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.”