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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
health
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine