- By Lydia Tomkiw<p> Lydia Tomkiw is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. </p>
Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, begins Monday evening in many parts of the world (just when continues to be the subject of debate). And in a intentionally provocative move, the British broadcaster Channel 4 has announced that it will be airing the call to prayer, or adhan, live every morning throughout Ramadan (an autoplay version will also be available on its website five times daily). The first call to prayer will air at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday and "[p]rogrammes in the schedule will be cut to accommodate the adhan."
Writing for Britain’s Radio Times magazine, Channel 4’s head of factual programming, Ralph Lee, called the decision "a deliberate ‘provocation’ to all our viewers in the very real sense of the word," noting that the broadcaster expected to be "criticized for focusing attention on a ‘minority’ religion." Lee went on to point out that nearly five percent of the country will be participating in Ramadan. "[C]an we say the same of other national events that have received blanket coverage on television such as the Queen’s coronation anniversary?" he asked.
The channel’s month-long coverage will be paired with other programs that document what daily life is like for practicing British Muslims during Ramadan. And, just as Lee and his colleagues intended, its decision to become "the first mainstream British TV channel to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer live each morning" has sparked a debate in the country over the past week. Critics are dismissing the move as a gimmick, while supporters are welcoming the coverage — especially in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, London in May, which raised concerns about a backlash against Muslims.
One columnist for the Daily Mail, for instance, labeled Channel 4’s decision "pure tokenism" adding, "If it were being serious, it would broadcast all five calls to prayer, interrupting daytime transmissions of soap operas, cricket matches and news bulletins where necessary. Also, as a gesture to Islam, it would refuse to carry advertisements for alcohol during the holy season."
The Guardian, for its part, has run pro and con columns on the issue, with Nabil Ahmed calling Channel 4’s decision "an opportunity for all of us to learn – and to put aside preconceived ideas" and Nesrine Malik describing the move as "irresponsible and patronizing."
Terry Sanderson, president of Britain’s National Secular Society, expressed concern about Channel 4 engaging in a "publicity-seeking stunt" but also conceded, "Given that the BBC devotes hundreds of hours a year to Christianity, with two or three church services every day on its radio stations, and hardly any mention of minority religions, a few minutes devoted to Islam doesn’t seem unreasonable."
Twitter users have greeted the news with trademark sarcasm:
How many people watch Channel 4 at 3am? Also, do you think Muslims will be watching? No. They will be stuffing their faces
— riazat butt (@riazat_butt) July 2, 2013
Channel Four observing Ramadan is great. I look forward to their positive coverage of Lent, featuring young Catholics on Ash Wednesday #ahem
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) July 2, 2013
This isn’t the first time Channel 4 has drummed up controversy. In 2008, the broadcaster had outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad give an alternative to the Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day address. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?