British TV channel’s call to prayer stirs controversy

Screenshot of Britain's Channel 4 website dedicated to Ramadan and British Muslims, 4Ramadan.

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With a stated aim to “provoke,” Britain’s best-known TV company, Channel 4, is justifying its live daily broadcast of the “adhan” — the early hour Muslim call to prayer — and sparking applause as well as anger.

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Hassen Rasool, muezzin of Channel 4’s broadcast. Screenshot of video courtesy

The broadcasts, airing each morning at 3 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, will continue throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“We are focusing on the positive aspects of Islam and hoping to explain to a broader public what Ramadan is, and what it means for the 2.8 million Muslims who take part in the UK and provide a platform for different views and different voices,” said Ralph Lee, the network’s head of programming.

Lee described the decision as an act of “provocation” aimed at viewers who associate Islam with terrorism and extremism.

Fiyaz Mughal, CEO of the government-supported Faith Matters organization, said he saw the value of broadcasting the call to prayer but said the TV station should have consulted him before the decision was made.

“After the terrible attack by two deranged Muslims on a 25-year old British soldier at Woolwich in south London, I understand why a lot of people don’t want to hear a Muslim call to prayer in their homes at three o’clock in the morning,” he said.

The pros and cons of broadcasting the call to prayer were the subject of a radio “phone in” on the BBC’s Asian Network with most Muslims welcoming Channel 4’s decision but with some dismissing it as a politically correct “gimmick.”

“Who’s going to be watching telly at 3 a.m.?” asked one caller from Bradford with its huge Muslim population. “Most of us are wiping sleep from our eyes and stuffing our faces with food before the fast begins — and in this present heat wave that’s no joke.”

(Temperatures in most parts of the UK are topping 86 F and Muslims are fasting for almost 18 hours a day for 30 days.)

The liberal newspaper “The Guardian” opened its pages to people who feel strongly for and against the call to prayer broadcast.

And even the president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, has half-welcomed the broadcast saying,  “It seems reasonable that there should be some acknowledgment on TV of the needs of the growing Muslim population in Britain — although I can’t help wondering if this is just another of Channel 4’s publicity seeking stunts.”

Screenshot of Britain's Channel 4 website dedicated to Ramadan and British Muslims, 4Ramadan.

Photo courtesy

Screenshot of Britain’s Channel 4 website dedicated to Ramadan and British Muslims, 4Ramadan.

But there are others who say the call to prayer will inflame community tensions so soon after the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in south London on May 22 this year.

Rigby served in Afghanistan with the British Army. He was hacked to death by two men with pangas (long,curved African swords) who claimed they were fulfilling the will of Allah. Muslims throughout Britain condemned the slaughter.

But in parts of UK, there’s mounting anger that so many Islamic fundamentalists are allowed to make provocative statements that they claim are based on the Quran.

The English Defence League and British National Party, two far-right organizations, condemned Channel 4. So has the anti-immigration organization the United Kingdom Independence Party and the popular Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK.

Petitions are running on various websites with one calling on the public to boycott all goods and services advertised by Channel 4 during Ramadan.

The Sudanese-born author Nesrine Malik said in The Guardian July 2 that Channel 4’s decision was “irresponsible and patronizing.”

She added: “Apparently, there is an urgent need, post-Woolwich in particular, to show that Islam is a religion of peace and sacrifice. This is an inherently contradictory stance. If there is such a charged atmosphere in the UK vis a vis Islam why ‘provoke’ people by projecting this message even more loudly? … It all rather smacks at busy-bodying do-goodery.”

The Muslim prayer ritual is 1,400 years old. When the Prophet Muhammad was looking for a means to call the faithful to prayer, he sent for the former slave Bibal, whose voice was extraordinary beautiful and had him stand on top of the highest house near the mosque and call the people to prayer.

“It is,” wrote Tariq Ramadan in “The Messenger: The Meanings of the life of Muhammad,” “a reminder of the One God who loves beauty, and who, five times a day, welcomes those who answer the beautiful call that invites them to meet the Most beautiful (al-Jamil).”