with this live and let live, laissez faire, approach. Our survey revealed the more people hankered after a separate life the more sympathetic they were to violence and extremism.” following a scene of a Muslim father, mother and children walking on the streets of Britain.
– “Attitudes to violence” accompanying an image of Mr Muslim Man
– “The survey is showing us the emergences of […] a nation within the nation, where many hold different values of behaviour from the majority” accompanying a shot of a marketplace frequented by Muslim shoppers.
Quite unashamedly, the Editors attribute these negative stereotypes to images of the average, every day Muslim. They conflate extreme, violent and intolerant views with what is identifiably Muslim and in so doing push to indoctrinate the minds of the viewers to believe as such too.
The documentary “What British Muslims Really Think” has proven itself an example of expert movie making. When I was 12 years old learning about Nazi propaganda and its power over the German people, I could not understand how people could be so foolish to be sucked in by what leaflets said, what emissions said, what people said about their fellow citizens and how people could possibly act upon such propaganda to commit heinous acts of ethnic cleansing against the Jewish people. This documentary is exactly that, and the people who are taken in by Trevor Phillips’ words are not as foolish as the 12 year old me thought. They are trusting of what they believe is unbiased reporting for the benefit of their community. Documentaries such as this propagate an ideology of hate and intolerance towards ordinary citizens and they encourage a militia-mentality in British citizens against their fellow Muslim Britons.
After almost an hour of subliminal messages, not-so-subtle discrimination and incessant fear-mongering, Phillips reviews the threat to Britain. “There are now more than 3 million Muslims in Britain […] Britain faces a huge challenge.” He asks: “What are we going to do about it?”
He goes on to say,
“This is not just the responsibility of the government. To stand a chance of success the whole of Britain have to set aside the live and let live philosophy […] and reassert liberal values […We could close our eyes and hope that our problems will vanish] or we could seize the initiative.”
The following words brought a chill to my bones:
‘If anything the Prime Minister’s plans just don’t go far enough. The evidence tells me that we need a much more muscular approach.”
Thank you for encouraging EDL Jack and Racist Jill to take matters into their own hands and do away with the live and let live philosophy. Thank you for pushing out an hour long documentary on the evils of what you believe Muslims think ‘beneath the surface’ and for concluding that our already fearful neighbours need to take a much more muscular approach. For a moment I feared for all my family members and all the innocent and vulnerable Muslims whom your words will have an impact on.
Then I remembered the words of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā),
“Fear not. I am with you; I hear and I see.”
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 Arun Kundnani’s book entitled The Muslims are coming! explores this fear and the rise in the Islamophobia industry. Cf. https://www.islam21c.com/politics/the-muslims-have-come/
 Al-Qur’ān, 20:46
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.