x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Unhappy few at a happy video

The trend for happy dancing alongside Pharell Williams' song may seem harmless, but it raises deeper questions for Shelina Jamohamed

Armageddon was almost upon us this week as a video was released in the UK with the hashtag #HappyBritishMuslims. The four minute film is part of a global trend creating videos overlaid with the singer Pharrell William’s hit song Happy.

Happy videos have been produced around the world – most big cities appear to have spawned one. But this one, tied explicitly to the identity of being Muslim, created a stir and generated nearly 1.5 million online views. The creators of the video say their aim is to show “British Muslims are just as happy” as anyone else.

The shock of seeing actual real-life happy Muslims nearly broke the internet, as a social media storm debated whether it was true Muslims really could be happy, whether critics of the video were by definition unhappy despite legitimate political, religious and social concerns.

Some felt there was no need to dance along to the insistent beat; that Muslims did not constantly have to demonstrate how “normal” they are. In fact, critics went as far as to liken the video to segregation-era Minstrels who were forced to perform for their white masters’ entertainment. There is undoubtedly pressure put, in particular, on minority Muslim populations to constantly prove their patriotism, and normality.

Other critics felt that the very essence of the video was contrary to their principles as Muslims and “proving” they could be happy didn’t require those principles to be compromised. They pointed to the problematic sexualised pop culture of chart music. These critics were quickly labelled as “unhappy” about fun and accused of not accepting difference of opinion and variation. A happy video sure generated a lot of unhappiness.

Outside of the Muslim community, the video was very well received – look! Muslims! Happy! Dancing! Normal! Who knew?

The intense fury of the discussion has now waned, and so both supporters and critics of the campaign should reflect less on what was wrong with those who opposed their view and more about what is wrong with our social mores that the core concept was so headline grabbing.

This year, a social media campaign called #nomakeupselfie encouraged women to take photos of themselves without make up to raise awareness of cancer and in the process raised £2 million (Dh12m).

Like the Happy British Muslims video, this generated huge controversy. But the same question arises for both campaigns: why were they considered so “different” and “daring”? Why should being without make-up be so subversive? It can only be so if society’s default expectation is that women should wear make up.

Why should being a happy Muslim be such a radical idea? It can only be so if society is conditioned to see Muslims as inhuman, and “other”.

The participants of these campaigns are not the root of the problem. We are. The campaigns and participants are just symptoms of wider social wrongheadedness in which we must all share responsibility.

There’s definitely something wrong with us if women need to be airbrushed in real life. There’s something wrong with us if human beings who happen to be Muslim need to prove they are normal and can feel happiness.

Social media is useful for highlighting social problems. But it’s our attitudes that need fixing. If we can do that, then I for one will be happy.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk