The BBC Islam season: Too boring, Too little, Too late
Q News The Muslim Magazine, Issue 329, pp 14, Dhu Al-Hijjah 1421/March 2001
A BBC Islam Season scheduled for summer has been criticised for its lack of imagination and direction, failure to impact on the community and wishy-washy nature. The season, planned for the end of August, will see the screening on BBC TWO of programmes "reflecting contemporary life for Muslims in the UK today and providing non-Muslims with a broader understanding of Islam - its history, its culture and how it is practised in twenty-first century Britain."
According to a BBC press release highlights of the season include a documentary on challenging stereotypes, a film about the annual Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca, a fly-on-the-wall view of the Birmingham Central Mosque, and a portrait of Yusuf Islam, formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens. There will also be features linked into the season by regular programmes such as BBC TWO's Home Front.
Jane Root, Controller of BBC TWO says: "BBC TWO does the big ideas differently and in seeking to show life from the inside of the modern Muslim community the channel is representing not just those individuals but life in multi-cultural Britain today."
"There are around two million Muslims in Britain today and their interests and lifestyles are important to the BBC," according to Ruth Pitt, the Season's Editor. "We're fully committed to a challenging and exciting season of programmes that shows how Muslims balance their faith with their experience of contemporary life in Britain. We're spending a lot of money on this season and we expect to show the best programmes in return."
The BBC is refusing to give details of the actual budget it has allocated for the season but according to an insider it remains a fraction of what such a season deserves. "The budget is paltry if, for instance, compared to what was allocated to the Windrush Season - something the Islam Season is being compared to in the BBC publicity stuff."
While the Windrush was mostly a partnership between the BBC and the black community in terms of both formulating the concept and actualising it, the Islam Season is entirely BBC-led with members of the Muslim community expected to merely rubber-stamp the decisions. The first official meeting between the BBC and the Muslim community was held on 29 January - barely six months before the Season. Contrary to her press statement, Ruth Pitt, the Season's Editor, told the meeting that the season could not include dramas and the other programme suggestions because "of budgetary considerations".
Other matters related to the budget is the fact that nearly half the programmes scheduled for the season will have been made of funds already allocated to other departments. The programme on The Mosque, for instance, was conceptualised and started long before the idea of the Islam Season was firmly accepted. The same is true of the programme A Cat Called Yusuf which is based on the life and music of Yusuf Islam to be produced by the BBC Light Entertainment department.
Of the remaining scheduled programmes only the ones on Hajj, Islamophobia and the four half hour films (which are documentaries aimed to present "intimate portraits of life in modern Britain") are to be made by the BBC specifically for the Islam Season. However, more than half of the budget is expected to be lavished on buying a three-part series titled Empires of Islam produced by a Walt Disney-owned American production company. The move is not only an affront to the BBC notion of producing its own high quality programmes but to British Muslims who include some of the best scholars and analyst of Islam in the world. A BBC Islam Season airing an American perspective of Islam rather than a British one is as relevant as Larry King presenting Hard Talk.
According to Aaqil Ahmed, Deputy Editor of the Islam Season, as well as making programmes "about Muslims [the Season is] also about making programmes for them. Hopefully by the end of the season people won't just have been educated about Islam, they will also have been entertained by the programmes."
But, to be fair, none of the programmes even approaches the entertaining label: for Muslims the Hajj is a serious religious duty, Islamophobia is an ugly reality and the work of Mr Yusuf Islam as one of the country's leading philanthropist and educationalist is nothing but inspirational. The only possibility of entertainment is if the American programmes have been produced like a Mickey Mouse loony tune film.
Overall the feeling among the Muslim community is that the Islam Season is very, very little too late. The whole season would not even begin to undo the damage the broadcast of such a programme like the Veil alone has done to the image of Islam and Muslims in this country. Furthermore, criticism of the Season has also focused on the fact that there seems neither will nor desire on the Beeb to ensure that the community benefits in any positive way from staging the season. Only one of the programmes is made by an independent Muslim production company. Otherwise the rest of the series has failed to create opportunities for Muslim journalists and production staff to be involved in any way in the Season - the way similar benefits have accrued to other societies when similar programmes have been held in the past.