It’s quite rare that I blog about something that’s been on television (well, at least, that’s been on television more recently than twenty years ago, anyway), but with the controversy surrounding the BBC’s new show Citizen Khan. Apparently, the BBC have had over 200 complaints that it’s “disrespectful to Islam”, and may be investigated by OfCom. So I thought I’d take a look myself.

Now, the key scene people are complaining about, as far as I can tell, is the first time we encounter the younger daughter, who is reading what appears to be a fashion magazine. Her father comes in, and immediately she opens a copy of the Koran, puts on a hijab, and pretends to be reading and/or praying (and if she is praying, she doesn’t appear to be making a very good job of it).

And that’s the joke: her father is your standard 1970s sitcom man: self-centred, narcissistic, and keen on “appearances” and “saving face”. Of course, there are a thousand sitcom characters like him: Hyacinth Bucket and Alf Garnett immediately spring to mind. And the character rings true, because like many people like that, he’s immediately fooled by the act that we, the audience, can see through immediately. Citizen Khan sees what he wants to see, and nothing else. He sees a dutiful daughter because that’s what she wants him to see. He sees only the headdress, while we, in the position of the all-seeing audience, notice the enormous amounts of makeup, the fashion magazine, and – of course – the obvious deception.

Although people have said that this is disrespectful (Anorak asks whether the book is upside down, and this is actually established not to be the case later in the scene), ironically, it’s not actually that much of a joke. This is the first time we’ve seen the daughter, and it’s a character-establishing phase. In broad brush strokes they’ve painted exactly what we’re going to see from this character. There are two daughters – dutiful Shazia, who is getting married, and Alia, whose double life is sure to figure more heavily in later episodes.

Now, I’m not a Muslim, nor have I read the Koran, so I don’t feel I’m in any position to be able to say what is or isn’t defined in the Koran as being disrespectful to Islam. But it seems to me people are treating what is clearly a piece of character exposition a little harshly.

Watching the episode, of course, it’s clear that the Khan family are intended – as all sitcom families are – as an anomaly. He parks his Mercedes across the pavement, as though it were a garden. That’s something people don’t do in real life, and again it’s another piece of character exposition, but it’s also a more original joke – the “hiding one book with another” gag was a regular occurrence in the Beano when I was growing up; if you want a further example, check out The Green Mile (that clip’s in Czech, but it starts just at the right point).

I wish I had a really good pithy wrap up to this, but I think the Socialist Worker said it better than I ever can:

We should applaud the fact that a programme like this has been made—but lament the fact that it is so bad.


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