Sunday, January 08, 2006

Channel 4 and Muslims

Channel 4 was granted its licence in order that it may ‘contain a suitable proportion of matter calculated to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by Channel 3 (ITV)’ and that it may encourage ‘innovation and experiment in the form and content of those programmes’. Its original purpose was to provide broadcasting space to those parts of Britain which had been overlooked by the main broadcasters. Those aspects of British life which were not reflected in the Bill, Eastenders and Casualty were to be given a space on this corner of the British televisual world. Asians and African-Caribbeans therefore did well at Channel 4, people like Farrukh Dhondy and Darcus Howe. There were however over the years two experiences or forms of consciousness which were developing and finding themselves in British urban culture: the gay community and Muslim identity. The gay community starting ‘coming out’ in the national public sphere towards the end of the eighties and in the early nineties (the strange paradox is that this was during Thatcherite Britain) with famous entertainers and other public figures openly stating their sexuality. It was also at this time that ‘key moments’ in British television history naturalized the acceptance of the gay community into the public sphere (such as in Eastenders and Brookside). The gay community had opted for a cultural form of identity assertion during this period and it succeeded to a certain extent. Part of its success was the space that Channel 4 gave to the representation and explanation of gay culture in its schedule.

The Muslim experience is different. Starting from an oppositional stand-point (the Rushdie affair), the Muslim community opted for a legal form of identity assertion – the search for parity in discrimination law, the search for legal recognition – eve though these attempts towards legal inclusion were causing Muslims to become through culture (i.e. more comments pieces were written against Muslim assertion as a result of such campaigns) more excluded. Channel 4 has played an important part in this. It has for most of the nineties occupied a space of accusatory distance from the Muslim community, with programmes like ‘The Tottenham Ayatollah’ firmly etched in British Muslim memory. Channel 4’s ‘Islam week’ in 2001 followed the BBC2 ‘Islam awareness week’ of the same year. It is shame that though it was within Channel 4’s remit, that it was BBC2 that took the courageous first step. Channel 4’s ‘Islam week’ was heavily undermined however by its programme on the MCB which caused the whole week to be surrounded by controversy in Muslim eyes even if they had a programme on Texan convert Muslims (which slightly overstated the case).

The problem is that there has been a fascinating British urban development: the emergence of a religious culture and identity in the heart of postmodern culture. An exciting place to be, with characters and experiences, difficulties and stresses, all missed by the national broadcasters. Attempts to understand and portray have included film versions of Hanif Kureishi’s ‘My Son, the Fanatic’ and Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’. Kureishi reveals his own distance by his writing which captured almost nothing of what is happening and why. And the televising of Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ is a lesson for all media students into the differences between print and television. The book had some depth to the Muslim activist, not quite all the way there, but she had certainly got to grips with some of the issues. And the television version sensationalized by adding scenes of Malcolm X-Spike Lee like regimentalism – just to add to the stereotype. Thus, Channel 4 as a broadcaster has missed a piece of British social history. As it happens, this history is not only interesting, it is also relevant and important. Why? Because two key political discussions of the time are ‘terrorism’ and ‘community cohesion’ (as constructed) – both relate to this urban phenomena around us but we can only understand and relate to it through Smith and Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’ (as Ian McEwan said, approximately, 'It’s great that Ali is writing this novel because it helps us understand more about what’s going on around us').

All is not lost, though, because Channel 4 is trying to get over its anxieties. It has recently commissioned ‘Shariah TV’ and the recent ‘Hidden Civilisation’ series contained some truly excellent programmes (again with the occasional overstatement) and had a measure of depth which cannot be matched by anything before. Okay, I’m exaggerating. There were two decent series in 1989/1990: ‘Cities of Islam’ and ‘Sufism: Heart of Islam’, but that was over a decade ago and I can barely remember them.