By Anila Athar
October 26, 2015
An English colleague at work asked me one morning what I thought about pigs. I was a bit surprised as it wasn’t one of the usual questions we generally ask each other in the office. Hmm, err… It’s an animal like other animals…Why? I asked her. Her response had us both in stitches. Thank goodness we both have a sense of humour. However, after we had a good laugh, we both spent a few minutes having a serious discussion on the importance of rationality and critical thinking and mourning the lack thereof.
It so happened, she was flicking through the TV channels when she came across Peace TV and lo behold Dr Zakir Naik was having a go at poor pigs. According to him pig is the most shameless animal on the face of the earth. It is the only animal that invites its friends to have sex with its mate. According to Dr Naik, in America most people consume pork hence wife swapping is very common in that country. “If you eat pigs you behave like pigs.”RIP logic!
There is a proliferation of faith channels on the satellite television in the UK and almost all have their own Zakir Naiks. The narrative emanating from these channels is regressive, diametrically opposed to modern humanist values that the British society holds dear. There is a constant barrage of messages promoting segregation, gender inequality, and hatred/intolerance of other faiths as well as blatantly stigmatising music and dance.
For a multi-faith, multicultural society like Britain such regressive narrative is extremely counterproductive as it hampers community cohesion and prevents integration. It encourages superstition and discourages people to think outside the box. Furthermore, it promotes hatred of other faiths, discrimination and oppression of women and reinforces moral superiority over other faiths.
Most of these channels are promoting their own brand of Islam and further confusing the already confused British Muslim community. The issues of identity crisis, blurred cultural boundaries and leading a dual life are no secret. And this combined with the contradictory messages viewers are getting from the various channels promoting their own maslak and fiqh is definitely a recipe for disaster. The other day a group of women, I was delivering mental health training to, were having a debate about whether to call Allah “mian” is gunnah or not ! An aalim-e-deen on one of these faith channels has strictly forbidden the use of the word mian with Allah because “mian tou husband hota hai”, one of them admonished the one who dared use the term.
These channels not only promote a regressive narrative, often they breach the broadcasting code. One can find many examples of the breaches on these channels. A while back on one of such shows on a faith channel, I was watching a caller ask the host of the show, an aalim-e-deen, if Muslim employers in the UK could employ female staff especially in admin/secretarial roles? The religious scholar first said that the male Muslim employers should not employ women who are not dressed according to the dress code prescribed by Islam. Having addressed the issue of dress code, he began talking about the correct course of action in such situations. If the employer was really desperate for admin support, then he should ask his wife in the first instance. If the wife cannot help because of family commitments then the employer can offer this job to his brother, father or other family members he deems suitable. If even this wasn’t an option then, in a wonderful display of stereotyping gender roles, he opined: “The applications the employer receives for job might be from both genders, but the likelihood of the successful applicant being a male would be high,” implying that men are better qualified and more skilled than female candidates and hence stand a better chance of securing the job. The aalim-e-deen was not only promoting gender inequality, he was clearly breaching many of the dimensions of the UK Equality Act 2010. I phoned in and asked the host to explain the contents of his advice keeping in mind the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against employees because of their gender.
He certainly wasn’t expecting a “well informed and empowered” female caller phoning in to challenge his obnoxiously discriminatory and ill-informed advice. He began to waffle on about what he said. My point here is had I not phoned in and challenged him he would not have revisited his advice. That would have meant people watching the programme taking his advice and implementing it by not employing female candidates.
On another occasion a religious scholar answering a question regarding yoga as a spiritual treatment said that yoga had nothing to do with spirituality. In fact, according to him, putting yoga in the realm of spirituality was actually the work of devil. Such opinions are offensive and hurt the feelings of not only the Hindu communities but all those who hold yoga in high esteem.
Another deep seated hatred, I have discovered watching these channels, is for music and dance. On one occasion when I was watching one such show, a woman phoned to seek guidance from this aalim-e-deen on a lyrically tantalising issue. The caller, a new mother, had been given a music CD by a health worker. The worker had suggested that the new mom may like to play the music for her baby. Now the rationale behind this: there is plenty of evidence to suggest that music has a calming effect on babies. It helps improve bonding, eases tension, soothes or excites and makes us feel good about ourselves. It helps speech and communication, gives us focus, which helps improve our concentration and listening. If a baby grows up around singing and music, it will help their development. Mr Moulana’s response didn’t surprise me at all as I come across this toxic narrative related to music all the time. However, I was appalled at the fact that he could blatantly say that on a UK based TV channel and get away with it too! This is what the moulana, hosting the show said: “Bibi do you want your child to grow up a ‘mirasi’? Tauba astaghfirullah, if the baby listens to music from the day he is born, he is bound to become a mirasi or a singer when he grows up.”
It’s this exact narrative that stigmatises performing arts in certain sections of the Muslim community. It labels dance and music as tools of the devil or sees them as activities that encourage immorality in the society. Now my question is: Are these views compatible with the British values? Do they have a place in a multicultural society? Why criticism of such views is silenced by some using the Islamophobia card?
The most worrying aspect however is the issue of radicalisation. In 2010, Quilliam – a UK based counterterrorism think-tank – conducted a study titled ‘Re-programming British Muslims: A study of the Islam Channel’ to examine the content shown on Islam Channel , the UK’s most watched Muslim TV channel. The study revealed that the channel was sowing suspicion between different religious communities and promoting intolerance and prejudice. Furthermore, it was propagating the toxic Wahabi ideology that promotes backward attitudes to women and regards female freedom as a threat to social harmony. Many preachers who appeared on different shows made derogatory remarks to the followers of other religions or the non-Wahabi Muslims. They also promoted extremism by advertising recorded lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the pro-al-Qaeda preacher, on the channel and allowing members and supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir to host religious programmes.
I remember around the time when Salmaan Taseer was brutally gunned down by the fanatic Mumtaz Qadri, on one of these channels the host of a show was basically trying to portray Qadri as a hero. He said: “Agar humaray nabi ke shan may koi gushtakhi karay tou poori dunya tarap jaati hai. Phir ya tou nafrat ka izhar hota hai ya itni nafrat ke jaati hai ke Mumtaz Qadri jaisay log samnay aa jatay hein”
I phoned in and reminded the host he was presenting this show from the UK. When I drew his attention to the fact that in the UK heralding an assassin and calling him Ghazi and incitement to kill in the name of God were criminal offences, he quickly presented a disclaimer saying: “Main koi rai daynay ke position may nahi hoon aur na he mein rae de raha tha”. I wondered what else he was doing then if not making a saint out of a sinner.
My friends and well-wishers often advise me not to phone in and challenge the maulanas, as they fear someone might issue a fatwa against me. Or that I could face ostracisation and physical harm. Some are of the view that it’s not our job to monitor and challenge. If the government doesn’t care, why should we! Such attitudes are also part of the problem.
These are just a few examples. Who knows what else goes on these faith channels. We in Britain are fortunate to have Ofcom which is the communications regulator. There is a broadcasting code too and any breaches are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken. Ofcom has the legal powers to impose sanctions on channels that breach the broadcasting code. There have been instances when people have complained about the programmes on these faith channels and Ofcom has taken action. However, Ofcom alone can’t deal with this menace. The channels continue to broadcast regressive narrative that promotes gender inequality, intolerance and segregation.
The UK government recently unveiled its strategy to tackle Islamic extremism and has announced tough measures against television channels that broadcast extremist content. The government will strengthen communications watchdog Ofcom role to take action against foreign TV channels broadcasting extremist messages .That’s a step in the right direction. Even so, how they would achieve this, the strategy doesn’t elaborate. Alongside Islamist extremism, regressive narrative that promotes gender inequality, segregation, homophobia and dislike of British values needs to be tackled as well. Targeted monitoring of these faith channels by an ethnic media watchdog would certainly help. Furthermore, awareness raising interventions that can equip the viewers of these channels with the skills to identify offensive material and breaches of the Equalities Act 2010 and the reporting mechanisms to OfCOM would help address the issue.
Anila Athar is a UK-based broadcast journalist, working for a community radio station. She’s the media coordinator for Rationalist Society of Pakistan. Her areas of interest include forced migration, citizenship, international human rights law, literature, health and ethnic minority issues. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org