UK: Viewing the Islam Channel critically
For the last seven years, since its launch in 2004, the London-based Islam Channel has been hugely influential in the British Muslim community, where it has played a pivotal role in the development of a British Islam. Every night, thousands of British Muslims, many of them young, tune into the channel to watch programmes dealing with news, current affairs and religion from a distinctly Islamic angle. In addition, every few years, the channel organises a conference called Global Peace and Unity, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors, both Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as a smattering of senior politicians.
Until now, however, the type of Islam that the channel promotes has never been scrutinised and its CEO, Mohamed Ali Harrath, has never been subjected to sustained critical questioning about the channel and its output. All this changed yesterday, when Harrath appeared on BBC Hardtalk where he was grilled by a BBC reporter on the findings of Quilliam's latest report, released on Friday, which has examined the channel's output over a three-month period.
Rather than deal with the substance of the allegations made against his channel, Harrath instead repeated the same tired attacks on Quilliam. So, for the sake of efficiency, let me remind the reader what Quilliam is not. As Cif belief editor Andrew Brown correctly observed, Quilliam should not be mistaken for a grassroots representative organisation, nor should it be held to that standard. Quilliam is a political thinktank and as such does not claim to speak on behalf of anyone. Harrath also mentioned the red herring of our receiving a government grant, thereby insinuating somehow that our report should not be considered seriously. As the Times has reported, it seems that it is fine for Harrath to receive public money when advising the police. For Harrath to use these arguments as a way to side-step the issues at hand is clearly disingenuous.
Now let's deal with the substance. The report, based on recording and monitoring of the channel's output over a three-month period, found several key trends. The channel was found to promote a very regressive attitude to women. Women were told by preachers who hosted shows that they could not travel anywhere without a male guardian. On one show called Muslimah Dilemma, hosted by a member of the extreme Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, women were also counselled that they had no right to refuse the sexual advances of their husbands. The channel also promoted a level of intolerance towards other sects and religions. Religious preachers featured on Islam Channel programmes such as IslamiQA repeatedly made derogatory remarks to the followers of other forms of Islamic religious expression and urged viewers to reject the practices of non-Muslims and non-Wahhabi Muslims alike.
Finally, the channel was found by us to be complicit in tolerating extremism by promoting extremist individuals and groups. As well as allowing Hizb ut-Tahrir members to host programmes, this involved advertising recorded lectures by leading al-Qaida ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, and (until last November) by allowing his material to be downloaded from their website. Much of our findings clearly demonstrate that the channel is being used to spread a very narrow vision of Islam onto British Muslims. The question then arises: what is the role of government, regulatory bodies and mainstream media in dealing with this?
By raising awareness, we hope to avoid fiascos similar to the one involving President Obama's faith adviser, Dalia Mogahed, being duped into supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir's agenda on the Hizb ut-Tahrir hosted show Muslimah Dilemma. The group still features a recording of this show on their website as a propaganda victory for their cause. British government ministers should be weary of similar "legitimisation" manoeuvres by the channel, such as the folly of the Metropolitan police employing Harrath as an adviser.
Regulatory bodies such as Ofcom must step up their game in monitoring and bringing to task the channel for repetitive violations of their broadcast guidelines; a full investigation is needed. Finally, other media must not shy away from scrutinising the content of the channel, to continue to hold it and its CEO to account. Freedom of speech carries with it freedom to scrutinise. Let that scrutiny begin.
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 March 2010 12.00 GMT