Driving through the streets of Baghdad last week, I was struck by the number of satellite dishes for sale everywhere. After years in which the appliances were banned by Saddam, freedom is sprouting all over the skyline. There is still an almost total absence of local media, so that Iraqis know nothing of what is going on in their own country except by rumour. But those who can afford a dish are eagerly beginning to learn about the world. They can get the BBC, CNN and even the Fox Channel; though these are not, alas, the only ones they are watching. Unless we are careful, we are about to lose a crucial propaganda war.
I myself flicked through the channels on the rather antiquated television set in my room at the Baghdad Sheraton and found broadcasts from Abu Dhabi and from Iran. I watched footage of ayatollahs in southern Iraq and images of the Palestinians suffering at the hands of the Israelis. I sat there captivated by the repeated, stylised pictures: a boy throwing stones at an Israeli tank; the Israelis moving in and shooting; the bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Then there was the Arabic-language news from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and from its new Dubai-based rival, Al-Arabiya. If Hezbollah's channel is not yet bringing Iraqis its regular shots of black-clad marching soldiers of Allah, it cannot be long.
What we too often fail to grasp is that these and similar channels are also on offer in the UK, and are widely watched. Whatever we may think of the merits of Western television, we must accept that, in many Muslim minds, it is tainted, in Britain as much as in Iraq. They may see the odd black or Asian newscaster; but every time an expert opinion is canvassed, the face of that expert is white. Like it or not, there is a prejudice that our channels are just propaganda for whites, or even under Zionist control. I speak as an Asian, the son of Muslim parents from India and Pakistan. I may be an Anglican priest, but a large proportion of my immediate family support bin Laden, and I hope I speak with some authority.
We cannot shirk the influence of television in trying to answer the question that arose recently: how two decent, middle-class young men of the Muslim faith, regarded as moderates by those who knew them, could leave the shores of Britain, travel to Israel with the intention of becoming martyrs, and in the process kill and injure many people whom they had never met and who had done them no wrong.
To most non-Muslim Britons it seems incomprehensible as well as abhorrent. For mainstream Muslim spokesmen, it is a denial of authentic Islam, which they claim condemns violence and the taking of innocent life. For Muslim radicals, however, there is clear justification in that Jews are held to be enemies of Islam. For the Muslim majority in Britain, who knows?
No one knows either how many other potential suicide bombers there are among the British Muslim community. Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? It is certain, however, that whatever motivated Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, they are not the only Muslims in Britain to feel that way.
Suicide bombers act in concert with others who share their values and ideologies, shaping and reinforcing each other's attitudes. Passions are aroused, anger fuelled, and energies directed towards a given end. For this to happen an enemy must be created – a target for the hatred – who will later be crushed and destroyed.
For Hanif and Sharif, the cause was Palestine and the enemy was 'the Jew'. Although these two appear to have been radicalised and groomed for martyrdom while visiting Damascus, the seeds of hatred could have been sown at home in Britain. Suleiman Chachia, chairman of the trustees of the mosque in Hounslow which was attended by Hanif, has pinpointed the role of television news in stirring up Muslim passions, even to the point of creating suicide bombers. '[Muslim] people are very much concerned about Palestine. We see the killings on television, and to us a Palestinian death and an Israeli death is the same. But why are the United Nations resolutions not applied to Israel? This is a burning issue that has to be settled. Otherwise there will be other young men like this. What I know about Asif Hanif is that his nature was not aggressive.'
In thousands of Asian British homes the choice of viewing is normally determined by the older generation, who in Asian culture make all decisions of any consequence in the home. These older family members, usually first- or second-generation immigrants, feel strong ties to their homeland. Their identity and their empathies lie there, not in Britain. They may find the English language difficult – some older women speak very little English despite having lived here for decades. Naturally they prefer to watch Pakistani and other Asian channels. Though the younger generation may like to watch British television when they are allowed to, most of what they hear and see in the home – even if unwillingly – emanates from Asia. It is these programmes which are discussed at meal times, or with friends, and thus attitudes are formed.
The national television station of Pakistan plays an important role in creating opinion among Asian Muslims in Britain. Launched in 1964 with the motive of enabling the government to communicate with the largely illiterate masses, it is still very much controlled by the Pakistani government. News and other programmes from Pakistan television are broadcast on the satellite channels Prime TV and ARY, which are watched by many British Asians. This programming deliberately creates and nurtures an image of 'the enemy', which is communicated to viewers every day, as described by I.A. Rehman, director of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, in his 2001 paper 'Enemy Images on Pakistan Television'.
The principal enemy, as presented by Pakistan television, is India, with virtually every news bulletin focusing on the Kashmir issue. The enemy image is communicated by means of crude stereotypes that are almost caricatures – the cowardly, devious Indians versus the courageous, upright Pakistanis. The secondary enemy are the colonial masters who ruled south Asia for two humiliating centuries, i.e. Britain. The same message is conveyed in films. These creations are not just singing, dancing and romance; many also contain much violence and often an anti-colonial, anti-British stance.
These issues are expanded by Pakistan television to embrace the whole Muslim cause. Britain is depicted as the enemy that extinguished the Muslim Mogul empire whose successor is considered to be Pakistan. Historical features examine the collapse of the Mogul empire, the attempted defence of the Turkish caliphate, the Pakistan movement, the origins of the Kashmir issue, etc. Even the Crusades and the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in the 15th century are included in the general theme of the Christians versus the Muslim community worldwide.
This has further developed into what is now seen as a war against Islam and the development of an Islamic identity and consciousness. The enemy is portrayed in many different contemporary forms. In the Palestinian context, tyrannous enemy Jews are depicted oppressing Muslim brothers and sisters. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terrorism, the enemy has become the USA, Britain and the West in general. In every war of secession where Muslims seek independence, in any area where Muslims are seen to suffer, in any place where Muslims are said to be oppressed, a new enemy image can be discovered.
There is little or no attempt to analyse causes or to be guided by reason rather than by emotion. The enemy has no personality or identity, but is completely dehumanised so as to be crushed like an ant under foot without c ompunction.
During the Iraq war, Al-Jazeera used the same method. Coalition troops were portrayed as inhuman enemy invaders, the camera lingering with apparent delight on coalition dead and gloating over prisoners of war. Long, drawn-out shots of wounded Iraqi children underlined the message that 'the enemy has done this' and is to be treated mercilessly in return.
One of the features of Islamic television is the video of the suicide bomber's last prayers. Like the Western wedding video, this has some formulaic elements: the bomber will be seen at prayer; he will be dressed in white; there will be a message for his family; and then, once he has done his work, there will be the shots of brutal Israeli reprisals. Never do such channels call him and his kind suicide bombers; they are shahid, or martyrs. Nor is there any condemnation offered in the commentary.
It is but a small step from this kind of material to the training of terrorists and suicide bombers, a large part of which is concerned with increasing their hatred and rage towards the enemy. Al-Qa'eda training videos portray the injuries and sufferings of Muslims, especially children. Suicide bombers are never sent to reconnoitre their targets, for fear that they would be touched by compassion for those they are to kill.
While south Asians comprise the largest grouping within the British Muslim community, there is plenty of television for other Muslims also. Arabs can choose between news channels with varying stances. Al-Jazeera goes for comment and controversy, while Al-Arabiya aims to present the news straight and factually. So-called 'music videos' are often screened, glamorising the Palestinian conflict with slo-mo footage, or a montage of images shown to stirring music. Hezbollah's programmes are similar, cleverly reinforcing in the viewer's mind and heart the message of Palestinian suffering which must be avenged.
For Iranians in Britain, there is the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (Irib); most of its programmes are in Farsi but there is also one in Arabic, thus increasing its potential audience many-fold (to include for example the Shias of southern Iraq). The international version of Irib is slightly different from what is broadcast within Iran itself. Much of Irib's airtime is devoted to Islamic teaching, upholding Islamic values and showing the corruption and immorality of the infidel West. Without actually urging Iranians to take up arms, the channel leaves no doubt as to who the villains are. Sermons at Friday noon prayers can be somewhat more explicit with, say, senior Islamic clerics exhorting Iranians to do what the Palestinians have done. An Iranian businessman in the UK told me that young Iranians in the West are fairly immune to this kind of propaganda as they basically prefer the freedoms of the West to the restrictions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But what of the next generation, those who will have grown up here without even knowing life in Iran? They are likely to be seeking to return to their roots, based on their historical and religious identity. Will television teach them to despise the West and seek a solution in Islam?
Today's emphasis on multiculturalism, which regards all histories, cultures and religions as equal within the British context, poses an increasingly serious problem. Modern multiculturalism defines ethnic identity very much in terms of its history and religion. Thus it encourages the rediscovery of historical background, culture and religion. The attitudes of Muslim young people born and bred in Britain are being shaped by influences from outside which affect their identity and their ultimate loyalties. Television is increasingly being used to reinforce this and to sell a message of repression and liberation. If they are taught to consider the land in which they live as the enemy, what future do we have?
Those who exploit the effect of the visual image on susceptible young people are well aware of how powerful it is, in that 'seeing is believing'. While we may have laws governing what is shown on terrestrial television, there is no way to limit what is beamed in from elsewhere. Even here in leafy Wiltshire I could view all these programmes if I chose to subscribe. Prime TV costs only £10 a month. Free and unrestricted airwaves can communicate not only pornography and hedonistic materialism, but also religious radicalism. Ultimately the control will lie with those who hold the television remote-control in their hand – usually the older family members. How far will the average Muslim grandparent now take responsibility for that control?
If there is one step we should take urgently, it is to set up a Muslim station to broadcast sense and moderation to Iraq. One day, with any luck, that station will also be picked up in Britain.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.