What is a Muslim? asks a new BBC documentary

Fatima Salaria, commissioning editor for BBC Factual Programming, explains the premise for Muslims like Us…

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It feels as though British Muslims are never far from the news. Whether it’s a terror attack or Asian men from Rotherham on trial, it’s always deemed to be a “Muslim problem”. But have you ever thought what it’s like to be a Muslim at a time like this?

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I began to work on Muslims like Us with Love Productions over 18 months ago because as a programme-maker, rather than as a Muslim, I knew it was an important subject. This was before the attacks in Brussels and Paris and the Brexit and Trump votes. But those seismic shocks have given it extra relevance. The premise is that for ten days, ten Muslim participants will share a house and discuss and debate what it means to be Muslim and British today. 

I wanted to find a way to make people aware of the voices I hear every time a terrorist attack happens and a Muslim is involved. The voices in Muslim households, in the work place, mosques and markets around the country are part of a lively yet usually unheard debate.

The makeup of the group has been chosen to represent British Muslims as accurately as possible. This isn’t an exercise in giving free vent to the loudest mouths but an opportunity to hear authentic voices from a range of backgrounds and opinions so the viewer can gain fresh insights and not just have their prejudices confrmed.

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Abdul Haq, one of the Muslims Like Us housemates

The casting is the result of months of research within communities. The group includes men and women, young and old, converts, gay and straight, conservative and radical, Sunni and Shi’a, and contributors like Humaira, who at 22 has worn the full-face veil and currently wears the hijab.

So what are some of the underlying issues they’ll be discussing and reacting to? We commissioned a YouGov survey of more than 1,700 people about how Muslims are perceived by the general population and this has revealed that there’s a lot of suspicion and a great lack of knowledge out there. 

Our contributors have chosen to take part in this social experiment precisely because they want to challenge the way the rest of the UK views them and their religion and to encounter Muslims whose views contradict their own. As a Muslim, watching the programme I was very uncomfortable because I saw and heard in it many things that we, as a community and as individuals, have always avoided confronting. The programme forces us to look into the mirror and see ourselves, warts and all.

What, for instance, does it mean when politicians say we need to adhere to British values? Do Muslim women feel that Islam treats them differently; do we protect extremists in our community? 

I think Muslims like Us succeeds in showing that British Muslims can be just as intelligent, compassionate, mean, rude, polite and dysfunctional as any other community in Britain. In that sense, the programme is humanising. And it’s a project I’m proud to have helped bring to the screen. I wanted it to be ambitious, provocative even. What I hadn’t dared hope is that it would be so warm, surprising and, yes, entertaining, and I hope people of all faiths, and none, will come to it.  

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Muslims like Us is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm