It is billed as a documentary but Muslims Like Us is not that far removed from the Reality of Big Brother or the social experiment of Married at First Sight. That said, it is much less sensationalist and will go some way to busting a few myths that the media has perpetrated.
5 men and 5 women, all of whom follow the Muslim faith, spend 8 days living under one roof in a Sydney suburb (somewhere in Tony Abbott’s electorate). The McMansion could sit comfortably on Ramsay Street and any one of them could be your Neighbours.
Producers have hand-picked some of the most diverse followers they could find: from fundamentalist Anjum who wears a full face and body covering niqab to medical student Fahad who is gay. There is female boxer Bianca who says her family have been continually disappointed in her life choices, and Husnain who has never cooked and is worried about who will do his laundry?
The 10 may be united in faith, but are divided on what it means to be a good Muslim in modern Australia. Not all of them follow the Quran. In the house they will have to negotiate sleeping arrangements, cooking, cleaning, prayer and social behaviour.
“People think it’s all the same: all women wears head scarfs, everyone eats Halal , everyone waits until after marriage to have sex. It’s just isn’t the case,” says Mina, who came to Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan.
“The narrative around Muslims needs to change. Why can’t people realise muslims are just people like me?” she asks.
A number of topics are debated across the dining table: attire, daily prayer, polygamy, radicalisation and terrorism. A backyard game of footy proves divisive for Anjum, who won’t participate with men. A night of karaoke and alcohol is spirited fun for some, but music is rejected by others. They feed the homeless in Woolloomooloo and there is consensus that the Lindt Cafe siege was a barbaric act by one madman, when the group visit Martin Place.
When Fahad comes out to the group as gay he is embraced by some, but others are less forthcoming in support.
“I’m interested to see if the dynamics, which up until now have been friendly, change,” he reflects.
Clearly the producers have cast for conflict as well as diversity, and while there may be no Big Brother voice dishing out instructions, it feels like certain topics have been put on the table to elicit opposing views.
“The strength in the community is in its diversity,” says Fahad. “We don’t stand in our unity and I think we can.”
Yet there is also frustration, not just from media stereotypes or public abuse, but from perceptions within the community itself. Former rugby league player Jamal Idris who has Nigerian & Indigenous heritage, speaks out against an ongoing competitiveness about who is “more Muslim” while another laments, “I’m never Muslim enough.”
Cleverly produced by CJZ as a social experiment without exploiting all the Reality TV tropes, this covers considerable ground unpacking the fabric of a complex faith. At just 2 episodes it is something of a speed-dating session with the religion, personified through sympathetic characters.
If these 10 are just the tip of a very large iceberg, then statements around diversity, whether fundamental or liberal, are a truism we need to consider further.
Muslims Like Us screens 8:35pm Wednesday & Thursday on SBS.