Photo: From "Make Me a Muslim," an old credit of the BBC's new religious director Aaqil Ahmed.
The BBC has a new religious programming director, and he is a Muslim. An undercurrent of not-quite-articulated consternation seems to flow through many Brit media accounts of this "first," most of which exempts the new director, Aaqil Ahmed, himself. This main line of argument sticks to the plain statistical fact that Britain remains a Christian country, with 70 percent of the population C of E, and only 2 to 3 percent Muslim -- so why should the Beeb put such a post in Muslim hands? The main exception is a piece titled "Hire a Muslim, Just Not This Muslim," but even this piece is a little oblique as to Ahmed's career. That is, what has Ahmed actually done at his previous post directing religous programming at Britain's Channel 4?
Just for fun I googled Ahmed's name plus the word "sharia" and actually came up with a Channel 4 series called, on the level, Sharia TV. Here is a 2007 discussion on it from a site called Asians in Media:
When it was first launched three years ago, Channel 4 commissioner Aaqil Ahmed told AIM magazine: "Shariah TV might not be the first series about the Muslim community, but it will be the first program to give the Muslim community ownership of their own show.
"I always ask that question, who owns that program? Do the kids in Bradford, Blackburn or Oldham have any say in British media? We want it to be informative, but we also want them to feel that it was made for them," he added at the time....
But the show has also attracted criticism with its style and format.
Writing in the Independent newspaper last year, Muslim theologian and lecturer Michael Mumisa said young Muslims were "being led astray" by the series. He said the programme put forward a very "literalist understanding" of the Qu'ran.
"We are seeing a dangerous trend in the way Islam is discussed in Britain. Those who have been engaged in the debate on the interpretation of Islam in 21st-century society see the approach being promoted by Shariah TV as extremely dangerous, leading, among other things, to a literalist approach to Islam."
He added: "By promoting a discussion based on halal (allowed) and haram (prohibited) answers, punctuated by Koranic verses, Shariah TV has become just another fatwa machine. The debate on Islam in Britain should shift from an obsession with simple black-and-white answers to a radical re-think of the method and approach adopted in producing the answers."
But Aaqil Ahmed said the criticism was "misleading". It highlighted that fact that there was so little programming on TV for British Muslims that a passionate debate was to be expected he said.
"It's interesting that the last series was the third one and it was this one that the article was written about. I think if I am right he felt it had too many right wing voices on. I think that's correct it did, I think because we were into the third series those voices felt connected enough to join in. They didn't want to be there for the first two series."
At least he's quick on his feet.
A group called Christian Concern for Our Nation (via Andy Bostom) has a report on Ahmed here that mentions another Ahmed show title: Make Me a Muslim. Are they kidding? Apparently not. I read through a season's worth of synopses online and despite the obvious Python-esque possibilities, Make Me a Muslim sounds like a flat-serious reality show in which an imam actually tries to convert to six "volunteers." Here is a synopsis of the 2007 season's Episode 2:
The six volunteers who have agreed to live according to Muslim law are proving quite a challenge to Imam Ajmal Masroor. His attempt to bring Islam to the somewhat monocultural town of Harrogate has not been going well. ‘I am disappointed that people are rather resistant,’ He says. ‘…If they want to get the best out of it they will have to engage.’
In an attempt to remove the temptations of their everyday lives, Ajmal takes the group on a retreat and asks them to fast for 17 hours. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. Its aim is to make people feel closer to the poor and to God.
Back in Harrogate, the women had resisted the Muslim tradition of modest dress. At the retreat, though, mentor Dawn insists that this rule is obeyed. Glamour model Kerry feels so oppressed by the clothing that she decides to quit. With a little give and take, though, Ajmal persuades her to stay. Many of the other women respond by rebelling against the whole regime: they stash illicit supplies of scotch eggs, crisps, sweets and portable DVD players in their dormitory.
The group’s time away is an emotional rollercoaster. Hedonistic Luke confronts the tragic death of his father when he was a child; Karla and Ash's relationship comes under increasing pressure; and, despite having agreed to stick to the rules, Phil heads back to the pub.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of serenity as the group share a final meal before returning home. But how will the people of Harrogate respond when the women appear in their hijabs in public for the first time?
How, glug, glug, indeed ....