Islamophonic: The Guardian makes a difference
The nature of mass media is changing, mainly due to advances in technology affecting both broadcast and print media. "Broadsheet" newspaper had to change their format to a less cumbersome size long ago as well as their content, since the news they revealed in the morning would already be an old story for those who accessed it on television, radio or the internet. Whilst the titillating gutter press tabloid newspapers could continue their mix of sex, crime and prejudice, more serious newspapers had to diversify and focus more on background and analysis. With podcasts they also tried to venture into broadcasting, effectively producing community radio for selected sections of listeners who were less catered for by the large corporations like the BBC.
"Islamophonic", recently launched by the Guardian, is such an attempt to provide meaningful listening for educated middle class British Muslims. The show goes out once a week on a Wednesday and is presented by Riazat Butt who during her inaugural session initially sounded like the proverbial DJ talking to an imaginary audience in an empty room, but soon began to master the task admirably. The 25 minute show is a mixture of reporting, comment and interviews tackling topical stories relevant to Muslims in Britain together with a "Fatwa Focus", attempting to give guidance on questions of what might or might not be the correct Islamic approach to everyday issues, and a highlight of media stories in a selected Muslim country each week.
It is apparent that the Guardian producers are not quite sure yet who their audience is going to be, since they venture rather cautiously and even conservatively into this newly discovered world of Muslim listeners. The rather strict and dogmatic answers obtained from the Saudi-orientated Shariah Council for the Fatwa Focus, prohibiting Muslim women from plucking their eyebrowes (most Pakistanis do it) or shaking hands with men (a common practice in Turkey and the Levante countries) and declaring it as "haram" (forbidden) to listen to music intentionally sits uneasy with the normally Liberal leaning of the Guardian and gives the false impression that Islam is over-prescriptive, ingnoring the fact that in Islamic jurisprudence there is not always just one right answer. An exploration of the meaningful attempts of Muslim scholars to tackle moral dilemmas, e.g. stem cell research, and the often differing approaches taken to arrive at solutions would be infinitely more useful to educated Muslim listeners, helping them to understand the methodology of the Shariah, rather than confronting them with the dictates of "safe" foreign scholars.
On the other hand, by interviewing Muslims from organisations not usually represented in the mainstream media as well as ordinary people at universities or in the street the podcast empowers Muslims by giving them a voice. Unfortunately, exposure is limited to those "dialling in". To change the uneasy relationship between Muslims and the media, the latter frequently accused of being sensationalising and prejudicial - a charge admitted patially by the Guardian's own media editor Matt Wells -, genuine Muslim voices will have to be encountered more frequently in the publications and broadcasts targetted at the mainstream. A select programme for Muslims only is not going to achieve that momentus task, but it is a worthwhile start. Well done Guardian!