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Media: Religious TV needs a conversion: Broadcasters seem incapable of understanding people who believe, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

A wise old Muslim called Mr Ahmed recently told me of his deep disenchantment that 'this great country is now so godless. Too many people think they are God now, and there is no humility left, so we have all this horror and violence and so little self-control. The end is coming for these Englishmen.'

When asked how he had reached these weighty conclusions, he replied: 'Television, of course, my dear girl. You can see it all the time. A young girl was dying in Casualty, and was there anybody praying at her bedside? No.' He followed this with a tirade about how the British didn't understand Islam because of the villainy of television producers 'who don't like us and who never show the whole picture'.

Mr Ahmed was expressing commonly held perceptions about the lack of religion in mainstream society, the antipathy shown to other faiths and the power of television to influence hearts and minds in these sensitive areas.

He would be just as astonished as I was by Seeing is Believing, a report by the Independent Television Commission on audience attitudes to religious broadcasting. In a sample representative of the population, 70 per cent identified themselves with a Christian denomination. A similar majority agreed that religious beliefs helped them to face problems. There was a surprising amount of inter-faith agreement that religion helps to maintain the standards and morals of a society.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that 80 per cent of those surveyed accepted that this was a multi-faith society in which no one religion could make special claims. This challenges both the hysterical sections of the media that proclaim the death of the 'British way of life' every time a young white child is exposed to a Diwali celebration or a Punjabi folk song, and recent government directives instructing that Christianity should be the main religion taught in schools.

More predictably, the report found that religion was profoundly important to ethnic minority communities, with most groups expressing concern that the majority were prejudiced against their beliefs and practices.

Important questions arise out of these findings. Are such views less to do with religion than with mounting concern about unbridled freedom and moral nihilism? How much is allegiance to a particular religion intrinsic and how much of it interactional, a response to other groups? And how does this turn into statements of the kind made by the Sunday Telegraph editor, Charles Moore, writing in the Spectator: 'Britain is basically English-speaking, and Christian and white, and if one starts to think that it might become Urdu-speaking and Muslim and brown, one gets frightened and angry'; or the manifesto of Hizb ut Tahrir, a militant Islamic youth group, which forbids friendships with 'unbelievers'? To what extent is the strong religious identity of the minorities bound up with their sense of feeling beleaguered?

Television could play a vital part in these explorations, particularly as there is a consensus in the report that access should be given to all groups. Majorities of Muslims and Christians thought that programmes could criticise their beliefs as long as it was done fairly and without resorting to stereotypes.

With so much potential, why has television failed so miserably? I believe the most important reason is that British television is submerged in an ethos of secular liberal fundamentalism which sees the religions of the ethnic minorities as manifestations of backwardness and irrationality, and the only available redemption as assimilation. There is a pathological incapacity to deal with religion in a way that understands the impulses of those who believe. It is not surprising that we end up with programmes like Panorama's 'Underclass in Purdah'; or that on the fifth anniversary of the fatwa, Salman Rushdie got his slot but there was no programme to explore what had happened to the Muslim community during the same period. There are honourable exceptions, among them BBC 1's Heart of the Matter, the BBC 2 series Living Islam and Channel 4's Islamic Conversations.

The way forward is not to shuffle off religious groups to run their own cable networks - a ghettoisation that will only serve the interests of the television companies and trap religious groups in time warps - but to grab the opportunity to make more interactive programmes which examine the relationships between various religious groups and the transformations that are going on. One could look at moral issues, or such subjects as lone parenthood, through the eyes of the different communities. One could study the relationship between religion and aesthetics around the world, or the way religion gives depth to people's lives.

There also need to be structural changes in the way programmes are made. Some of the best on the Third World are a result of resources being made available for people to tell their own stories. Why not use this as a model for religious groups living here?

We need television producers to think much more broadly and imaginatively about religion, so that they can move beyond showing us voyeuristic anthropology or the so-called problems endemic in multiculturalism. But for that to happen they will first need to acquire, in the words of Mr Ahmed, some humility.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a broadcaster and writer on race and cultural affairs. This article first appeared in the Independent Television Commission's magazine 'Spectrum'.

'Seeing is Believing: Religion and Television in the 1990s', published by John Libbey at pounds 18, available through Faber Book Services, telephone 0279 417134.

(Photograph omitted)