“An Ordinary Muslim” and the Clichés of Culture Clash on Stage

A new play running in New York fixates on the idea that Muslim immigrants are trapped between two worlds, and ends up stumbling into stereotypes.

FILE -- From left: Rita Wolf, Purva Bedi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva and Harsh Nayyar in Hammaad Chaudry's "An Ordinary Muslim" at the New York Theater Workshop, in New York, Feb. 7, 2018. When the young playwright Chaudry, who grew up in Edinburgh, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was pursuing a master's degree at Columbia University, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner took him under his wing. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
Rita Wolf, Purva Bedi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva and Harsh Nayyar in Hammaad Chaudry's "An Ordinary Muslim" at the New York Theater Workshop, in New York, Feb. 7, 2018. Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Representation matters, on the stage as in the rest of the arts and popular culture, and both the United States and the United Kingdom desperately need more Muslim playwrights telling stories about Muslim families and Muslim experiences on stage. But representation alone isn’t enough, as shown by a new play that reifies, rather than troubles, the Islamophobic myths that undergird the war on terror.

Hammad Chaudry’s “An Ordinary Muslim,” which runs through March 25 at the New York Theatre Workshop, is about a British-Pakistani couple living in London. Directed by Jo Bonney and set in 2011, the play attempts to explore the tensions and conflicts that shape the lives of British (and presumably American) Muslims growing who’ve grown up in the shadow of 9/11. But in fixating on the idea that second-generation Muslims are “trapped” between two worlds, and writing a Muslim male protagonist whose life is derailed by his anger and trauma, Chaudry’s characters fall into the same stereotypes that they purport to challenge.

Although it has been praised as “timely,” I had my suspicions about “An Ordinary Muslim” from the promotional materials, which described the play as “about married couple Azeem Bhatti and his wife Saima as they attempt to balance their Pakistani heritage and their British upbringing … balancing the high expectations of the previous generation, the doctrine of their Muslim community, and the demands of secular Western culture.”

It’s a framing that takes for granted that Muslim/South Asian cultural and religious norms stand at odds with British/Western values – an assumption that scholars and political thinkers have been contesting for decades. Second (and third and fourth) generation immigrant Muslims and South Asians aren’t merely assimilated into British culture – they create and co-constitute it. “The emphasis on ‘culture clash’ disavows the possibility of cultural interaction and fusion,” writes the now-retired British sociology professor Avtar Brah in her seminal 1996 text, “Cartographies of Diaspora.”

The play’s framing takes for granted that Muslim/South Asian cultural and religious norms stand at odds with British/Western values.

Journalists writing about British and American Muslim experiences post-9/11 also tend to structure their reporting around the same dated stereotypes. For instance, in “How America Is Transforming Islam,” published in The Atlantic this past December, Emma Green begins with the pronouncement that “American culture often presents two opposing paths for young Muslims”: to “assimilate” or not, using clichéd storylines about arranged marriages and the presumed shame of being an unmarried Muslim woman. Writer Ayesha Siddiqi argued in a Twitter thread about the Atlantic piece that these stories about diasporic South Asian Muslims were being used to dehumanize, rather than the reverse. “Muslims experience love and have sex, this should not be a sentence I have to emphatically share as if its new information,” she tweeted.

Similarly, in “An Ordinary Muslim,” our interest in Azeem isn’t rooted in his ordinariness when it comes to white Brits, but his presumed difference. That’s the narrative we’ve bought tickets to consume – and it’s not one that allows for much nuance about the Bhatti family.

Some of the actors in the play give commanding and convincing performances, but the acting was mixed overall, and many of the main characters seem more like composite stereotypes than complex figures. The mother, Malika, is defined only in terms of her (apparent) complicity with patriarchal values (“You don’t know what it means to be a wife. No, you don’t have it in you,” she tells her daughter-in-law, Saima, in one scene.) The father, Akeel, is a violent man who appears to dominate his family as a result of the marginalization he endures in the rest of his life. His abuse of his wife, and its ripple effects on the family, are at the heart of the play’s narrative.

Azeem is the very much the wounded boy from the troubled home – insecure, self-serving, and in desperate need to protect his ego. When his wife starts to wear hijab at work, he vociferously objects, since he fears doing so might endanger her job. He has had to quit his job at a bank because of an altercation with his boss over a racist joke, forcing Saima to help support the family.

“You can make me go to work and take my hijab off, carry this family on my shoulders … but you can’t apologize? That’s how little I mean to you?” Saima asks her husband in the second act of the play.

Azeem responds coldly and callously. “Why are you takin’ it like this? For fuck’s sake, I’m not down and out, I’ll get back on my feet, then you can wear the whole fuckin’ burqa for all I care.”

What drives the plot in “An Ordinary Muslim” isn’t Islamophobia or white racism, but Azeem’s volatile, juvenile, and sometimes nonsensical modes of moving through the world. It’s a structure that defeats the most risky moments in the play, casting Azeem as a potential source of danger, instead of a man alienated by the U.K.’s racist past and present. His personal experiences of discrimination all appear offstage. When he does make a political point, it’s undermined by the way he’s scripted, as someone impulsive and erratic to the point of incredulity.

For instance, Azeem yells at his friend David in a fight in a pub, “You robbed my land killing anyone who got in the way, doing it all to make your own country richer. … Is it any wonder that people such as those British Muslims, with their British passports, have finally woken up and decided to start killing you back?” But the framing of the exchange doesn’t enable the audience to take Azeem’s sentiments seriously. At the end of the play, after Saima leaves him, Azeem decides to escape England for somewhere, though he’s not sure where, and his decision reads as more hapless than political.

“An Ordinary Muslim” reflects how the British and American security apparatus have come to understand the “problem” posed by Muslim men and women.

Rather than enable the mostly white audience to recognize themselves (or broader structural or political forces) as the drivers of Azeem’s pain, the play locates his suffering in his emotional life. In that sense, “An Ordinary Muslim” actually reflects how the British and American security apparatus have come to understand the “problem” posed by Muslim men and women.

Today, in Britain, public sector workers – including teachers, doctors, and social workers – are required by law to assess and report their charges for being at risk of “extremism,” which is defined by statute as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” Under the Prevent program, people are supposed to be assessed for their “vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism” based on a range of possible factors, including “a need for identity, meaning and belonging”; “need to dominate and control others”; “desire for political or moral change”; “being at a transitional time of life”; “relevant mental health issues”; and “‘Them and Us’ thinking.” As an recent Open Society report explains, expressing “anti-British” political views or taking on certain religious practices make people particularly susceptible to being labeled “extremist.” It’s easy to imagine Azeem’s fight with David leading to that, if it had occurred in another setting.

Programs like Prevent, and its U.S. corollary, Countering Violent Extremism, frame the answer to radicalization in terms of national security policy, rather than attempting to address the political roots of many young extremists’ grievances.

“We like to think our violence is rational, reactive and normal, whereas theirs is fanatical, aggressive and exceptional,” writes scholar Arun Kundnani in an essay published by openDemocracy just after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. “But we also bomb journalists, children and hospitals. A full analysis of radicalization needs to account for us radicalizing too, as we have become more willing to use violence in a wider range of contexts – from torture to drone strikes to proxy wars.”

“An Ordinary Muslim” could have easily been called “An Angry Muslim,” and that’s the problem with the play. It sells us the story of the irate, irrational Muslim man, rather than troubling the way that white people living in the West conceive of his subjectivity. Stories like these may actually subtly justify national security policies of the United States and Britain: the surveillance, the prosecutions, the restrictive immigration measures. Where are the stories that speak back to these dated and flawed ideas about contemporary Muslim life across the West? I want to see those on stage.

Top photo: Rita Wolf, Purva Bedi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva, and Harsh Nayyar in Hammaad Chaudry’s “An Ordinary Muslim” at the New York Theater Workshop, in New York, Feb. 7, 2018.

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