Why is TV still chasing the Muslim factor?

24th Feb 2017
Why is TV still chasing the Muslim factor?

BBC Two’s Muslims Like Us was made in the voyeuristic entertainment style of Big Brother (Photo BBC)

Ala Abbas

The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the news media has been problematic for decades, but in recent years television entertainment programmes have cashed in on the political controversy surrounding this religious group, greedily guzzling a slice of the sensationalist pie in the form of bizarre fly-on-the-wall programming like Channel 4’s 2007 documentary Make Me a Muslim and BBC Three’s documentary also called Make Me a Muslim, aired in 2013. Make me a Jew has yet to be aired on either channel and has yet even to be generated in the mind of any self-respecting producer.

Using these scary and strange looking creatures they call Muslims to add entertainment value to any kind of show seems like a no-brainer. Even when 2015’s Great British Bake Off snuck one in, everyone pretended not to notice when in fact their curiosity was piqued because they all secretly knew Nadia Hussein was going to sell like hotcakes. When one of these Muslim types was passed off as a normal person in the form of Channel 4 news presenter, Fatima Manji, it wasn’t long before someone complained.

I’m all for television shows that shine a torch on the role of religion and spirituality in the 21st century, or that make Muslims more visible and included, but even public service broadcasting can’t help but play into this money-making model of sensationalist portrayals of Muslims I call the Muslim Factor. If BBC Two’s recent reality TV show Muslims Like Us was made to enlighten people about the diversity and ordinariness of British Muslims, it would not have been made in the voyeuristic entertainment style of Big Brother. If it was car-crash, rating-friendly television the producer was after, then he hit the spot.

Putting far from ordinary larger-than-life Muslims, with very differing views and lifestyles in one small house was always going to be messy. We all knew that, and some of us allowed ourselves to be entertained. That’s show business I guess, and politically contentious groups make good television, even if they are historically and currently a marginalised group of people, being detained at the airports of the world’s greatest superpower as I write this.

As a public service broadcaster, the BBC was doing well recently to right the wrongs of the entertainment industry market forces by commissioning programming that made Muslims appear almost human. My Jihad, a four-part drama by Shakeel Ahmed which aired on BBC IPlayer in 2015, is a modern-day love story which portrays hapless, funny characters finding love in unexpected ways. The angst and confusion of trying to navigate the mysteries of the human heart and second guess each other’s true feelings are made all the more pronounced by the very British awkwardness of the characters.

This unique drama with a deliberately misleading title gave its characters depth and realness not often seen in Muslim characters on television. The BBC was doing so well. Then a comedy sketch called “The Real Housewives of Isis” was allowed to slip through on BBC Three’s new comedy sketch show Revolting written by two middle-class White men with the most middle class sounding names imaginable. Although the actors were brilliant, the sketch made light of the plight of the underage female victims of the terror group. The show itself touched on the fact that many girls leaving their families to go and join the group had been groomed previously, just before it ran the sketch. It’s hard to imagine a comedy sketch being written about other victims of grooming.

When Islamophobia in mainstream media and politics is no longer just an abstract academic problem, when the hate speech of politicians and the skewed reporting of the news media are directly contributing to the rise of far-right fascism, industry professionals are finally starting to look inwards and re-examine their duty towards vulnerable minorities. It’s high time TV networks did this across the board and educated all their production teams, so actions are not just about ticking boxes and do not come too little too late.

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