Britz – Part I (Sohail’s Story)

Never before has there been so much press coverage about a TV docu-drama. Britz, the work of the renowned Director Peter Kosminsky, was aired for the first time on Channel 4 last night. The highly controversial and much debated telly-film is a fictitious drama about two young Muslim British siblings in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings and the impact that anti-terror legislation has on their lives. In today’s blog, the FreeWriters Team discuss views on the first part of the programme.

Zareen

Last night I decided to suspend all judgement; I took the view that no matter what was shown, you can’t make fiction without generalising to a certain extent, so I had already prepared myself for the inevitable Muslim-stereotypes and backward minded Bradford-stanis. I was glad I did, because for the most part I think that “Sohail’s story” was a fairly accurate one.

Thinking back, university life really was like that (for me at least), you had the hijab-wearing, beard-clad, “lecture attending” Muslims, and then you had my crowd – the one’s who were somewhat oblivious to why religion (pre-9/11) meant anything at university. During my student years, religion was a personal belief that meant praying five times a day and fasting as much as you could during the month of Ramadan. It meant having one identity at home, with the family, and another with your mates (both Muslim and non-Muslim) – and that wasn’t because you didn’t know who you were, but it was because somehow you were brought up to be fluid enough to recognise your culture / belief and have the flexibility to live life as a normal British person. Whether or not Imams actually do go on campus (and that too post 9/11 or 7/7) and advocate the case for / against jihad and people actually get sucked into that is a totally different matter, but it wouldn’t surprise me as I have often taken the view that many radicals do target the young and impressionable; the “keen learner” – and where else to find these susceptible, questioning student minds than at colleges and universities.

The not so startling scenes were those of the relationship between (questionable, are they dating, aren’t they?) Sohail and Shazia – one that I must say is not uncommon amongst many young men and women from my generation. Shazia was a girl who seemed to balance both tradition and modernity but at the same time wanted to learn more about the complexities of what she believed was her religion. Sohail on the other hand seemed intent on giving her liberties she felt she already had, to quote Sohail “I’m, surprised you’re not wearing the f*ing headscarf” – what’s wrong with the headscarf? These small differences amongst men and women in the Muslim community often grow into larger issues of belief and liberty and in my opinion create more disharmony amongst an already divided community than anything else. But the fact that they drew attention to it was a commendable move.

Sohail’s disillusioned state brought about by the deprived community he lived in was not an uncommon story I have heard and seen many times before. Originally from Bradford, Sohail is shown as an enthusiastic British Muslim who is struggling to come to terms with the radicalisation of many of his compatriots and friends “back home” (in this context, Bradford) and decides to get into the system to fight terrorism – he is proud of being a British Muslim and sees his role as “paying back a debt” owed to his parents when they first came to this country. To some extent this may be true and Sohail’s mentality is resonant of many Asian British Muslims living in England who still genuinely believe in a notion of indebtedness – that somehow immigrants should feel indebted. Without delving too much into the history of colonisation, I do not feel that I owe my country, Great Britain anything – For me, if that indebtedness did exist, the buck stopped with my parents. I do not feel that I owe this country anything more than my white middle-class, wage-earning English neighbour. I was born here, there is nowhere else I call home – and in my book, if you call this your home, you shouldn’t feel the need to repay any debts. I am however a loyal citizen – but loyalty and indebtedness are two very separate things.

Sohail’s experience at MI5 however really took me back, the gruelling cross-examination and slightly sardonic work environment was a convincing portrayal of UK intelligence, which not surprisingly led to Sohail’s own internal battle about whether he was recruited to be an informer. In my opinion Sohail’s character dealt with the complexities with nerve and didn’t just accept it; he questioned MI5’s motives. I would too. At times, I also found myself proud of Sohail for fighting the Muslim corner – for admitting that the war against terror seemed more like one against Islam and that in fact, the UK’s foreign policy was one of the main factor provoking many British Muslims towards radicalisation – an argument which has been fervently denied by our former PM at Breakfast with Muslim Leaders ay Downing Street in the aftermath of 7/7.

But the part that I found a little disturbing was when Sohail and his blonde sidekick (whose name leaves me) went to visit an old friend of Sohail’s who’d been captured by British authorities; lying bruised and battered on an operating table, Sohail, unaffected, did not even flinch. When questioned about “who” he saw, Sohail replied “I just saw an informer” – It seems shocking that any person who sees someone they are in someway affliated with could feel nothing. Without targetting any one group in my example, if a white non-Muslim got abducted in Palestine, would people in the west not be emotionally affected? It was total nonsense if you ask me – if anything he would have been shocked for the sake of humanity.

Although I strongly believe that it is worthwhile broadcasting programmes such as these, to increase awareness about British Muslims and the motives behind their allegiance with one of their many identities, I am conscious that it does generalise (and not propogate) far beyond reason. Showing that Muslims can work for the government and be good citizens who love their country is indeed a positive message, but the stereotype given, that to fit that bill you somehow have to abandon your own traditions and cultures, and surrender to drinking alcohol and having one-night-stands (another stereotype which, I didn’t think showed Western women in the most positive light either) is a dangerous move.

I look forward to part two with gritted teeth…

Zahir

I echo Zareen’s need to grit her teeth – I found the drama on the whole to be tense, informative, and challenged various stereotypes. It was also the first glimpses we had inside a world which affects us yet most of us aren’t privy to know much about – the world of secret intelligence. The closest thing I have watched to this is the ever popular 24 on US TV, working in the counter terrorist unit in the US, and my comparison will be with that. 

My main issue with the show was the idea that just because one is proud to be British, that they should be ok with giving up civil liberties. Especially that torture is ok. Sohails his character seems to take this in his stride, whereas just about every non-Muslim I know would’ve been sick at the sight of the brutal beating the Muslim had taken. That’s despite their having no loyalties to Islam at all. But for some reason he was unaffected.  

Sohails character did make me fume, as it will have done most moderate Muslims who have ever been troubled by common perceptions of Islam. Yes he believes violence is wrong, and yes he is proud to be British. But that doesn’t mean that one must abandon their culture or religion or any notion of human rights. I agree with everything he felt. Yes I have been around people who say violence in the name of Islam is ok, and yes it does make me sick. But I challenge these people, and look to scholars like Tariq Ramadan, also proud to be European, for inspiration. The program fed a common misunderstanding, that Islam is just no compatible with the west. When he went to the lecture and heard an extremist speaker, why didn’t he challenge him? And is this the true face of Islam? To the common viewer that’s precisely what they’ll think, and its wrong. Sohail’s character fails to understand that there are 2 ways to challenge those who undertake violence in the name of Islam; Join MI5 as he did, or recognise that these people are deviants, and help Islam find its true voice. 

For this, I disagree in that I didn’t find the central characters to be realistic at all. I found the sister to be the more realistic of the 2, but even then, I can’t reconcile how her extreme views towards Islam reconcile with her having a black boyfriend. To start with, she wouldn’t even be accepted into radical sisters or Islamic circles for that alone. It also questions her motives, and then says her radicalisation wasn’t really to do with Islam, but something about justice, and having her friend commit suicide. That is a believable story. Moderate Muslim, has a black boyfriend, starts hating anti-terror legislation and the loss of human rights. But then this person wouldn’t blow up civilians. I personally just don’t find it credible where she makes that next step to becoming a bomber – Whets clear is she doesn’t do it in the name of Islam. 

On the whole, I found it entertaining. But that’s all. Was it an accurate depiction of anything that happens in the world? I didn’t think so (notice how it was the UK that undertook torture – again there’s no evidence of the UK being complicit in the US policy on secret rendition). I don’t think the sister accurately reflects what radicalises a Muslim, and I don’t think there are many people like Sohail. I should know. I share many of his views. More seriously, the program has profited from and fed a certain stereotype of Islam, which is inaccurate, that its fundamentally incompatible with the west. When will Muslims be consulted, or able to share what really happens, rather than having people who know little about these issues writing / filming in their name?

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2 Comments

  1. Britz has been criticised for dealing with controversial issues in an extreme fashion, but this compelling drama was let down not by politics, or insensitivity, but by great gaping holes in plot and character. But it did reveal something new and challenging about Muslim youth.

  2. Kosminsky’s bid to display dichotomies faced by Britain’s second generation Muslims is fraught with follies. The journey between the rational and the radical comes with no middle grounds, no flexibility, no half-way adjustment but only 180 degrees turn around. That is why at first the two central characters both start as open minded and progressive, though the brother is trying harder to out-British the Brits.

    Kosminsky wishes to fit Britain’s second generation Muslims in very narrow and rigid categories which functions as follows:

     You are either indebted or ungrateful to the system
     Either a reformist or a rebel
     Either conformist or rejectionist
     Are there any subtle messages? Quite a few: What a Muslim young man has to do to be considered on the right (but not principally correct) track.
     You are expected to accord unquestioning support even if concerns your neighbours, relatives or peers.
     Compromises are the key if not a compulsory condition to a career that can be unthankful. Thus when Sohail decides to side with the just cause, he chooses not to object himself questioning a badly beaten person tortured in Romania
     Life in the training came seems to be juxtaposed from the Russian dramas portraying Chechnya making the portrayal of life in frontier outposts both problematic and patchy.


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