It could have been a recipe for disaster. A reality TV show where 10 Australian Muslims briefly share a house in Sydney’s leafy - and very white - northern beaches that, as the narrator gravely informs us, “had no Muslim residents. Until now.”
But the “Muslims Like Us” show, spread over two nights, actually made for an interesting and at times enlightening experiment, as the temporary housemates, who ranged from non-practising cultural Muslims to devoted ultra conservatives, debated faith, sectarianism, terrorism and national security (of course), politics and sexual orientation.
There were some minor missteps, such as the group prayers at Manly beach that seemed to deliberately make a spectacle of the participants, and the bizarre trip to the site of the Lindt cafe siege at Martin Place (as if it is up to these 10 Muslims to explain and atone for that terrible day).
The orientalism of the phrase “good Muslim” aside, the assumption that all Muslims are or should be devout is just not a reflection of reality. Growing up Muslim, it is impossible to separate religion from culture and family; and being Muslim shapes and permeates the lives of the practising and cultural Muslim alike.
To its credit, the show did include a sole cultural Muslim (who, as a Shia growing up in the early years of post-Islamic revolution Iran, also happened to be the only non-Sunni in the house); however, he was unfortunately never given the opportunity to express his identity.
Despite its nod to Islam’s ethnic diversity and its impressive willingness to broach the volatile issue of the sectarian divide, the show’s lack of sect- based diversity meant all discussion of Islamic ideology was centred on Sunni practices and beliefs. As such, the most interesting question “Muslims Like Us” brings up, however inadvertently, is the fluid nature of persecution, victimhood and what it means to be a minority.
When out in public, for example, the housemates are understandably protective of Anjum, who wears a niqab, since her visibility makes her the most likely target of Islamophobic attacks. Inside the house, however, she is the most openly judgmental of those she feels are not following Islam correctly.
This is an important point that does not get discussed nearly enough. Sunnis make up 80% of all Muslims and as such dominate the religion. Minorities are rarely included in conversations about Islam and are shut out of many of its bodies. Consequently, as well as fending off Islamophobia, minorities are forced to defend their Muslimness, both to non-Muslim “allies” and to the dominant Sunni sect in whose shadow they dwell.