During Ramadan Channel 4 aired the Muslim call to prayer every day at 3 am. The broadcaster also hosted a series of documentaries entitled ‘Ramadan Diaries; reflecting on what life is like for British Muslims observing the religious festival. In the first programme of the series, former professional Rugby league player Rashid Khan journeyed across Britain asking British Muslims how fasting affected their daily lives as well as their spiritual outlook. However the decision to give Ramadan such prominence, and in particular the decision to broadcast the call to prayer, has over the summer months generated some debate.
A RANGE OF OPINION
The Conservative MP, Angie Bray branded the prayer broadcasts as a “box ticking exercise” which was also patronising to Muslims. A spokesman for the UK Independence Party said the result would be negative on community relations as it would only anger people. Meanwhile the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Anderson said “we don’t want to see any broadcaster becoming a platform for religious proselytising,” although he also commented positively over what he considered was the counterbalancing of the BBC’s emphasis on Christianity. Some users of Twitter voiced their hostility to the idea with various calls to boycott Channel 4. Other commentators however welcomed the move.
Ralph Lee, Channel 4’s head of factual programming responded to criticism, arguing that the channel was giving a voice to Muslims, especially the “moderate mainstream majority.” Lee said the coverage of Ramadan was intended to be a “deliberate provocation” which would challenge how Muslims were perceived. Writing in the Radio Times Lee wrote that Muslims on television were mostly represented in a context relating to extremism or violence and that after the Lee Rigby murder especially, an alternative portrayal of Muslims was needed. This sentiment was echoed by the Chief-Executive of Channel 4, David Abraham who told a parliamentary committee on media and culture that “at a more general level, it is the case that the predominance of coverage associated [with Islam] is not positive and this is positive and it should be recognised for that.” The Muslim Council of Britain praised the coverage of Ramadan.
Channel 4 has gained a reputation for controversial programming. In 2008 for example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was chosen to deliver the channel’s “Alternative Christmas message” broadcast on Christmas Day as a counterpoint to the traditional address from the Queen. The channel has also given a platform to Anjem Choudhary, who has a reputation for being an outspoken extremist. The Ramadan Diaries I think, however, have been a much better and more constructive attempt at ‘provocation’.
THE REALITY OF RELIGION
Perhaps the most powerful, and indeed helpful conclusion is the most obvious: Islam is not monolithic. The image on the left shows 77 different words that were tweeted in during the month of Ramadan by viewers; each using a single word to describe what Ramadan means to them. It makes clear that faith is understood in many different ways and therefore practiced with equal diversity. The very fact that Channel 4 have had to defend their decision on broadcasting their range of Ramadan programmes shows the extent to which mainstream media refuse to participate in a more nuanced and educated view of religion and the religious. Gary Younge of the Guardian — ‘a lapsed agnostic’ — is sadly accurate in writing:
. . . it has become fashionable, particularly among those who think themselves progressive in Europe, to disparage not just faith but the faithful (with particular disdain reserved for Islam). All too often mistaking incivility for satire, those who set themselves up as the arbiters of reason present religion as the source of the world’s problems and the religious as its unquestioning dupes.
It is precisely because most people receive their only information about Islam from the media that more needs to be done to present the daily realities and varieties of lived faith. But that is only part of the solution to reversing today’s trend to disparage religion. Those who wish to comment on Islam — about what it is or what it isn’t — must also take the time to understand the faith, not just from newspapers and popular books but through proper study and friendship with Muslims who practice, daily.