Muslims are not your 'cup of tea' this Christmas

Muslims are not your 'cup of tea' this Christmas
4 min read
25 Dec, 2017
This Christmas will see the first advert with the aim of challenging the misconception that Muslims are anti-Christmas, but there's been an faux-pas in the presentation, writes Ruqaya Izzidien
The first mainstream advertisement by a Muslim charity will be aired over the holidays [PennyAppeal]
As you settle down to watch the festive specials on your television this year, top buttons popped, I hope, you might spot something a little different. This Christmas will see the first festive advert by a Muslim charity, Penny Appeal, to be aired with the aim of challenging the misconception that Muslims are anti-Christmas.

Despite rumours to the contrary, your reindeers, midnight Mass and mistletoe are safe with us. Though perhaps it’s time to pack in the mistletoe for something a little less Weinsteiny.

Penny Appeal’s Christmas advert highlights the charitable actions of British Muslims over the festive period. It opens with a quintessentially British scene of tea brewing, with a heartening voiceover. An elderly woman is crying as anonymous brown hands present her with a cup of tea. How sweet, we are encouraged to think. Lo and behold, the charitable brewer is revealed to be none other than your friendly neighbourhood Muslim.

While there is something to be commended in this advert, it is hard to distinguish it from among the nostalgia of a black-and-white wartime photo, a darning box and a hot water bottle. We get it - it’s a British house, now put away the bloody Henry VIII statuette.

It’s a little desperate. TV talent show desperate; trading your crying granny’s tears for votes. Or, in this case, donated pennies, and an improved image of Muslims. Possibly.

A parliamentary report this week concluded that British Muslims are not given due credit for the quiet and consistent charity that they carry out, particularly during the festive season.

So although the intent behind the advert is valid and commendable, what audience does it actually target? Britain First is not going to abandon fisticuffs and mosque invasions at the sight of a Muslim woman making a cup of tea. Though it will, no doubt, rile them up, so there’s that. With any luck, it’ll knock the stuffing out of Jayda Fransen as she sits down for her English Christmas dinner. And there she was, dreaming of white Christmas.

Penny Appeal’s advert tells us that, like tea, “our faith is from the East, but we are proudly British.”

Did they just call me a cup of tea? I got lost in that parallel. Particularly toe-curling was – hold on to your Santa hats because here comes the kicker – the subtle reference to the “reassuring soft brown colour” of tea. Ho-bloody-ho.

The comparison of humans to a drink that burgeoned with the exploitative East India Company falls flat. Today we are a cup of tea, what will we be compared to next year? A top hat and tailcoat? Your friendly brown-skinned yes-man sidekick? Not to worry, this year’s rosy-eyed release Victoria and Abdul beat us to it.

And although Islam is “from the East” – East being a lazy catch-all for East of Europe – so are Christianity and Judaism, and a number of other ostensibly “Western” faiths. Muslims don’t own tea and, in case it still needs repeating, don’t compare people to tea.

The advert’s claim that Penny Appeal - or Muslims - are “as British as a cup of tea,” since tea is from the East is not only a stretch, it is othering. Rather than countering the alienation that Muslims face, it gives credence to the right-wing and nationalist argument that Muslims are all foreigners, that we should ‘go back home,’ even when home is two streets down on Chestnut Grove.

Islam began in the Middle-East, which is not exactly how tea arrived in the UK, but let’s overlook that, because all of the ‘East’ is you know, similar. More importantly, Muslims have a long way to go to challenge the stereotype that we are all South Asian or Arab. It’s a religion, not a skin colour, but the message of Penny Appeal’s advert perpetuates this exclusionary myth.

As Brits, we love to summon nostalgia in order to render the difficult easy. It’s tempting to call on the Yuletide festivity in order to communicate our message, and there is something uplifting about seeing Muslims participating in, and contributing to a holiday of a different faith.

Certainly, Penny Appeal’s work deserves attention. For every project they carry out abroad, the advert tells us, they do a sister project in the UK. But we really shouldn’t have to wheel in a crying elderly lady for people to accept that we’re British enough to donate to.

So perhaps this advert will help the good souls of Britain feel good about the state of affairs, perhaps it will silence some of the accusations that Muslims don’t do enough. Perhaps it will raise money from a heart-warmed audience. But this heart did not warm, it cringed.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specializing in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.