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In Defence of Citizen Khan

I really did expect the whining about Citizen Khan. After I watched the first episode, I shook my head unconsciously because I knew that this show would be deeply offensive to some Muslims. After all, in this very episode, we saw Mr Khan’s younger daughter rocking herself back and forth while reading the Qur’an when just two seconds before, she was busy texting away. Her dad then came in and praised her for reading it and said that she was at the ‘good bit’. Of course this was offensive! It mocks the Muslim devotion to the Qur’an. Citizen Khan, according to the Daily Telegraph, provoked more than two hundred complaints after the first episode aired. The Guardian reports that the media watchdog, Ofcom, is now investigating the BBC for stereotyping British Asians and insulting Islam!

I don’t wonder that after the second episode last Monday, with Mr Khan peeking into a women’s dressing room cubicle then pretending to be prostrating in prayer when caught, would provoke an even greater number of complaints. Why has Citizen Khan caused such an outcry among Muslims? Was it because it was such a bald-faced lie and British Muslims were utterly appalled by its audacious untruth? I doubt that very much. I think it was offensive because it hit a nerve. Perhaps we don’t like our superficiality being exposed or our blatant materialism.

In my experience, the Khan’s preoccupation (one might even say obsession) over their eldest daughter’s wedding isn’t uncommon. The idea of throwing a lavish wedding with a handsome husband with fair skin and great hair is something I’ve heard from a number of British Asians. The fact that Amjad, the Khan’s prospective son-in-law, has the IQ of a cabbage is no matter at all. This is probably representative of superficialities we have. Of course, these days grooms need to have more than just looks. They need to have degrees from Oxbridge with high powered careers to boot. Amjad types just do not cut the mustard anymore.

Mr Khan also exudes the air of being a top man at his masjid. He often flaunts his connection to the recently retired Mr Qureshi and walks around the masjid offices as if he owned the place. Haven’t we seen this type of masjid politicking before? I would be surprised if there was any masjid at all which did not have this kind of dynamic. The masjid, far from being only a place of worship, is also a place where Muslims exercise their need for political self-fulfilment. It’s no different from temples, gurdwaras and churches.  

Ironically, my favourite scene was the one which probably provoked the greatest wrath - where Alia, Mr Khan’s youngest daughter immediately put on her hijab and started reading the Quran, rocking back and forth when she heard her father coming through the door. I do not enjoy the mockery of my faith, not at all. It’s my favourite scene because I identify with her. As a child I would do my best to escape the tedium of Qur’an reading. The Qur’an’s reading (or more accurately, its recitation) is something inflicted on Muslim children. We are not told why we should do it let alone the benefits of this exercise. All we’re told is we must complete reading the Qur’an three times. Rocking back and forth while reading doesn’t help the rationalisation either. And what of Mr Khan commenting that Alia had now come to the ‘good bit’ even though it was obvious that neither he nor Alia had any clue what they were reciting? This is exactly how Muslims (even Arabic-speaking Muslims) treat the Qur’an. Few of us know of its contents let alone undertake a study of its themes and styles. The Qur’an is, for the vast majority of us, a hymn book and one we can’t even understand. Reverts often do far better because they tend to research the faith deeply before committing themselves.

And that brings me to my final point. Imam Dave! I thought Imam Dave was the perfect icing on the cake. He represents the British experience with Islam. A youngish white guy who has come to embrace the faith on his own initative and then made it to the heights of masjid manager. Mr Khan made an off-handed remark about an Islamic teaching only to have Imam Dave contradict him. Again, spot on! Sometimes we do take things for granted. We say things like ‘The Qur’an says this’ or ‘The Prophet said that’ without actually checking. Imam Dave brought back the sharp critical eye which only a person who has engaged with his new found faith could.

All in all, I found Citizen Khan to be quite ticklish indeed. Granted, it was no Goodness Gracious Me but it has made an admirable start and I hope Muslims who were offended would understand that, if we wish Islam to be part of the fabric of British society, we must be prepared to have our cultural norms questioned and sometimes even lampooned. Who knows, these questions and send ups may even help us to consider why we do some of the things we do.

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.