As Muslim Call To Prayer Echoes On TV, Some Brits Tune Out

England's Channel 4 is airing the Muslim call to prayer every morning during the month of Ramadan. It's a decision that's caused controversy among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Host Michel Martin speaks with BBC radio host Sheetal Parmar about the issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, after 20 years in comfortable exile, the former dictator of the African nation of Chad is being tried for crimes against humanity. We'll hear from a human rights lawyer who spent 15 years trying to bring him to justice. That's later.

But first it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And you might know that the Muslim holiday of Ramadan began this week. That's when Muslims throughout the world fast. That means no food or water from sunup to sundown for about a month. For the first time, a broadcast television station in Britain has decided to run the Muslim call to prayer every morning during the holiday to signal the start of the fasting period.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSLIM CALL TO PRAYER)

MARTIN: This has sparked a lot of conversation and controversy among Muslims and non-Muslim alike, and not just in Britain but around the world. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Sheetal Parmar. She is a senior producer and host at the BBC Asian Network. She hosted a call-in program on this topic, and she's with us now from our studios in London. Sheetal, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHEETAL PARMAR: That you, Michel. It's great to be here with you.

MARTIN: Would you just describe the station for us? I mean, is there a way you could compare it to a station that Americans might know? Is this like the equivalent of a major network like ABC or NBC or CBS? Or is this more of a cable channel like CNN or HBO, or something of that sort?

PARMAR: So Channel 4, Michel, is one of the main mainstream British TV channels. It's on terrestrial TV. When it was formed back in, I think it was 1982, it was very much a channel with a public service remit and it was formed in order to represent the views of minorities in Britain. Now those minorities could be from different ethnicities, they could be from religious and nonreligious groups. And definitely people who are on the margins of society, if you like.

So Channel 4 has a range of programs that represent the views of, and engage in a conversation with the views of people who ordinary mainstream media don't necessarily represent.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you hosted a call-in program about this. This apparently has sparked a very strong reaction on both sides, right? So...

PARMAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So let's start with what Channel 4 says about this, because you had on your program Ralph Lee, who's the head of documentary programming for Channel 4 - the station which is doing this. What did he say was Channel 4's reasoning behind this decision?

PARMAR: Well, Channel 4's reasoning was very much about creating a provocative debate about Islam in this country. And this is not to say that Channel 4 haven't done this type of thing before. Not this specifically, with the call to prayer, but they do provoke. That's also part of Channel 4's remit. Now...

MARTIN: But what you're saying, to provoke to what? I mean, we were reading in the coverage that their argument was that they wanted to provoke debate, but to what point? What kind of debate is it that they want to provoke?

PARMAR: Well, what they want to show is that Islam is a religion of peace. What we've had in this country in the last few months since the attack on the unarmed soldier in London a couple of months ago, what we've had since then is this rising tension, which also happened after the two bombings on the seventh of July back in 2005.

This was an attack on our home soil, in broad daylight, and it raised a lot of fears about lots of people in this country. Fears that aren't necessarily - how can I put it - they're not necessarily fears that many people of lots of different backgrounds have.

But people are paranoid about certain things, and what we've had since the attack on the soldier is lots of mosques have been attacked as well. You've had the far-right group EDL campaigning and saying this is not the type of Islam we want to see in Britain, and have been actively campaigning on those grounds.

Now there's this undercurrent - there's an undercurrent of tension. We've also had a number of cases recently, in the last two to three years, where we've had gangs of mainly Pakistani men grooming under-aged white girls for sex and running prostitution rings and force-feeding them drugs. High-profile cases, where all the men have been convicted, and certainly the backlash that's happened since then and certainly things that - and we've talked about this on the BBC Asian Network as well - is whether these are cultural issues, whether these are religious issues, whether the crime that's happening is down to religion. And certainly nobody can prove that it's down to religion but there is this undercurrent, this tension that it's all because Muslims are a certain way. Now what Channel 4 was saying...

MARTIN: So having said that, the argument that Channel 4 was making is what? That they were mainstreaming the Muslim experience, that they're saying that they have an equal stake in the societies...

PARMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Kind of that type of thing.

PARMAR: Yeah. What they're saying is that most Muslims in Britain are peace-loving. Most Muslims in Britain have faith. You know, have religion at their core and therefore what they want to show other people is, when your Muslim coworker or your Muslim neighbor is fasting in the next few weeks, this is what they're going to be getting up to. You know, it's as simple as that, really.

MARTIN: So what's the other side of it? I mean, what's the other side of it? What are the people who are opposing it saying, and, you know, bearing in mind again that the call to prayer would be aired at what - 3 a.m.?

PARMAR: Only at 3 a.m.

MARTIN: Only at 3 a.m. - so presumably most people aren't going to hear it unless they happen to work the overnight...

PARMAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Or they happen to be up at that hour. What are people on the other side saying?

PARMAR: Right, well, the other side is the cynical side, if you like. You know, this is just Channel 4 cashing in again, if you like. You know, just to provoke. It gives them free publicity. It allows them just to go against the grain of mainstream channels. The other side also is - why is Channel 4 really doing this? And this is what a lot of Muslims have asked themselves. Now we did speak to somebody - an imam actually, who was very, very against it.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I understand that one of the callers to your program was an imam, or a Muslim religious leader, who says that he's opposed to this. And why did he say he's opposed to it.

PARMAR: Yeah, he basically was saying that this was not the right time. This was not the right time for the Azan, the call to prayer, to be on a mainstream UK channel. He thought it would look like Muslims were asking for too much. And Muslims haven't asked for this. This is a Channel 4 decision, you know, made by executives. This isn't necessarily something that Muslims have lobbied for.

Remember, Muslims in this country have access to hundreds of satellite TV channels from all over the world. So they don't need this in their homes. He was saying because of the grooming cases, because of the Woolwich murder, because of the rhetoric, if you like, spread by the EDL, that this would only be bad for Muslims in this country, because people would see it as, yet again, you know, it's Muslims creating a fuss about their religion and saying this is how we want it to be, when of course it isn't like that.

MARTIN: Well, what if, I can ask you too, and I understand that, you know, a call-in program only captures the sentiments of the people who are willing to call in, so we know that this is not, you know, a scientific survey of opinion, by any means. But I am curious - what do you think kind of the range of opinion is now? If these represent the continuum - what do you think the center of gravity is here? What do most people think...

PARMAR: Yeah, it's interesting...

MARTIN: ...From what you can determine?

PARMAR: Yeah, it's interesting actually. I was - while I was hosting this program I was almost expecting a backlash straight away. And that didn't necessarily happen on the BBC Asian Network. And this is a network that basically broadcasts to South Asian communities in the UK. So people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. We broadcast in English, so people who are essentially born and brought up here will be speaking to us.

Now there was, again, an undercurrent of, I'm not having this in my country. They see Britain as their country. What they see is, especially if they're from different backgrounds, so if they were, say, from India, traditionally or their parents were from India, and they weren't Muslim, there were a lot of people that were actually against it. I mean, I would say, you know, to be fair to our listeners, there was probably a 50-50. Fifty on one side and 50 on the other, I think.

MARTIN: And what's the other side? So what's the other side?

PARMAR: Well, the other side that thought it was great. The other side thought that, you know, this was a chance for them to learn about Islam. That they could see exactly what was going on in a Muslim household, because there's going to be other programs on Channel 4 showing exactly what goes on when they start their fast that early in the morning, when most people are asleep, and what happens, you know, when they pray and when they actually eat for the first time in 18 hours.

It's also about learning about the spiritual aspect, which a lot of people don't realize. They think fasting is literally just about the food and drink or the lack of. What they don't realize is the spiritual aspect and what happens during that whole 30-day period.

MARTIN: Sheetal Parmar is senior producer and host at the BBC Asian Network. She's hosted a call-in program about Channel 4's decision to air the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadan. Sheetal, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PARMAR: Thank you Michel.

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