On Tuesday 9 July, 2.8 million British people will undertake an extreme diet and they’ll curb, control and restrict their normal patterns of behaviour. They’ll forgo food, water, smoking, swearing and even sex, from dawn to dusk, in an attempt to focus on life’s big questions. It might sound like a boot camp or brand-new self-help movement but this is how Britain’s Muslim population marks the month of Ramadan – the most significant event in the Islamic calendar.
A mass act of personal sacrifice and worship, it’s carried out every year, by increasing numbers of committed Muslims – yet the vast majority of people in Britain won’t even be aware of its existence. Not surprising when you consider its near invisibility on mainstream TV. Contrast this with the way most Muslims are represented on television – nearly always appearing in contexts related to extremism or terrorism. Even when moderate Muslims do appear, it’s often only to provide a counterpoint to these issues. Following the horrific events in Woolwich and subsequent reprisals against British Muslims, there has surely never been a more pressing need to give a voice to the moderate mainstream majority.
It’s easy for non-Muslims to see Islam through a superficial prism of what is forbidden, and Ramadan through the physical hardship of fasting and control. For Muslims, however, Ramadan provides great physical and spiritual gains. It’s a time of reformation and reflection, whether that’s developing a greater awareness of the suffering of others, feeling a stronger affinity with their Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, or resolving to change the way they live their lives for the greater good.
This year Channel 4 becomes the first mainstream British TV channel to broadcast the call to prayer (adhan). This melodic call to action, which rings out across the globe, will be transmitted directly into British living rooms at the exact time Muslims prepare for their first prayers and as they begin their fast every morning during Ramadan. Delivered by Hassen Rasool, considered one of the UK’s best muezzins, it will air every morning for the rest of Ramadan.
People will also be able watch it online, via a dedicated website that will observe each and every single adhan throughout Ramadan at the times set out by the unified prayer timetable. The video of the call to prayer will automatically play at the same time as mosques all around London will be playing theirs. Observing the adhan on Channel 4 will act as a nationwide tannoy system, a deliberate “provocation” to all our viewers in the very real sense of the word.
The calls to prayer prompt Muslims to carry out quiet moments of worship, but hopefully they’ll also make other viewers sit up and notice that this event is taking place. In another significant acknowledgement, Channel 4 News weatherman Liam Dutton will make the sunrise and sunset times a feature of his reports.
No doubt Channel 4 will be criticised for focusing attention on a “minority” religion but that’s what we’re here to do – provide space for the alternative and a voice to the under-repre- sented. And let’s not forget that Islam is one of the few religions that’s flourishing, actually increasing in the UK. Like Channel 4’s target audience, its followers are young. It’s recently been reported that half of British Muslims are under 25.
Nearly five per cent of the country will actively engage in Ramadan this month – can we say the same of other national events that have received blanket coverage on television such as the Queen’s coronation anniversary?
Ralph Lee is Channel 4’s head of factual programming.