London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Islam Channel, which was launched in 2004, broadcasts in English from London to all parts of Europe and the continent of Africa. With 24-hour coverage via seven satellites, the channel offers programs dealing with current affairs and entertainment, from an Islamic perspective. This is intended to educate Muslims, and to convey the truth and reality [of Islam] to them, as well as to non-Muslims.
Islam Channel recently began broadcasting in West Africa, and is a publicly accessible station in Ghana, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, amongst other countries. In an earlier interview, Mohamed Ali Harrath, Director General of Islam Channel, told Asharq Al-Awsat that according to official government statistics, 60 percent of British Muslims follow the station’s programs. He said: “Both the British Home and Foreign offices consider the channel among the most important means of influencing British Muslims.”
Islam Channel also organizes an annual Global Peace and Unity Conference, held every October at the ExCel Arena in London. The phrase “positive integration” or “Islam, the British way”, as is commonly used amongst Britain’s Muslims, is one of the most prominent themes of the conference, as Mohamed Ali Harrath explains: “Positive integration, as the phrase implies, is positive in the sense of participation without disintegration, dissolution, or abandonment of the teachings of religion. We are British Muslims with full rights. We adhere fully to our Islamic identity, but without deviating from our British identity. We see no contradiction in this.”
Asharq al-Awsat recently spoke to Frances Legg, a member of Islam Channel’s production team. During the interview, Legg elaborated on her interest in Islam and the Middle East, provided an insight into her work at the television station, and detailed Islam Channel’s main objectives. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell Arab readers a little about yourself?
[Frances Legg] My name is Frances, I’m 22 years old and I work as a researcher and producer for the London-based television station; the ‘Islam Channel’. I work within the History department. I write and produce the daily programme “This Day in History” and I also conduct research for the history series “Timeline”.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your education and career?
[Frances Legg] I studied for a BA in Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Upon graduating in June 2010, I started work at Islam Channel.
[Asharq al-Awsat] How important is Islam Channel to your career?
[Frances Legg] I am very lucky to have been given the opportunity to work at Islam Channel. I’ve been here for 7 months now and have already learnt a lot. I get to work with some amazing producers and editors. I am currently applying to study for a Masters degree in Middle Eastern politics. If I am accepted on to my chosen course, I hope to study part-time and continue to work here.
I enjoy my work and consider myself fortunate to be able to help make programmes that challenge the mainstream narrative of historical events. I hope that my work engages people and that it encourages them to go away and find out more for themselves.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Before Islam Channel where did you work?
[Frances Legg] This is my first full-time job since graduating from university.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell us how to access the Islam Channel?
[Frances Legg] The Islam Channel is available 24 hours a day and is broadcasted via satellite providers such as Hotbird, Eurobird, Astra, Telstar and Sky here in the UK. Alternatively, you can access the channel at www.islamchannel.tv.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Did you find it difficult to work within a Muslim environment?
[Frances Legg] Not at all! It is a very welcoming and friendly place to work. There are people of all faiths working here and I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with such a wide mix of people.
A lot of my friends are Muslim so for me it is not really unusual to be in such an environment.
I have traveled a bit around the Middle East, and the time I have spent in Lebanon and Palestine in particular has been one of the most politically and culturally enriching experiences I have had. I hope to be able to travel more in the future, in particular to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
[Asharq al-Awsat] Do you think the Islam Channel has been successful in fostering understanding between the West and the Middle East, or Muslim community?
[Frances Legg] I think that Islam Channel plays a very important role in educating people, both in Britain and beyond. We aim to present an alternative narrative of the world than that which is presented by much of the mainstream media. One of our primary goals is to provide our viewers with an objective interpretation of world events. I think we act as a counterweight to, what I personally view, as an increasingly anti-Muslim media.
The Islam Channel has also been instrumental in engaging people in discourse. Non-Muslims can turn on the channel and discover Islam is really about. The channel has also played an important role in supporting the Global Peace and Unity Event, an annual event that aims to bring people of all faiths or none together in the spirit of mutual understanding and tolerance.
[Asharq al-Awsat] In light of the Islamic environment around you, have you ever considered converting to Islam?
[Frances Legg] I became interested in Islam when I was about 17 and have always sought to find out more about it. Therefore I have started reading the Qu’ran. I think it is important to go back to the source and to find out what Islam really says, rather than relying on what other people say about it. There is a lot of secondary reading available but personally I find it more useful to focus on the original source itself.
However, the good thing about working at the channel is that there are always people to answer any questions I might have!
[Asharq al-Awsat] Have you noticed any changes in British attitudes towards the Middle East or Muslims?
[Frances Legg] I think that post-9/11 there has been a rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in the mainstream media, which I believe is reflective of the wider political context of the “War on Terror” and Western foreign policy. On issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine I think that much of the mainstream is shamefully silent, especially when it comes to talking about the role of the West. I think that what Islam Channel does in order to counteract this is vital. It is crucial that we present an alternative narrative and work to prevent the ideological attack on Islam.
However, there has also been a positive change in Britain. Through the work of grass-roots organisations, the anti-war movement, and various other groups, I believe that there are increasing numbers of people who are not willing to simply accept the official government-endorsed line. The fact that London is now one of the biggest centres of pro-Palestinian campaigning is certainly something we should all be proud of. In a recent report from an Israeli think-tank, London was cited as a key threat to the Israeli state because of its “Red-Green alliance” [i.e. the alliance between Muslims and the Left]. In my opinion, this [alliance] is definitely a positive thing!
[Asharq al-Awsat] Who are your target audience?
[Frances Legg] We broadcast all over the world. We are the first English-language, Islamic television station in the world to broadcast 24 hours a day, and the premier Islamic channel in Africa. We are the most watched ethnic and specialist channel in the UK, attracting 59% of British Muslims (according to a British Home Office study).
[Asharq al-Awsat] What is your average viewership? Who do you consider to be your main competition?
[Frances Legg] The majority of our viewers are Muslims, but we also operate with a view to attracting a non-Muslim audience. We strive to broadcast as an alternative to, and in competition with, the mainstream.
[Asharq al-Awsat] What genre of programmes do you personally prefer?
[Frances Legg] If I’m watching television I generally prefer documentaries, current affairs programmes, and historical documentaries. John Pilger’s work is, for me, some of the best television available at the moment, especially his documentaries on Latin America.
[Asharq al-Awsat] If you are at home do you watch Islamic channel?
[Frances Legg] I sometimes watch the channel whilst at home and obviously it is on all day whilst I am at work, so I also see bits and pieces then!
[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you provide us with examples of notable figures who work for Islam Channel?
[Frances Legg] John Rees- writer and founder of the ‘Stop the War Coalition’. Presents “Timeline”.
Phil Rees – former BBC producer who specialises in international relations. Presents “The World This Week”.
Jonathan Steel – Guardian columnist, foreign correspondent, and author. Presents “Week in Parliament”.
Salma Yaqoob – leader of Respect Party, councilor for Birmingham Sparkbrook ward. Will soon be starting work as a broadcaster for Islam Channel.