In Washington, Muslims gather to get ‘Happy’ for the camera


Salim Alchurbaji, left, and Faisal Khan, merrily make their way down a dance line to Pharrell Williams' song, "Happy" in a video recording organized by a Muslim social group called "Make Space" at McPherson Square Tuesday. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Mona Malik had never been in a video before, but if she was ever going to do it, Tuesday afternoon was the time. After seeing a posting on Facebook, the Falls Church resident packed up her three children, Kareem, 12, Jamal, 11, and Salma, 6, and arrived at McPherson Square just as the action was starting.

A young man drummed on a bucket as a portable speaker played the uber-upbeat song “Happy,” Pharrell Williams’s anthem to joy and to the pure communal value of boogying in the street that has engendered countless copycat videos across the globe.

Because I’m happy — Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth . . .

Malik, 39, and Salma skipped through a gantlet of applause and cheering.

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you . . .

Jamal, wearing a thobe, and Kareem, in jeans, performed a high-stepping routine of their own. Behind them and in front of them, husbands and wives, parents and children, and total strangers bounced and shimmied and twirled as curious passersby stopped to watch and the camera rolled.

They were brought together by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which advocates for U.S. Muslims, and which last week announced a plan to help steer susceptible members of their communities away from radical Islamist ideology, and Make Space, a Washington-area organization for Muslim professionals and youth.

The video comes on the heels of a version depicting British Muslims that has garnered 1.2 million YouTube views. Like that one, this will show Muslims old and young, male and female, wearing headscarves or letting their hair flow freely — all embracing the concept of happiness.

“It sort of happened in a grass-roots sense — a couple of days ago I posted on Facebook and we put the word out yesterday,” Hasan Shah, Make Space’s board chairman, said Tuesday. “It was something that everyone wanted to do, because it could be done within the boundaries of our religion. It’s not provocative, it’s not risque in any sense.” After all, he said, happiness “is neither Eastern nor Western, it’s universal.”

Still, the British version, called “Happy British Muslims” has been controversial in some circles, underlining the challenges Muslims can face when trying to create art in a Western context.

While many Muslims were elated by the video and wanted to copy it immediately, some said it violated Islam’s law or at least its spirit of modesty, particularly with women dancing and singing in public. Others felt it was humiliating and unnecessary to prove that members of the planet’s second-largest religion are, in fact, happy.

But the 50 or so Muslims who gathered at McPherson Square were hardly encumbered by these concerns — though the organizers did remind them to limit their gyrations to the upper half of the body.

Cover of Pharrell's song in Britain called "Happy British Muslims." (YouTube)


Video created by D.C. residents. (YouTube)

“Keep it tasteful,” one reminded the crowd. Then they began dancing in twos and threes in a “Soul Train”-type configuration, while the others cheered them on.

“We have people lined up with their family members, or with the same gender, so that there won’t be pushback,” said Sameer Hossain, 32. “We’ve seen the online discourse after the U.K. Muslims’ one. . . . But the main thing is to show up, be happy — there’s no deeper meaning to what’s going on.”

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, who led off the dancing dressed in a crisp seersucker suit and reflective shades, agreed.

“It’s young people engaged in self-expression,” he said. Noting that the narrative about Muslims is so often about being “hungry and angry,” he said young people have started to turn that image around using social media.

“The cleric who says music is haram,” or sinful, “he’s in trouble today because music is around the world and now the village is global,” he said. “It’s that kind of freedom that makes the people that would like to be the authorities on what’s acceptable and not acceptable uncomfortable. I think it’s great, people taking their faith into their own hands.”

The song’s contagious popularity seemed like a perfect vehicle for that, said Haris Tarin, the D.C. director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Since this song has gone viral, we thought, why not take advantage of it? It may be a little wacky, a little out of the ordinary . . . but it gives that idea of the American Muslims in the public square.”

In this case, the square was not only McPherson, but also a half-dozen other places where Muslims were making their own video clips — often in iconic spots such as New York’s Times Square or the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles — and sending them along to be included. The group on Tuesday had already shot footage in front of monuments in the Washington area and were headed next to the White House. The clips will be compiled into a video they hope to release early next week. Muslims in Chicago created their own “Happy” video last week.

Malik said she came because she wanted her children to see something positive about Muslims.

“There is so much negativity surrounding their religion,” she said. “I wanted them to see Muslims enjoying the music, enjoying hip-hop, having a good time.”

Her son Jamal nodded. “If non-Muslims see it, I think it will be something to them to see that Muslims are not terrorists.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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