As one myself, I must confess it’s exhausting to be ‘Muslim’ like that all the time. Like everyone else we have other, more mundane, and private, aspects to our lives – worrying about our quality of life and the economy, getting our kids into good schools and, in the Scottish context, figuring out how we’re going to vote in the upcoming independence referendum! As such, whatever the media and others might have us believe, we simply cannot be – are not – 'angry' all the time.
Hunkering down and getting on with it, however, is rarely an option. So contested and crowded is the discourse on Islam and Muslims that it is well nigh impossible to engage in it without being forced to take a side or to be pigeon-holed into one - 'good' Muslim vs 'bad' Muslim, moderate vs
extremist, Salafi vs Sufi and, of course, Sunni vs Shi'i. Willingly or unwillingly, consciously and unconsciously, Muslims and non-Muslims, people of faith, some faith, and no faith, are everyday confronted with images of a 'self' and an 'other' that is both somewhat alien and strangely familiar, like a bereaved relative you feel for but don't quite know how to reach out to.
Take this music video of Happy British Muslims in April 2014, a memic homage to Pharrell Williams. On the one hand, it's a masterly response to David Cameron's 2011 assessment of "the doctrine of state multiculturalism" as being a failure. But it has had its academic critics and strident counter-video-responses. Clearly, these run the gamut from thoughtful reflection to ridiculous assertions that are downright offensive.
What is also clear is that these negative responses haven't stopped other Muslims in Muslim-majority countries from participating in the meme (see www.wearehappyfrom.com, which is compiling a running list of cities to map "the geographical spread of happiness"), which includes Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
The Iranian case is particularly interesting not only because the happy teens were found and detained within hours of the video being put up on YouTube and subjected to a public ‘confession’ on state TV, but also because the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, also appeared to wade into the debate by tweeting "#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviours caused by joy." All of the teens have since been released.
As this single issue on angry/happy Muslims exemplifies, there are competing responses to the
questions, “What is Islam?” and “Who is a Muslim?” There is more than one Muslim story. And more than just two sides to even a single one. Indeed, storytelling in all its complexity is an integral part of the history of Muslim civilisations, from narratives in the Qur'an about Joseph (Yusuf) and Potiphar's wife (Zulaikha) to Scheherazade and the Tales from the 1001 Nights.
Some are the stuff of nightmares. Others, however, stories about mystical journeys, love, and art, and music, and wine, and poetry, evoking the likes of Farid al-Din Attar, Jalal al-Din Rumi (here’s an amazing operatic rendition with puppets), Omar Khayyam, and so very many contemporary artists, poets, musicians, authors and filmmakers, inspire and manifest a radically different way of being Muslim, one that engages faith with intellect, addresses adversity with courage and grace, and relieves difficulty by accompanying it with humour. Let us create the space to hear them.
By Fayaz S Alibhai, @fayazalibhai