Muslim “Jihad” Against British Sitcom?  Not Quite

Muslim “Jihad” Against British Sitcom?  Not Quite

by Sheila Musaji

A British comedy sitcom called Citizen Khan has become controversial. 

I heard about the controversy before I had actually seen the program.  Pamela Geller wrote that “Muslim viewers had declared jihad” on this “lighthearted Muslim sitcom”.  So, I googled the title and found an article Citizen Khan: who was offended by it, and why? on The Guardian that said that most of the controversy was generated by bloggers and tweeters who did not necessarily represent the opinion of the majority of Muslims.  The article noted that

More worryingly, in the case of Citizen Khan, self-selected social networkers who found the show offensive might suddenly be read as being representative of the entire British Muslim community, a position as ridiculous as running stories declaring “UK middle classes slam Terry and June” on the basis of one letter complaining that bank managers are being stereotyped.

The writer and star of Citizen Khan, Adil Ray, can legitimately claim the licence that, for example, Jewish writers such as Woody Allen and Phillip Roth have claimed: to make jokes about a race and faith into which they were born. If the sitcom were written by an Anglican vicar, it would be quite different.

Interestingly, the Daily Mail, which on Wednesday ran a piece claiming Muslim outrage about the show, today gives a full page to the broadcaster and former Apprentice runner-up Saira Khan, in which she argues that a mature community needs to be able to laugh at itself, and that the scene that has reportedly attracted most complaints – in which a teenage girl quickly puts on a hijab over western hair and makeup to appease her father – was recognisable from her own experience and observation.

My own cultural outsider’s view is that Citizen Khan pays British Muslims perhaps the highest compliment television can bestow, which is treating them like any other creed and people by subjecting them to a gentle domestic sitcom in the tradition of My Family. This connection is made explicit by the casting of Kris Marshall from that show as a white English convert to Islam.

The jokes about ecclesiastical bureaucracy, parental hypocrisy and teenage cunning have a target and tone familiar from the genre’s previous white British incarnations. On the evidence of the opening episode, imams will come off no worse than vicars have in laugh shows of the past, which may be considered a mark of equality.


It is not being shown in the U.S. but you can see a couple of clips here, and I found a full video of episode one on YouTube here.

I watched the entire program, and found it to be very funny.  Even though the characters are British Muslims with a Pakistani background, many of the incidents are so familiar that in my experience, they could as easily represent the humorous side of the American Muslim community among this same group.  The characters and situations reminded me of people I know and events that I have experienced.

In many ways it reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, the Canadian comedy sitcom which I also enjoyed greatly.

The Huffington Post reports:

“The series has been created by British Muslim Adil Ray, who also plays the lead role of Mr Khan. Explaining the concept of the sitcom, he recently told This Is Staffordshire: “I remember when Goodness Gracious Me first came on the radio. I thought, ‘Wow, this is so strong that we’re laughing at ourselves.’ It was iconic and utterly brilliant.  The biggest, most important, thing you can do is laugh at yourself.  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.”

Saira Khan wrote an article Offensive? Racist? No, just funny - and oh so true! in which she said

I laughed out loud as I watched the first episode of BBC1’s new comedy series Citizen Khan, about a Muslim community leader and his family.

As someone with the surname Khan — and as a British Muslim who grew up in Nottingham’s Asian community in the Seventies — if anyone was going to be offended by the mickey-taking, surely it would be me.  But no, I loved the sitcom and tweeted my congratulations to its creator and star, Adil Ray, as soon as it finished.

At last, I thought, a home-grown sitcom that allowed British Muslims to laugh at themselves. Good on the BBC for finally realising the comic potential in one of the biggest communities that make up modern Britain. Of course, it’s a shame it took the Beeb 40 years, but it got there eventually.

However, the next day I discovered that my views ran counter to many, who criticised the programme for ridiculing Islam and for containing ‘stereotypes about Asians’. The Twittersphere positively boiled with righteous, religious indignation.

Yesterday the BBC received more complaints from viewers and religious leaders about the first episode. It is believed the number has risen to 600.

...  A certain scene in Citizen Khan seems to have caused particular offence. It was when Mr Khan — the sort of splendidly self-important community leader I recognised instantly — came home, and his glamorous daughter pulled on her headscarf to hide her fully made-up face and started to read the Koran.

Among those who complained, many accused the show’s British Muslim creator of insulting the Koran and demeaning the hijab (the headscarf) and what it stands for.  But that’s nonsense. Asian girls like this can be found in any big city in Britain. I see them every time I go shopping — gorgeous-looking girls peering out from under their casually draped headscarves. I grew up with many such girls, too.

...  And there’s so much else that rings true here about the daily life of British Muslims — from Khan’s obsession with saving money to the point that he buys toilet roll in bulk (it’s this sort of trait that makes British Muslims such good businessmen) to Mrs Khan’s preoccupation with what her friends and neighbours will think.  This is British Muslim family life through and through.

... Even a former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Yousuf Bhailok, said it was ‘the best thing the BBC has done recently’. He added: ‘There is great humour among Muslims. I am glad it has been made.’

The truth is that collectively we’re sick and tired of the fact that every time something news- worthy connected to the Muslim faith happens, some bearded senior man is wheeled out to comment upon it — in normally slightly ominous and always doom-laden tones.

Such an image suggests humour is not something that you associate with British Muslims. But in truth it should be.

So, the truth is that some Muslims liked the program, and some did not.  Just what you would expect from any program.  I hope that those who like the program will also write letters to counter those who have complained. 

As the American Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah said “We can use comedy to foster understanding”.  That is exactly what the British Muslim comedian Adil Ray is attempting to do.  He deserves our support.