Undercover Mosque - channel 4 are the real racists

Source: Media Workers Against the War 22 January 2007

The media must be so grateful to Jade Goody. Thanks to her and Big Brother they have a scapegoat for the racism that they themselves have made respectable. The same newspapers that fill their pages with hate for asylum-seekers, immigrants and multiculturalism suddenly declare themselves anti-racists.

Not for one second have the print and broadcast media relented in their barrage of racism against Muslims. The latest example is Channel 4's Dispatches documentary "Undercover Mosque", broadcast on January 15. The documentary is a textbook example of Islamophobic reporting. It has set the right-wing blogosphere on fire; clips from the programme on YouTube have gone straight into the top ten.

The message of "Undercover Mosque" is that, however "moderate" Muslims claim to be, it is the fundamentalists who are really pulling the strings, using the cover of moderation to preach racism, bigotry and holy war. Shafiq ur-Rehman, president of the UK Islamic Mission, has written a powerful response to the makers of "Undercover Mosque", which deserves a wide audience. In fact the programme was so biased that the judge at the trial of the July 21 bomb plot defendants told the jury: "If any of you saw or heard it, or if you read review of it in the newspapers, please ignore it completely. It's a very good example of why you should close your mind completely to the media and concentrate on what is said in this courtroom."

"Undercover Mosque" is part of an established genre, which includes John Ware's Panorama programmes and Richard Watson's reports for Newsnight and File on 4. Its technique is childishly simple. First, use a hidden camera - that way the viewer thinks they are being told something important that Muslims would otherwise want to keep secret. Much of "Undercover Mosque" could have been filmed as interviews, but the hidden camera is much sexier. In fact the reporter repeatedly shows video cameras set up to record the speeches that he is so daringly filming himself. So much for the need to go "undercover".

Second, use a sound-track that sounds like something from Mission Impossible. This helps get the viewer excited about something that isn't really very exciting. As the Press Gazette commented: "The irritating background music, which cranked into gear whenever a preacher used the word kaffir or kuffr, gave the feel of a cheap Fox News report."

Shots of boring buildings and people also look much more threatening if you frame them in a fuzzy black circle. The programme's allegations about links to extremists in Pakistan were illustrated with chanting Pakistani crowds -q.e.d., obviously. The programme repeatedly showed women in the niqab, while presenting no evidence that those women had anything to do with the preachers' calls to "hit girls if they don't wear the hijab" (and not, incidentally, the niqab). The Press Gazette, once more: "Patronising in the extreme, the decision to make dramatic cuts to footage of women in hijabs and burkhas whenever ignorant mullahs spouted off about male supremacy, was bewildering. Does Dispatches think the majority of viewers equate the hijab with the subjugation of women?"As if to prove the point, the programme repeatedly interviewed Irfan al-Alawi, blanking out his face on the basis that he feared violence from Muslim extremists as a result of his views. However, al-Alawi featured in a recent broadcast by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (watch the video here). As Martin Sullivan has pointed out, this just goes to illustrate the dishonest scaremongering tactics employed by Dispatches.

So "Undercover Mosque" certainly worked hard to sex up its material. But as for the material itself, it boiled down to a few nasty, right-wing preachers saying nasty, right-wing things. From that the programme jumped to the conclusion that "moderate" mosques are actually hotbeds of fundamentalism, and that the extremists plan to wage a holy war and take power in Britain.

Two obvious questions follow from these assertions. First, how representative are these preachers of Muslim activity in Britain? Responding to the programme, the Muslim Council of Britain's Inayat Bunglawala points out that the programme visited just four out of the UK's 1,200 mosques, and used just two DVDs to smear London's largest Islamic centre.

And secondly, what was the audience reaction to what the preachers had said? There was not a single interview with young Muslims at the mosques in question. The programme's producers placed their interpretation on the speeches, but how had Muslims themselves understood them? How did they understand the accusations that the West lies or the exhortations for Muslims not to join the police or the army, or that Muslims should hate unbelievers?

Stepping outside the mosque, those young people would encounter a world in which Western leaders are pathological liars who have sent troops to slaughter Iraqis and Aghanis in an imperialist war for oil and power. They would encounter constant racism and hate at school, at work, in housing, policing, health, and in the streets, blighting their lives and hobbling their futures. And Channel 4 expects Muslims not to hate that racism in response, but to shut up and integrate? As Malcolm X put it: "And this devil has the arrogance and the gall to think we, his victims, should love him!"

Racism isn't just Jade Goody's foul mouth. It's a system of power that filters throughout society. It's that racism that fuels many Muslims' anger - and it's the right-wing Muslims who try to cash in.

Islamophobic programmes like "Undercover Mosque" put the blame for racism on its victims. Shame on its producers.

  • Letter from Shafiq ur-Rahman (President of the UK Islamic Mission) to the makers of the programme "Undercover Mosques", written in advance of the broadcast