BBC3’s Hometown — an unflinching look at the faultlines of a Muslim community
First published in The FT on 14th June 2019
Mobeen Azhar’s previous documentary for the BBC took as its subject the continuing ire caused by Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses 30 years after its publication. The explosive Hometown (BBC1, Wednesday 10.40pm) makes the Rushdie issue look like a spat. Travelling to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire to write a piece about the shooting by police of a young Muslim father, Yassar Yaqub, Azhar quickly uncovers faultlines of secrecy and self-deception running through what he describes throughout as “my community” — Huddersfield’s Pakistani Muslims.
“This was an assassination,” Yaqub’s father insists, shedding what he movingly describes as “tears of love”. But while Yaqub’s affluent family mourn a beloved son and father and affirm his blameless character, that’s not what Azhar’s hearing on the streets, as he quickly picks up troubling details the family refuses to acknowledge. Yaqub’s Facebook profile tells the conflicting story of a “Team Soldier”, posing with a Lamborghini. As the picture grows ever murkier, Azhar feels torn: “If I criticise the community, then I feed into far-right narratives.” Still, he maintains, “that doesn’t mean we can’t ask difficult questions.”
Azhar begins each episode with brief montages of his early youth, showing his attempts to dance, grow a proper moustache and develop his fashion sense. “I love it here,” he announces, driving through Huddersfield’s lively streets set amid the brooding grandeur of the moors. With mounting shock, he realises just how much the place has changed for the worse in the 20 years since he left. Violent crime is endemic; push-pins in a map showing gun-related incidents quickly crowd out the street plan. There’s even been “a stabbing in my old road”, and a resigned young white boy observes that “stuff like this happens every day. It’s just how it is in Huddersfield, sadly.”
So what’s gone awry? Everything leads inexorably back to the drug trade, and Azhar, with his compassion, ease with interviewees, and insider status, penetrates deep, meeting heavily muffled dealers in so- called “trap houses” and piecing together supply chains. Azhar seeks to determine to what extent Yaqub is implicated, whether as minor player, “plastic gangster” or even kingpin. He’s staggered to discover that Asians are disproportionately involved in drug dealing when, as an interviewee observes, “If you’re Muslim, it’s haram, innit?” — forbidden by Islamic law. One dealer’s contorted interpretation of a “hadith”, or saying of the Prophet, shocks Azhar with its chilling cynicism.
Seeking to untangle the conundrum of rampant crime in a small, family-orientated community where everyone knows each other and everyone pays lip service at least to an ethical faith, Azhar pinpoints the culture’s rigid view of masculinity as a potential flaw. “In a lot of Pakistani families, the sons are not asked questions.” In contrast, Azhar’s willingness to pursue and confront the difficult truth is admirable.
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