The “truth” about British TV documentaries on Islam and Muslims

Most, if not all, British television documentaries about Islam and Muslims tend to follow a sensationalist and ideologically driven template, writes Dr Abdul Wahid.  

Some years ago I was approached to participate in a documentary presented by a respected TV anchorman telling us the “reality” about Muslims in Britain. The programme in 2006, widely trailed in broadsheet newspapers, was based on an opinion poll with “startling” results. Sound familiar? Such programmes usually follow a template that includes sensationalism, exaggeration, a shallow approach to the subject matter, a preconceived narrative, leaving viewers feeling negative about Islam.

I had been approached in my capacity as a doctor – but it seemed my answers weren’t what they wanted. They thanked me and said they would try another doctor – someone I knew, but he also didn’t feature in their programme. A discussion with him afterwards confirmed my suspicions that neither my answers nor his fitted their narrative about separatism – because both of us offered a duty of care to patients from a variety of backgrounds.

I particularly recall an exchange with the producer, who insisted that I, “as a Muslim”, should have a problem treating alcoholics. Didn’t I get someone else to see them? I recounted several experiences when I had given extra time and access to try to help alcoholic patients from a variety of backgrounds – only to witness the tragedy of some of these patients slowly drink themselves to death because, unlike heroin addiction, it was almost impossible to escape from alcohol in supermarkets and corner shops, even though they had wanted to.

The resulting programme clearly had a preconceived narrative. They interviewed Muslims from different walks of life reaching the same conclusion every time – that the interviewees carried “separatist” ideas. The Muslim doctors who challenged that narrative were excluded from the show.

The truth about Muslim marriage

Eleven years later, Channel 4 has broadcast the latest in a long series of documentaries putting a perpetual spotlight on Muslims in Britain, entitled The Truth About Muslim Marriage.

Would this programme follow the aforementioned “template”? True Vision TV, the production company, has a track record with “My Son the Jihadi” and “My Twin the Jihadi” on its portfolio.

Most of these documentaries rely on sensationalism to get more viewers (meaning more advertising revenue), with hyperbole becoming the norm. The title “The Truth About…” (which I have deliberately used in my headline), coupled with describing their survey as “groundbreaking” follow the template.

The latter is a classic example of the generally poor quality of the presentation of “research” in the media. If, in general, science can be said to be speculative and ought to be presented with all kinds of caveats about probabilities and possibilities, then social science is super-speculative, rarely “groundbreaking” and almost never “the truth”!

This approach is at best misleading and at worst an irresponsible lie. It is certainly a questionable basis for drawing any solid conclusions.

The trailer for the programme, on the production company’s website, makes the point that many Muslims do not realise that the religious Nikah – which is the legally binding contract from an Islamic perspective – is not automatically valid in English law; which can have problematic consequences in some situations. The flyer advertising the programme asked if Britain’s marriage laws needed updating.

So what possible conclusions might be drawn?

That there ought to be more awareness of the non-binding status of Nikah in English law. That would not be unreasonable.

That there ought to be a change in the law to make civil registration compulsory with the nikah contract? That would be intrusive – even oppressive – if the secular state once again intervenes in the religious lives of one community.

That the state should legally protect or enforce a mutually-agreed nikah contract (similar to how Jewish Beth Din court verdicts are enforced in civil courts)? In the flyer, Britain is incorrectly described as a “multicultural” country. It no longer is. “Multiculturalism” has been replaced by “muscular liberalism” in terms of state policy, so rendering the idea of enshrining Muslim marriage through the secular courts a near impossibility.

Such programmes achieve little except to once again portray Islam and Muslims in a negative light to the viewing public.

The debates that follow TV programmes like this – whether about social issues, jihad or insults against religious sanctities – often follow a binary construct. The Muslim community is offered one of two alternatives in public intellectual discourse. Either they accept the various problems that have been associated by the programme with religious practice (sometimes real, sometimes cultural – occasionally a norm, but often exaggerated). Or they embrace the alternative, which is a Western-style “liberation” and secular norms.

These binary constructs are an old colonial trick. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century throughout the Middle East, during an era of decline, the situation for women became negatively affected by the replacement of their Islamic rights with traditional cultural practices. What was offered as an alternative was to remove their hijab, mimic the “salon” culture of Europe, and adopt secular liberal calls for “gender equality”.

There is rarely space in the public discourse that follows such programmes for Muslims to understand and address any real problems from an Islamic perspective. That is deliberate, in the sense that such debates are constructed to facilitate certain conclusions – something I experienced in 2006, and have observed many times since.

So it is against this background that we Muslims need to equip ourselves with an understanding about our own intellectual tradition and present Islam’s thought on these matters.

For example, in the case of this programme, Islamic marriages in Britain happen outside of their natural context where they would be recognised as a contract to be upheld in a legitimate court. We have no legitimate Islamic legal authority to underpin the Nikah contract. Islam isn’t only about voluntary personal relationships between individuals governed by Taqwa alone – that there is supposed to be a system in place regulating this.

Furthermore, the laws surrounding marriage in Islam are far less cumbersome and onerous than most western legal systems – and offer more security than unmarried relationships that are normal in Britain today. Was there any comparison about how married and unmarried couples breakup in Britain, with similar heartbreaking anecdotes, having to negotiate an expensive legal minefield? Or were we left with the idea that the secular system is a panacea?

Also, Islam’s view on accommodating different faiths is far more confident that in secular societies, which seem to fear that Islam will win too many hearts and minds. Even in an era of decline during the Ottoman Caliphate, other religious communities had a high degree of internal autonomy and law-making power that was upheld by the Islamic policy of the state.

These are just three points that, even when explored in a cursory way, begin to challenge the binary construct – but need to be underpinned by understanding the Islamic way of life and the confidence to express it in the public space.

Dr Abdul Wahid is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, the Times Higher Educational Supplement and Prospect Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @AbdulWahidHT

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