Channel 4

  • who would you like to be the new Pope?

    I was featured on earlier this week as part of a range of people commenting in advance of the Papal election on who should be the next Pope. You can hear my thoughts by clicking through the video.

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  • The Perils of Reality TV (2) – Make Me a Muslim

    I wrote earlier in the week about my apprehension about the channel 4 TV mini-series Make Me a Muslim. The media and politics focuses too much on the ideology and theology of Islam, the programme makers had told me. This causes confusion and discord. They wanted to open a discusion about what it is like to live as ‘ordinary people’ together. I found this stance quite refreshing. As a writer and commentator, I’m very interested in how we can all get along together in this ol’ world of ours.

    I thought that offering people the chance to live as Muslims, and gaining insight and context about what Muslims do and why might be a Good Thing. I pinned my hopes on the discovery of a shared humanity. Real experiences are much more impactful then dry theory. Alas, this lofty goal was not to be.

    The show took several participants from the Harrogate area in Yorkshire, four mentors and three weeks of proposed ritual obedience as its foundations. I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for a journey to unfold. Reality TV is about watching human change, that is why it is so annoyingly compelling. But the participants refused utterly to embark on any kind of voyage, either physical or spiritual. Poor Ajmal Masroor (despite the overhyped goal the voiceover set him to ‘restore the moral backbone of Britain’) spent most of his time trying to get the participants to live up to their role of participating, rather than being able to offer them insight.

    The programme threw the participants into a barrage of physical ritual and practice, without seeming to set the framework for these actions. The basic building blocks of Islam – to believe in a Creator, to aspire to be a better person through physical and spiritual actions, and to build a strong, just, compassionate society – did not appear to feature in the teachings. No wonder the dress code, prayers, fasting, washing and so on, were challenging. Ritual and physical actions are only impactful retrospectively or prospectively i.e., they must look back towards a framework of belief, or they must look forward to achieving change. Otherwise they are meaningless irritants that require effort and change for no reason. And of course human beings utterly dislike doing things for no reason. What became obvious is that as a nation we desperately need context and insight, not parody and ritual.

    There was a sense of childish rebellion about the whole thing. Some of the participants protested wilfully, and objected vehemently every step of the way. I don’t want to do that, they stamped their feet, on many occasions. Why on earth did you agree to be part of the programme, I thought to myself, when the whole point was to try things out?

    Karla, half of a mixed race, mixed faith couple led the rebellion. She had been with her lapsed-Muslim partner for two years, and was still not accepted by his family (a case not uncommon, stemming from cultural reasons more than anything, where families often don’t even accept Muslim partners of the same ethnicity. Muslims are not alone in parental disapproval of partners) Despite her partner’s lack of religiosity, religion still seemed to lie at the root of problems between them. One imagined that she had agreed to participate just to prove that she was making efforts and that despite this she was still rejected. She screamed at every occasion, showed little effort to gain insight or try things out with the hope of understanding (if not changing herself).

    I’m sure no-one, neither the programme makers nor the participants, had any objectives to actually, Make a Muslim (despite the rather tabloid title). It was, rather, an experiment to see what it might be like to live as a Muslim. With this goal in mind, it seemed that other than Luke (a remarkably likeable and charming gay hairdresser with a natural wit) and Hayley (a reflective, thoughtful and considered skin therapist), and a liberal family who wanted their children to experience new things (but who featured little overall), the participants hadn’t really grasped that they had signed up to try something new. They appeared to come out of the experiment unchanged, mainly because they hadn’t bothered to try. The voiceover gloss at the end of the programme suggesting any changes, was misleading.

    It’s a shame that an opportunity to create dialogue and connections on a real human level between Muslims and the wider nation we are part of was not milked to the full, and for this I feel saddened. On a lighter note, however, I do have two eye-brow raising hopes. There were some amusing scenes with the ‘aladdin’s jug’ and its uses for bathroom hygiene – whatever did Middle Englad make of this?. (if you’re confused, check this post). And I’m also wondering, when will Mohamed and Suleyman, the two supporting Imams, get their own spin-off comedy series?
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  • The Perils of Reality TV

    Channel 4 aired the first of a three part series tonight entitled “Make Me a Muslim.” The premise of this reality TV show is that a group of Muslim mentors (three Imams from various backgrounds, and a female Muslim convert) spend three weeks with six people of other faiths (or none) to show them how to live as Muslims. Not only did the programme’s title cause me concern – but its opening blurb made me wince, when it said that in the context of increasing social problems, the Imams want to “restore the moral backbone of Britain by introducing Islam. Can a 1400 year old religion really sort out people’s lives?”

    The next two parts of the programme air on Monday and Tuesday, so I’ll wait till then to comment fully. However, the Guardian ran a piece a few weeks ago exploring if the reality TV approach to religion was really ‘dumbing down’ the idea of faith. The show’s producer, Narinder Minhas said he was ‘tired of watching “po-faced” programmes about Islam and, always on the hunt for hybrids, wanted to turn religion into factual entertainment. ‘

    Well, there certainly a number of comic moments in tonights show, but ones that made me want to cry rather than laugh. As a community that is already misunderstood, and has difficulty in communicating and connecting with the wider society it is part of, for Muslims to appear on reality TV, and face all the perils that brings with it, makes me very nervous…

    P.S. There are other things that make me very nervous about the programme too, but I’ll tell you about those on Tuesday

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  • Channel 4 thriller ‘Britz’ asks, are Muslims bombers or spies?

    On Wednesday and Thursday of this week Channel 4 will be airing a two part thriller called Britz about a sister and brother who react in different ways after September 11th. Sohail (played by MC Riz, who also starred in The Road to Guantanamo) joins MI5 in a bid to find the terrorists. His sister Nasima (played by Manjinder Virk who was in Bradford Riots) feels alienated by foreign and domestic policy and the reactions of her neighbours and peers. Channel 4 bills the series as an exploration of Muslim life under anti-terror legislation and whether these laws are making us safer or putting us in greater danger.

    Khurshid Ahmed of the British Muslim Forum said: ‘Channel 4 should be working with us to defeat terrorism and extremism, not sowing hate and division in our communities, and reinforcing negative stereotypes.’ The Home Office added, we can understand the British Muslim Forum’s concerns. Given Channel 4’s remit as a public service broadcaster, they should listen to the views of moderate Muslims who reject violence and extremism, and they should air those views alongside this film.’

    Channel 4 think it will deal with key issues of racism, identity, MI5 recruitment and spying and Islam. It remains to be seen if the show will be a positive contribution to the debate or further caricature Muslims and the choices they make.

    Spy or bomber? Doesn’t sound like much of a choice to me… How about depicting a choice to be (as almost all Muslims are) a peaceful British Muslim citizen who feels pain at the suffering of innocents, who wants to participate in national and local life, and who just want to get on with living life like everyone else?
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  • Dispatches and Tesco

    It seems like Tesco is out of favour this week with the folks over at Dispatches on Channel 4. I have my own concerns about a corporation the size and might of Tesco and how that impacts on competition and smaller traders. However, it seems like Dispatches was out this week just to have a general swipe at the retailer.

    Again, what we have is not news. The programme claims: “The programme examines the ways in which Tesco avoids paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by exploiting legal loopholes…”. The key word here is “legal”. Basically the programme claims that Tesco buys properties from off shore sites to avoid paying stamp duty. It is not a well-liked process but it is entirely legal. In fact, if any of us were in the same situation I’m sure we’d do the same i.e. save ourselves a load of dosh whilst respecting the law of the land. If Dispatches has a problem with the legalities, then they should take it up with the government and make it legal. Equally, they seem to have an issue with the fact that Gordon Brown has appointed Tesco’s chief exec as one of his twelve business disciples. Whatever the subtext of that might be, surely it’s common sense to take advice on building business from someone who has built up one of the country and world’s most successful retailers?

    I’m certainly worried about huge chains like Tesco dominating the marketplace in the way they do, but surely Dispatches can do a better job than presenting a load of commentators who don’t like Tesco and then ‘exposing’ all their legal activities?

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  • Shilpa Poppadum? Mind your Language!

    You may recall a TV sitcom called Mind Your Language which aired sometime around the late seventies/early eighties about a hapless English teacher called Mr Brown and his class of students who were newly arrived to the UK and trying to improve their English. It drew on every known stereotype of foreigners, and it caricatured their differences to elicit mirth and belly laughs. They were from all over the place – Spain, Greece, Italy, Pakistan, India and so on. “You Spanish omelette”, one would insult the other. “You Indian chapatti!” cried the next. And here is the rub of it: “You Pakistani poppadum!”.

    Couching it in humour does not take away its sting or its appalling undertones. In the context discussed this week on infamous Big Brother, and said behind the recipient’s back, it is truly horrific. We discussed this at work yesterday. My charming ethnically white colleagues sat up when they heard that this sort of thing was rife, a widespread low grade racism, prevalent at all levels. “Look at your sample” they said referring to the three girls. They thought about it some more, and after discussion concluded that actually this was happening at all levels, it was just more blatant here. It had never occurred to them that this happens all the time to the point where people just become de-sensitised to the misery it is causing them.

    The amazing thing is that we have a case study here of how poor Shilpa struggles so hard to believe she is not being targeted for her race – notice her huge smile when she thinks things are patched up. But she doesn’t know what is being said behind her back, how the stink of racism still festers beneath the cries of “I’m not a racist, I’m not”. Why else do the three girls huddle together to share their mutual distaste of “The Indian” who they have said “aggravates” them, and who at least one of them (without contradiction from the others) wishes she would “F*** off home”. She didn’t even realise she said it, which just goes to show how deep these attitudes run.

    They say “That’s not me”, but it is precisely in environments of stress like Big Brother that you see people for who they truly are. They can’t even see if for themselves. I wonder how they will react when the evidence is placed before them. I wonder how Britain is reacting when this mirror is placed before them?

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  • Fantasy Celebrity Big Brother

    With the whole world taking an interest in Big Brother, and what it means for some of the big social issues of our time, it got me thinking that putting together other big names under the cameras for 24 hours a day might not be such a bad thing. Either they would have to sort out their differences and get to know each other as people, or we’d actually get to see them for what they are.

    Here is my proposal for the first 12 nominations:
    George Bush (pretty obvious choice, could be good fun)
    Condoleeza Rice (I want to know what really lies underneath that unruffled exterior)
    Ahmedinajad (also pretty obvious choice, want to see how they all react with each other)
    Cherie Blair (I think she’d be much more entertaining than hubby)
    Gordon Brown (“Liar!” exclaimed Cherie Blair. ‘Nuff said)
    Shami Chakrabarty (just to get some good soundbites)
    King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia (how do they keep those long white thobes so clean and dazzling?)
    Gadaffy (the curve ball)
    Liz Hurley (“I’d like to order some safety pins with this week’s budget”. She’d just be highly watchableTV)
    Chaves (or is he the curve ball?)
    Putin (to see how long it takes for him to start a mafia)
    Patricia Hewitt or Margaret Beckett or John Reid (just to get one of them away from all those pies they are messing with and keep them out of trouble for a few weeks).

    I reckon the winner would be either Shami (for remaining sane) or Ahmedinajad for just jaw dropping shock.

    Who do you think would win? What are your proposals for a fantasy celebrity big brother?

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  • The plight of the successful Asian woman

    How can I write about anything other than Big Brother? My fingers have been itching to do so all week, but with eviction day looming it’s time to seize the opportunity. There’s plenty being said about the Shilpa-Jade tiff, much of it very serious. However, one comment I wanted to make was about how the three English girls seem to have difficulty dealing with a successful Asian woman. It seems that wherever you go in the UK, whether it’s in wider society and even within the Asian community itself, it’s a bit naughty to be a successful Asian woman with personality. The cheek of it!

    As a young educated asian woman myself, I find that often people just don’t know how to react to you. If you’re intelligent, articulate, well educated and successful, with a personality and some looks, people first look at you and judge you by stereotypes, and then when you speak become nervous, intimidated or confused. This is clearly what is happening to Shilpa Shetty, but it is an everyday occurrence in all walks of life in the UK, irrespective of class or background. Some reactions are more vile, others of surprise. The common factor is the pigeon-holing of Asian women as diminuitive, homely and oppressed. From within the Asian community and the wider society it’s consider very cheeky for Asian women to be successful, to have opinions and be of more substance than just looks. I love watching the look of shock on people’s faces when I tell them that I was at Oxford. Brings their stereotypes crashing down. I always have a little giggle to myself at the confusion I’ve caused to their view of the world. Great fun!

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  • Letter to Channel 4 Dispatches

    I don’t normally cut and paste stuff verbatim onto my blog, but I felt strongly that this letter written to Channel 4 deserves a wider airing. I think it brings out the subtext of the programme and what lay beneath it’s seemingly self-righteous tone. The more I reflected on the programme, the more cross I felt. It was yet another example of how maligning Muslims is the newest bloodsport in this country. And no, that’s not hyperbolae.

    Dear Sir

    I am greatly dismayed and saddened at the way your programme deliberately misportrayed Islam and muslims, casting them wholesale as intolerant and as the ‘other’. The documentary does a great injustice to the reputation of your programme and television channel as it does not – despite attempts to the contrary – provide dispassionate and objectively coherent analysis. It was clearly designed to speak to an agenda to malign the faith and its adherents.

    A very large proporation of the examples used to support the programme’s assertions were decontextualised – similar assertions could easily be made by such analyses of other mainstream monotheistic faiths.
    For example (and as you should have known), commentary about homosexuals – even if you disagree with it- of the same sort is found in Christianity and Judaism. The Pope does not agree with homosexuality, yet he is not targetted for journalistic assassination. There are also extremists in Judaism, Christianity and other religions, and it would be possible to construct the same programme about any religion if that were the intent. There has never been similar portrayal of Irish Catholics on the basis of IRA terrorism, or Orthodox Judaism despite it’s many similarities in creed to Islam. Yet common decency, common sense and restraint is afforded to other belief systems in a way which is not equitably applied to Islam. Sweeping generalisation is not an ingredient befitting a quality dispatch.

    Your actions do not accurately or responsibly add to societal debate / discourse, but are in fact wrecklessly irresponsible and inflammatory. The implication that mainstream Islam and its followers are essentially evil / outside the pale and so forth would be laughable if it were not also at the same time so deeply wrong and damaging. The subtext that all muslims are as you have chosen to represent them is also statistically highly unlikely and paranoid – over 1 billion people?

    You should really offer a sincere apology for the hatchet job that your aired programme was, and resolve to be objective, balanced, constructive and dignified to try and regain your credibility.even if your viewing figures may initially suffer. Quality will always prevail over a cheap thrill. Unless of course sensationalism is your driving principle and you aim to emulate the tabloid press.

    Please convey this complaint to your wider organisation

    Deeply disappointed.


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  • Channel 4’s Dispatches – Undercover Mosque

    I’m beginning to wonder two things about today’s Dispatches which was yet another programme about Muslims – have they been taken over by the Daily Mail, and did someone forget to tell them that we’re no longer in the mid-eighties or nineties but in the mid-noughties?

    The programme on tonight was called “Undercover Mosque” which was based around some undercover reporting in two mosques (out of about 1600 that currently exist in the UK, which is less than one tenth of one per cent of all mosques) that shockingly revealed extremist views amongst a select band of preachers who all had in common a connection with Saudi Arabia. The programme’s raison d’etre was “how a message of hatred and segregation is being spread throughout the UK and examines how it is influenced by the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia”.

    This is not news. The Saudis have been exporting this brand of Islam for decades, under the ever watchful eye of its ‘allies’. The Wahabbi flavour of Islam is well known to Saudi Arabia’s politcal allies and has actually been used as a form of social control in less pliant Muslim countries. It has been bubbling angrily throughout the Muslim community in the UK for years and years. I have grown up with it. And I have grown up with the Muslim community’s efforts to counter it and bring shades of compassion and humanity to its stark and uncompromising message.

    This is not new and therefore this is not news. I say it again. And the programme’s tabloid-esque approach to flashing up statements from a few individuals, and then placing them in the context of mainstream organisations, and then self-righteously stating the responses from the organisations to make it look like they were defensively denying something that was true is gutter journalism at its worst. You don’t need an undercover reporter to tell you what was ‘uncovered’. It’s all apparent and public domain information.

    It was hard to feel angry at the specific point the programme was making – about the harsh message of the Saudi funded message. The Muslim community in the UK, and round the world, has grown up with it in the latter years of the last century. It’s true, Wahabbi Islam is puritanical and tough. We already knew this. But what did make me very cross were the subtle and not so subtle messages that somehow the whole muslim community is tainted by it, that extremism is widespread, that Islam and Muslims are evil and full of hate and duplicitous. Why does Channel 4 choose to stir up these messages to create hatred? Is it OK to cast a whole community in this light?

    Dispatches has an awful lot to answer for, and I’m frustrated and disappointed that a programme that being broadcast on a mainstream and once respected TV channel has resorted to such a simplistic portrayal of a complex and sensitive issue that is of such high impact and profile.

    Navigating our way through the current political and social issues that involve Islam and Muslims requires intelligence and understanding on all parts. This comic book approach only serves to perpetuate and entrench ignorance amongst those who are not Muslims, and to frustrate, anger and dishearten those Muslims who truly are dedicated to a balanced, tolerant and fruitful social dialogue.

    I wonder why Dispatches didn’t do an ‘undercover’ investigation of Channel 4’s Shariah TV programme. You’ll find that one of the guests on the panel was none other than a scholar from the very same Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham, and General Secretary of the conservative Muslim organisation Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (based at the mosque) which was the mosque which formed the heart of the programme.
    One sided hate-stirring sensationalism perhaps?

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