Hindu and Sikh leaders have accused the BBC of pandering to Britain's Muslim community by making a disproportionate number of programmes on Islam at the expense of covering other Asian religions.
A breakdown of programming from the BBC's Religion and Ethics department, seen by The Independent, reveals that since 2001, the BBC made 41 faith programmes on Islam, compared with just five on Hinduism and one on Sikhism.
Critics say the disproportionate amount of programming is part of an apparent bias within the BBC towards Islam since the attacks of 11 September 2001, which has placed an often uncomfortable media spotlight on Britain's Muslims.
Ashish Joshi, the chairman of the Network of Sikh Organisation's (NSO) media monitoring group, which obtained the numbers, said many Hindu and Sikh licence-fee payers felt cheated. "People in our communities are shocked," he said. "We are licence-fee payers and we want to know why this has happened. The bias towards Islam at the expense of Hindus and particularly Sikhs is overwhelming and appears to be a part of BBC policy."
Indarjit Singh, the editor of the Sikh Messenger and a regular contributor to BBC Radio4's Thought for the Day, said that the public broadcaster was focusing too much attention on Islam at the expense of other religious communities.
"I think it's probably unthinking, or inadvertent, but the bias is there," he said. "I do know that within the Sikh community especially there is a feeling of concern over the lack of portrayal of their religion on television. There is a feeling of being brushed aside."
He added: "The wider community is missing out on what the different religions have to offer society. Of course it is important to educate non-Muslims about Islam but it is also important to provide informative, open and respectful programming on all religions."
In a letter sent in July to the NSO, the head of the BBC's Religion and Ethics, Michael Wakelin, denied that there was any bias. He said the demographic makeup of Britain meant that Britain's 1.6 million Muslims outnumber Hindus and Sikhs by two to one. "Therefore," he wrote, "if Muslims get 60 minutes a year, the Sikhs and Hindus should share 30 minutes each." Further content on Islam, he added, was "no doubt sparked by the interest in the faith following 9/11".
The latest row over the BBC's cultural output follows a dispute raging at the BBC's Asian Network radio service, where more than 20 former and current employees have written a letter of complaint alleging that the station ignores Muslim listeners and plays less Pakistani and Bangladeshi music than it should.
A spokesman for the BBC said the broadcaster was committed to representing all of Britain's faiths and communities. "We reject any claims of bias," he said. "In our religion and ethics content alone, we have covered Hindu and Sikh issues this year on The Big Questions, Sunday Life and Extreme Pilgrim. In the autumn we will be covering Diwali from a Sikh perspective and we have a major new series for BBC Two in early 2009, including features on Hinduism and Sikhism."
But a number of MPs, including Rob Marris and Keith Vaz, called on the BBC to do more to represent Britain's minority faiths. "I am disappointed," said Mr Vaz. "It is only right that as licence fee payers all faiths are represented in a way that mirrors their make-up in society. I hope that the BBC ... addresses the problem in its next year of programming."
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