Christmas. The season to be jolly. The season of peace and good will to all. But perhaps not to us British Muslims. Perchance a little context to that last statement. In recent years a new Christmas tradition has begun, that of the festive TV ad. So much has this tradition taken prevalence that journalist and author Caitlin Moran said the following:
In an increasingly non-secular age, where we are on the wane, culturally, the British Christmas is no longer defined by either the church or new Christmas singles from Wizzard, Slade and Wham! In 2017 the meaning of Britain’s Christmas is down to the real power-players: multinationals and their blockbusting Christmas ads. – Caitlin Moran, 17 Nov 2017, thetimes.co.uk, from an article entitled What Christmas Is Really About — Adverts For Supermarkets
For a good few years now the leader of the pack has been the department store John Lewis, whose ads are now eagerly awaited by millions. This years blockbuster campaign was easily the most anticipated in the 10 year history of their TV Christmas ads. Featuring a cover of The Beatles song Golden Slumbers, performed by the band Elbow, the ad tells the story of a boy called Joe who is afraid of the dark, and his 7 foot guardian monster named Moz who lives under his bed.
Not that you will notice but there are actually two men hiding inside Moz’s costume while Joe is played by two actors, twins Ethan and Tobias. The ad runs for 130 seconds, cost £7 million in total (including buying air time), and took 8 months to make, which perhaps takes away from the sweet sentimentality a bit. For that amount of time and money you could probably get 3 Bollywood movies, each one about 3 hours long.
John Lewis were not the only ones trying to capture our TV watching hearts. According to the Advertising Association, due to intense market competition, especially within the retail sector, and the rise of big-budget campaigns, this year brands will be spending a record £6bn on Christmas ads, with spending jumping nearly 40% in just seven years. So this year on your TV you will also find glossy ads from Amazon, Lidl, Argos, Toys R Us, Aldi, Currys, Asda, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, McDonald’s, Debenhams, Swarovski , Boots, H&M, and Sky Movies, to name but most of them.
Whilst the John Lewis ad was the most eagerly awaited, it was not the most controversial. From all of these ads 2 controversies arose. The lesser controversy came from the Marks & Spencer ad, which featured the children’s character Paddington Bear. Paddington helps a would-be robber discover the true meaning of Christmas, and the robber in return, rather than saying a simple “thank you” apparently drops the f-bomb instead. The Advertising Standards Authority has said that he doesn’t, but judge for yourselves:
The far greater controversy came from the ad from Britain’s biggest supermarket Tesco. Their ad featured several British families all preparing for the festive season in their own way. One such family happened to be Muslim. Shock horror indeed. The ad was supposed to be one of inclusivity, showing the diverse make-up of our population by featuring families from all walks of British life. As well as the Muslim family, the ad features 14 families in all, including a black family, a same sex couple, a single parent family, and a stressed mother ordering people out of her kitchen.
This is the first time that Muslims have been represented by Tesco in a marketing campaign. It is ironic that it happened to be for a Christian holiday. And what heinous acts were these Muslims committing? In no more than a couple of seconds of the full 60 second ad you see 3 hijabi Muslim women and a young child greet and embrace each other in a tinsel-decorated house, with a wreath hanging on the front door, and you see them exchange festive gifts. The ad ends with the phrase “Everyone welcome”.
Surprise surprise, Twitter was aflame with opposing opinions. Here are just some of the many online comments from those offended:
And here are some comments making opposite points to those mentioned above:
Aside from Twitter the ad has been discussed elsewhere, such as on the radio station LBC by Maajid Nawaz:
We even have Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones weigh in on this ad:
The aforementioned journalist and author Caitlin Moran also commented on Muslims and how they celebrate this most festive of seasons:
“This is PC gone mad! Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas!” various columnists have scolded, clearly unaware that most (practising) Muslims treat Christmas exactly as (non-practising) Christians do: as a bank holiday to lie on your mum’s sofa stuffing yourself silly and bickering. – Caitlin Moran, 17 Nov 2017, thetimes.co.uk, from an article entitled What Christmas Is Really About — Adverts For Supermarkets
When I the read article by Moran, I noticed the following in the Comments section, from a Dr Annabelle, making a rather intriguing point: “I’ve just returned from Dubai where shops and malls are already festooned with bounteous amounts of Christmas decoration, apparently not offending anyone.”
All of this digital noise just adds to the usual annual debates that take place for us Muslims. Every year I find myself theologically debating with others questions such as: Are we Muslims allowed to say “Merry Christmas”? Are we, according to some Muslim scholars, integrating too much if we celebrate Christmas? Are we, according to some non-Muslims, not integrating enough? Are we allowed to up tinsel and a tree? Do we tell Christians that this is all a pagan festival? Are we allowed to eat mice pies? Is it mincemeat in there? Do I have to take part in the office secret Santa?
And now we have this ad which has opened up other cans of non-halal worms: Do such ads erode Christian values? Do they erode British values? Is this another example of political correctness gone maddeningly too far? Do such ads attack Islamic religious principles by moving Muslims towards assimilation rather than integration?
These seasonal issues all feed into the rhetoric that there is an open ‘war on Christmas’, something that is heavily debated not just here in Britain but also across the Atlantic in the United States. Only recently President Trump, a twice-divorced casino owner, stood before a mainly evangelical Christian crowd in October this year, and told them (to rapturous applause), “Guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” fully unaware that nobody really stopped saying it in the first place, but never mind.
Back here in the UK Tesco, feeling the heat from the backlash to their ad, felt the need to respond. In an official statement the supermarket said: “Everyone is welcome at Tesco this Christmas and we’re proud to celebrate the many ways our customers come together over the festive season. We want our customers to know that however they choose to do Christmas, and no matter what they need, we can help – Everyone’s Welcome at Tesco.” The supermarket also said it “will celebrate the many ways we come together at Christmas, and how food sits at the heart of it all.”
In a satirical piece journalist Patrick West suggested that maybe Tesco had not gone far enough:
John Lewis and Tesco should hang their heads in shame. Their Christmas TV adverts are an outrage. They depict Muslims, people of Afro-Caribbean heritage, gays and women, but what is so glaringly absent, so disgracefully airbrushed out, is any representation of Britain’s Aztec community. Britain’s Aztecs, who first arrived at Southampton in 1876 on the SS Chapultepec, and who now mostly live in Southend-on-Sea, are an integral part of Britain’s vibrant, diverse, multicultural landscape, with their practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism adding so much to the rich tapestry of the nation. – Patrick West
I find it interesting that for some people a profane Santa-wannabe and a monster with a phallic shaped nose who physically handles your sleeping child (not creepy at all as I am sure he is fully CRB checked), are deemed to be more in the spirit of Christmas than a British family (who happen to have brown skin and follow the religion of Islam) buying things from Tesco. These same people, who openly object to the inclusion of Muslims in Christmas ads, will then be the same Islamophobes who accuse Muslims of not integrating, but then paradoxically, at the slightest sign of Muslims integrating in any way, will talk about how Muslims are taking over.
Another interesting point is that of how negatively Muslims are represented on TV. Here in this Tesco ad we have Muslims in non-stereotypical roles. There are no terrorists, no oppressed women, no forced marriages, no racist chants, no burning flags, no dodgy accents, no one longing for the motherland, and no one shouting “Allah-hu-akbar.” This is a point also recognised by journalist Melena Ryzik:
It has never been easy to put a Muslim character on American screens. Even in this TV renaissance, most characters are on shows that rely on terrorism — or at least, terrorist-adjacent — story lines. Other kinds of Muslim characters are woefully absent across the dial. – Melena Ryzik, 30 Nov 2016, nytimes.com, from an article entitled Can Television Be Fair To Muslims?
The same sentiment also applies to British TV. In this day and age where Islamophobia is well on the rise, where Trump is trying to reinstall his Muslim travel ban (fourth time lucky?), and where the far right march openly in America and Europe and beyond, we Muslims need all the positive representation we can get. In that light, I for one am more than happy at Tesco and their ad, even if others (Muslim and non-Muslim) are not.
I will leave you with a brilliant article written by Ruqaya Izzidien in the New Statesman. Enjoy!
If You Find Muslims In A Christmas Ad Offensive, The Grinch Of The Year Is You
Ruqaya Izzidien, 10 Nov 2017, newstatesman.com
Is the idea of a seeing a British Muslim on your telly really more outlandish than an Antarctic penguin?
This week Tesco released it Christmas advert for 2017, featuring snapshots of British families preparing, eating and squabbling over the Christmas turkey. It portrayed families with different races, classes, ages and sexual orientations, but one element that – predictably – brought out the PC police – hijabis.
One scene in the advert depicts Muslim women greeting each other at the door, with tinsel-adorned walls. The response has been overwhelmingly negative, with critics lamenting the lack of overt Christian symbols in the advert. Right, because who can forget the celebrated Christian symbolism of adverts past, Buster the bouncing boxer dog, the man on the moon and that bastion of religion, Monty the penguin?
Christian symbolism is always absent or, at best, an undercurrent in Christmas supermarket adverts, whose modus operandi is to evoke nostalgia in order to sell products, not to promote Christianity. The only reason critics are offended by this advert, is because they dared to acknowledge that Muslims exist.
As British Muslims, we spend our whole lives being told to integrate, to be part of British culture, to embrace British traditions. So we win medals at sports days, we bake in county shows, we cure your colds and complain about the rain. We have roast dinners and shepherd’s pies, we vote for our councillors and we petition to have that terrible road fixed.
But God forbid we exist during Christmas. Because, yes, critics of this advert expect us to integrate, but not too much. Not so much that we have good jobs, that we celebrate British holidays, that they have to see our integration, not so much that we break the stereotype that they’ve thrust upon us.
It’s a predicable cycle. A television channel, or newspaper article, or advert features a Muslim in hijab, and it is perceived as an incitement, of giving Muslims special treatment. Our mere existence is a political statement, and an explicit example of our integration is – as this advertisment has been called time and again – “offensive”.
The fear that Christmas is being Islamicised is unfounded. The Tesco advert didn’t imply that Muslims are filling up the churches on Christmas morning – it didn’t even suggest we are all guzzling turkey come the 25th, since Tesco doesn’t actually produce any halal turkey – all it did was demonstrate that Muslims, like any other Brits, get together during holiday seasons. We throw a bit of tinsel up, have dinner at friends’ houses. And if you find that offensive, then the Grinch of the year is you.
Opponents of the advert were quick to point out that Christians – or normal Brits – don’t celebrate Muslim holidays. That is not entirely true, the difference is that British Muslims welcome solidarity fasts in Ramadan, and plenty of us celebrate Eid with non-Muslim friends. Integration is a loaded word, and its meaning is a lot more nuanced than its general usage; there are those who argue that the word should be cast aside for another that doesn’t imply assimilation. But for those Muslims who attempt to integrate, whether they ought to or not – there is always the inescapable obstacle that we see with this advert; integration is a two-way street.
No matter how many Olympic medals we win or how many music records we sell, even if we bake a birthday cake for the Queen, the idea of a seeing a British Muslim on your telly is still more outlandish than an Antarctic penguin, magical creatures under your bed and an elderly man living in a shack on the moon.
To all those people who tell us that their problem with Muslims is that we don’t want to integrate, this is your moment. Either you accept our integration, and rejoice in the Muslim celebration of the holiday season, or admit that the sight of a brown woman in hijab showing festive cheer offends you. It would just bigot if you could admit it.