Channel 4 recently relaunched Shariah TV, a five-part discussion series designed to give "young Muslims the chance to discuss the dilemmas and prospects they face in secular British society, with the help of a panel of Muslim clerics". A carefully selected audience, aged 18 to 35, was drawn from university campuses and Islamic student societies, and invited to put questions to a panel of "prominent and distinguished moderate Islamic scholars and experts". The series was hailed as ground-breaking by a number of Muslim organisations, and managed to win a following among some Muslim students on UK campuses.
I was forced to stay up late to watch the series after being bombarded with e-mails from students who wanted to verify the views expressed by some of the clerics. One young woman wanted to know if she was sinning by travelling to a university in a different city as, according to one of the clerics, women are not allowed under shariah to travel alone out of their home towns. Those who do so, the cleric said, will be condemned as sinners.
A Birmingham cleric who received his training at Medina University in Saudi Arabia told a shocked audience that "Islam allows a man to beat his wife as long as he does not break bones or leave bruises". In programme three, another Saudi-trained cleric from Brixton went on to explain why and how Muslims should circumcise young girls and women: "It is necessary to cut off the clitoris and the labia otherwise a woman's sexual urges will become uncontrollable. The shariah allows it."
What was troubling was that the extremist views expressed on the series were often supported by citing verses from the Koran or statements from the Prophet. No room was allowed to debate and question such literalist understanding of the Koran. Channel 4's first blunder was to name the programme Shariah TV. This meant that both the presenter and audience demanded that the panellists provide verses to support their views. This approach placed even the moderate panellists in a situation where they had to employ the same literalist, rigid approach adopted by extremist clerics elsewhere in response to the audience's questions. For example, when Professor Mona Siddiqui answered that Islam would allow a Muslim to spy on possible terrorists for MI5, the presenter demanded that Mona support her answer with a verse. When she could not provide such evidence a member of the audience went on to cite Koran 49 verse 12: "And spy not on each other."
While the comical views expressed on Shariah TV had viewers laughing at Islam's expense, for some of us they are no laughing matter. 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. Instead of promoting a debate on how the primary source of shariah (the Koran) can be re-interpreted in contemporary Britain, Shariah TV appears to be undermining that debate.
It remains to be seen what impact the views expressed in the series will have on the Muslim students who took part, or on those who watched it from home. Most young Muslims do not ask their clerics religious questions simply to generate debate. They ask because they want guidance and, in most cases, they act according to the answers provided if they trust the cleric.
A spokesperson for Shariah TV defended the programme and claimed that the views expressed by the clerics on the panel represent the majority of opinion among Muslims in Britain. "Whenever we had moderate Muslim scholars on the panel expressing their opinions, the audience kept on booing them and on a number of occasions we had to stop filming due to disruptions from an angry audience," he explained.
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.
University students are already victims of groups that promote exclusivist and extremist interpretations of Islam on campuses. Shariah TV could play a significant role in challenging such interpretations. In that way, it will be living up to its promise of engaging with Islam from a contemporary perspective.
The writer is a Muslim theologian and visiting lecturer at the University of BirminghamReuse content