Meet The Young British Muslims Looking To Rebrand Their Religion

In the form of a viral video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell's song Happy...


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

Have you seen the YouTube video of British Muslims singing and dancing to Pharrell’s stratospheric hit Happy yet? The four-minute video features men and women, some young, some old, some black, some white, some Asian, some wearing a hijab, some not, but they’re all Muslim and they’re all happy. It's a simple message, but since the clip was posted two weeks ago, it's gone viral, with almost 1.5million views and a host of imitation videos from Muslims living in other cities around the world. (Chicago Muslims? They're happy, too!)

The video was created by the Honesty Policy, an anonymous collective of young British Muslims – a unisex group of students and young professionals, who wanted to show that British Muslims are just as culturally, ethnically and socially diverse as any other population in the UK and, most importantly, that they’re also just as ‘normal’ and happy as anyone else in Britain.

‘The point of the video is to show Islam is not a cultural monolith,’ a representative for the Honesty Policy told The Debrief of the idea behind the clip. ‘There’s not just one way to be a Muslim – the video has a range of people all from different cultures and ethnicities, but they’re all Muslim. A lot of people have tried to force a political narrative on us, but the aim of the video was simple and that was to contribute to the amazing 'happy' project at the same time as galvanising a movement that will hopefully bring us all together, and we’ve been blown away by the response. Muslims in Germany, Singapore, Chicago, Washington and Toronto are all making their own versions of the video and contributing to the conversation. We’ve been completely blown away by the reaction, which I’d say has been 90 per cent positive.’

The other 10 per cent, though, is a fierce backlash from a small, albeit noisy minority within the Muslim community – largely focussed on trying to discredit one of the people starring in the video, Cambridge lecturer Timothy Winter, known in the Muslim community as Sheikh Abul-Hakim. A few days after the video was put online, a story surfaced in a UK Muslim newspaper that the lecturer had distanced himself from the clip and called its content improper.

Winter himself insists that’s untrue and ‘he was happy to be involved'. But the makers of the video believe those stirring up the backlash are symptomatic of a wider problem in the UK's Muslim community – the tension between assimilating into British culture and being accused of abandoning the customs that come with Islam.

‘Some people believe that we’re trying to “fit in” with British culture and copying people who are non-Muslim,’ the spokesperson tells us. ‘But that’s not what we’re doing and arguments like this might be superficial, but what they’re saying touches on some interesting and genuine debates. People struggle with the idea of conforming to a British culture which they view as hegemonic, imperialistic and imposing on their Islamic identity. But our counter debate to that is that the idea that there is one way to be Muslim is ridiculous, and the idea is degrading and undermining to 1 billion people across the world from various countries.’

People struggle with the idea of conforming to a British culture, which they view as imposing on their Islamic identity

Still, the 22 year old admits that sometimes it is hard for young Muslims in the UK, who want to be faithful to their religion but are living the same lives as any other British twenty-somethings. Especially when it comes to the very British culture of boozing. ‘A question I had to ask myself was whether or not it’s okay to go to the pub and have a drink with some friends. Is it okay if I just order a tap water, but still be in a place that sells and distributes alcohol?’ he says. ‘I might intern at a company and be offered to go for an after-work drink with the seniors – which is very normal in British culture – but a young Muslim who’s grown up in a particular cultural environment might struggle with that. They might be coerced into going for a drink because they feel like it might increase their chance of getting a job compared to someone else who doesn’t have the same religious beliefs. If you speak to any young British Muslim, they will inevitably have an experience like that.’

A question I had to ask myself was whether or not it’s okay to go to the pub and have a drink with some friends

He believes that it’s confusion from such tensions that’s resulted in the success of the Honesty Project. The project was set up by university and masters students and some young professionals in their twenties because they were frustrated by a lack of an apparopriate platform to, as they put it, 'Islamically express' themselves. They wanted the project to be a shift away from established narratives in the British community – a shift that was obviously needed if the response to their video has been anything to go by. He says, ‘A lot of other young Muslims are really confused. They are living in a bipolar world, in one sense they’re very British and have been brought up in British culture, and in one sense they are very Islamic and for them they don’t know how to mediate that.’

Does the suspicion, and sometimes hostile Islamophobic incidents, after things like Lee Rigby’s murder, add to this tension? After all, it often feels like you can’t open a newspaper without seeing a headline about Islamic extremism these days. Not so, apparently. ‘I’m a London boy born and raised and in my street you can about 40 different national identities. It’s a very cosmopolitan eclectic place and I haven’t really witnessed racism like that,’ he says. ‘Bar one incident when someone called me a “Paki” on the street in Bristol – which I could only laugh at because I’ve lived in Britain my whole life – when I read those headlines it doesn’t even register or phase me.’

Bar one incident when someone called me a “Paki” on the street in Bristol, when I read those headlines it doesn’t even register or phase me

Still, he does admit that the sometimes alarmist views presented about Islam are part of the reason the Honesty Project believe their Happy video is so important. ‘The Muslim community post-9/11 were more reactionary, but we’re just trying to move on and portray what the common general life of a Muslim today – Muslims are happy, we have non-Muslim friends, we’re really relaxed and we’re not this scary "other" that is portrayed in the media, wielding black flags and calling for Jihad against the British army. That’s not what it means to be a British Muslim – we’re very proud of our Britishness and we want to be contributing members of British society,’ he says.

And it looks like that mission is working. Despite the fact that the members are maintaining their anonymity – ‘because we want to be about the message, not the face’ – they’ve been overwhelmed by the messages of positive support flooding into their inbox. He says, ‘One of the most touching comments that we’ve got – and we’ve got millions – is from non-Muslim people who have said that they’ve never been exposed to any Muslim culture before and that all they see is the negative images that we see on TV and our video the most uplifting and revealing thing I’ve ever seen. When people ask me what I am, I just say I’m British Muslim and proud of it. We’re not scary. We’re normal people – we’re happy.’

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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