Dispatches Undercover: Islamophobia meets the Muslimahs

Last year, the British program Dispatches went undercover in a Mosque in Britain to expose “radical” Islam functioning in Britain. I’m sure the main point of that program was to scare inform Britons about radical Muslims who lurk in every corner. The masjid in question is funded partly by Saudi (although many masajid around the world are) and at least some of the members subscribe to the Salafi form of Islam (erroneously called Wahhabism in the program). Coming from a city with plenty of Salafis, I wasn’t shocked by anything I saw in the Dispatches programs. I was actually disappointed and disgusted. The message seemed to be although Muslims talk about interfaith dialogue and living in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors, one can never be sure about that. The Dispatches program is definitely one of the worse in a long line of media programs aimed at increasing Islamophobia among the masses.

This year, Dispatches made a return visit to the mosque. For this visit, they used a female reporter as the undercover agent and had a more explicit focus on women, unlike the last episode. When the episode begins, we’re given the usual images of niqabis that are shown whenever we discusss “radical” Islam. I counted three shots of niqabis before we’re shown actual footage from the reporter (who also donned a niqab). Curiously enough, we’re shown footage, not of men speaking of the “need” to hate the kafir and be segregated at all costs, but of women doing this. Salafi women have propagated this separatist version of Islam for quite some time. You can see some of the remarks in the clip below:

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This time, Dispatches reverses our expectations of gender norms for Muslims. Usually men are shown as active advocates for extremist Islam with women being the passive victims of it. However, in this show, women are shown actively advocating for the Salafi vision of Islam as well.

A few messages about Muslim women are conveyed in the Dispatches program. One message, which is common, is that Muslim women are complicit in their oppression and “brainwashed” by Muslim men. Most of the women in the masjid wear niqab, which is associated in the West with oppression. By showing these women in niqab preaching this extreme, separatist view of Islam, a Western audience will probably come to the conclusion that Muslim women are indeed brainwashed.

Another message was that Muslim women are just as dangerous as their male counterparts. This message has been propagated in the MSM a lot recently, with recent news stories on women suicide bombers and now the Dispatches program.

Dispatches promoted more negative images of Muslim women and Muslims as a whole. It will do little to help Britons understand their fellow Muslim citizens, including Muslim women, and only serve to make a wider gap between the Muslim population and non-Muslim population in Britain.

Editor’s Note: I found the narrator’s comment, “Our reporter, a Muslim herself, is going undercover in the most important and influential mosque in the country.”

I think that this inclusion of “a Muslim herself” is trying to give the program a sense of legitimacy because they’re using an “insider”. The inclusion of a Muslim reporter for this assignment may be attempting to shirk an Islamophobic image. It’s like saying “I’m not racist! I have black friends!” after you’ve made a racist joke. Just because this undercover reporter is a Muslim herself doesn’t mean the program hasn’t been edited to play up Islamophobic fears.

  • Aynur

    This makes me sick …. wow … how awful. :(

  • http://www.progressiveislam.info Salaam

    Salaam alaikum,

    Well, I’m not sure your criticism is complete without proposing an alternative approach. I mean, let’s imagine some young journalism student comes googling by this commentary, reads your criticism and would like to avoid propagating Islamophobia. Let ‘s hypothesize if you were that reporter’s editor, how would you advise her/him to report this story?

    Your reporter has a fact or a report of a fact, in this case it is the violent extremism being taught in this mosque, contrary to the way mosque leaders have represented themselves to the public.

    First question: Is this newsworthy? Does the larger public have a right or need to know this?

    Second question: If you answered the first question affirmatively, then what would have improved the presentation of this fact to avoid propagating Islamophobia?

  • Sobia

    In the context of lack of knowledge about Muslims, Islamophobia, one-dimensional images of Muslims in the media, this show does indeed seem to promote more Islamophobia.

    However, in and of itself I don’t see a problem with the show. The reality is that such extreme versions of Islam are being promoted and they are dangerous. The only thing is that they are more dangerous to Muslims than non-Muslims. That is the only caveat the show does not seem to address.

    Anytime a mosque or organization is funded by Saudi Arabia, I personally get very suspicious. Saudi Arabia is known for propagating their version of Islam by giving money (bribes pretty much) to mosques and such around the world. And their version of Islam is very narrow, rigid, judgmental, intolerant, and all around scary. They are equivalent to the evangelical Christians of the US in my view.

    Additionally, with the niqab issue – niqab is a part of a more conservative, Salafi interpretation of Islam. I’m not really sure how we can get around that. Therefore, I can see why there would be niqabi women at the mosque. I wasn’t clear if the doc was only showing them, or if they all just wore the niqab. But proponents of Salafism also encourage the niqab. There does appear to be a connection. Though I do realize that not all women who wear the niqab would endorse that preacher’s views and this show would make it seem as if they do. So indeed a problem.

    So seeing as how all these issues of this extreme and hateful version of Islam do exist, how do we then balance between making sure that not all Muslims are branded as such, but that at the same time we criticize these interpretations of Islam for what they really are – un-Islamic propaganda?

    Perhaps, shows like this would do well to compare these scary interpretations of Islam to scary interpretations of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc because all religions have them and their crazy followers. I think this may help in pointing in people’s own backyards. That way when people generalize to all Muslims we can point back and show them the ludicrousness of that generalization. However, seeing as how the majority (race, religion, sexual orientation) like to generalize about the minority regardless, this may be a difficult task as well. We just have to keep adamant in reminding the majority how idiotic generalizations are.

    Sorry for the long comment. Some if this was me thinking in writing as well.

  • Jane

    Wow, there are so many things that I want to say about this post, here are some:

    1) The narrator does refer to the Salafi branch of Islam, and she does NOT call it wahhabism (…This is known as the Salafi, a branch of Islam, known to others as Wahhabism–she acknowledges both terms).

    2) Second of all, people have a damn good reason to be afraid, weary and untrusting when this is preached in the biggest mosque in the UK–imagine what’s being preached at smaller mosques. This mosque is funded by the Saudis, and like you said, a lot of mosques throughout Europe are funded by them, so they must be preaching the same things that was found here.

    3) This woman calls for the death of all people, except for proper muslims. She calls for the death of homosexuals, adulterers, and even for the death of people of other religions, which she, so respectfully, calls them “kaffir”.

    4) Small children, adolescents and women are being taught this material. How do you imagine that these children will behave when the grow older and what will the moms teach their children? This mosque, along with many others, is breeding the next generation of terrorists, and this, to me, is a very good reason to be concerned and not to let it go untold.

    5) You did not even criticize the Saudis, the imams, and other people that let it happen. In fact, you did not criticize the Muslims at all, but you criticized the showing of this program. Again, it seems to me like you’re more upset at the broadcasting of the program for everybody to see than you are at the people that are doing the actual broadcasting (the masjid).

    6) In the end, you’re more concerned with the stereotypes of Muslims than you are with what really threatens social inclusivity and cohesion.

  • Jane

    To the second poster,

    Yes, society definitely has the right to know about what’s happening in their society. Why would you even attempt to hide a problem that is very real? Media covers all topics in society–prostitution, gangs, rapes, crimes, police corruption, why would Islam be exempt from the rule? That’s censorship!

  • Jane

    I find it ridiculous that out of 3 posters, not one has even admitted that this is a real problem in our society, and we need to cover it in order to be able to solve it.

    This show does not promote any stereotypes-the muslim women do wear niqab/hijab when they go to the mosque and even outside of it, and therefore, it’s simply portraying reality.

    The program does say that this is the Saudi interpretation of the Quran, and it even has 2 scholars to deny this fundamental and strict version of Islam (the sheikh even says that this is not Islam, it’s Saudi wahhabism). And this is not stereotyping the Saudis, it’s accurately portraying what’s being taught in Saudi Arabia–wahhabism.

  • Faith

    As salaamu ‘alaikum and Ramadan Mubarak to you all!

    Thanks for the comments!

    @Salaam: I’m not sure what I should propose an alternative approach for. Honestly, I don’t think the Dispatches program was really even a story. I could be biased because I have known about Salafism and known Salafis for so long. This isn’t a new phenomena. They’ve been in the West since at least the late 80s/early 90s. The Salafis are really no more of a news story than fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalists from any other religious tradition. While watching both the original Dispatches program and the sequel I did wonder what the actual story was. Yes, there are fundamentalist Muslims. Ok and? I just didn’t understand the point of Dispatches program.

    @Sobia: No need to apologize :)

    I know this may not be a popular view but I don’t think the Salafi movement is inherently dangerous. It’s not a monolithic movement. There are some fringe elements that advocate violence but most Salafis do not. Most Salafis, especially ones in America and Britain are pacifist and isolationist. They would love to see a caliphate again but they’re not going to war to see it.

    As for Saudi, I don’t agree with the Salafi version of Islam that they propagate. Unfortunately, because of their oil money, they can afford to spread the Salafi ideology everywhere, even in non-Salafi masajid. Just about every masjid I’ve been to has copies of the Noble Qur’an because it’s free and they look “nice”. Also, it is really hard to get non-Saudi translated versions of hadeeth literature now. This is problematic since the Saudi translations are known to have mistranslations. IA that Salafism, as propagated by the Saudi is pretty intolerant. However, they have just as much right to propagate their version of Islam as Evangelical Christians have to propagate their version of Christianity. The only time I have a problem with the Salafis is when they force their views on others. People have the right to believe what they want to believe, even if it is intolerant. I guess that’s one of my main issues with the Dispatches programs. Do I like the beliefs of people like Umm Saleem? No. But she does have the right to hold those beliefs. Who are we to invade the privacy of the people in that masjid? That’s exactly what the Dispatches program did.

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  • laila

    “Who are we to invade the privacy of the people in that masjid? That’s exactly what the Dispatches program did”

    Faith, I somewhat understand what you mean, but I feel like this Masjid is not only private space but it is also for public use and it is a public forum. For examples there are lectures, media (books, tapes etc.) and some of the people in this Masjid are teaching the opposite of what they claim to be (tolerant, peaceful). Therefore, this Masjid is falsely representing what it stands for to the public. This is disturbing because it’s Deceptive, it’s Misleading. You have the right to believe what you want to believe but don’t claim others. And do you have the right to teach such views in a public space.

    Faith I too have a problem with people who force their views on others, but a lot of us also have a problem with deception and the teaching of deception, both are harmful. Evidence was obtained in this Mosque that intolerance and deception was being taught in classes. And please keep in mind this is happening in one of the most important Mosques in the UK (not some basement in an apartment or house).

    I pray this significant Mosque changes these negative aspects and reaches out to people who after viewing this show may feel rejection from (such foul language as “Kaffirs don’t trust them, don’t give them loyalty, what is British citizenship but garbage” etc). The Mosque did a lot of work from the last dispatches show but “come on” those books are still being sold and references from teachers like Umm Salam are not being checked.

    What made me sad is that you challenged their media representation of Islam but you didn’t challenge this Mosque media representation of the other. (What I mean by Mosque media is the tapes, books, lectures, classes). You didn’t challenge Muslim media in this Mosque and how it represents Muslim women as intolerant and deceptive. For me, I feel by not discussing some of the valid points gathered that were just hiding behind the banner of Islamophobia.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    I think laila makes a great point with the sentence “You didn’t challenge Muslim media in this Mosque and how it represents Muslim women as intolerant and deceptive”. The clip above definitely paints the woman giving lessons with a two-faced “deceitful” brush, which can easily be applied to the rest of the women by the “one Muslim is just the same as another” type of logic that is often prevalent in Western ideas about Muslims.

  • Sobia

    I think what does make this a bit of a deal is the fact that it is in the biggest mosque in the UK – not some obscure mosque – as has been mentioned already. I do have to agree with Laila’s point on the privacy issue.

    @ Jane:
    Fundamentalist Christians also run some pretty big churches. And don’t forget, stoning is also a Christian punishment for homosexuality. So I am sure there are extremist Christians condoning killing as well. And what about the Iraq war? Recently referred to by Palin as “God’s work.” Really? An illegal and immoral war is God’s work? A war which has killed thousands of innocent people is God’s work? So proposing the killing of innocent people occurs in extremist versions of most religions. The idea is to kill those who threaten our way of being – and that is anyone who is not the same religion as us. I believe there is a documentary worth seeing called Jesus Camp. ( http://www.jesuscampthemovie.com

    Additionally, Dispatches has conducted a documentary on fundamentalist Christians in the UK as well.

    ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeTfW8-dCNE&eurl=http://thetrashbin.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/in-gods-name-the-rise-of-fundamentalist-christians-in-the-uk/ )

    So although I do understand your fear, there are others out there to fear as well. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think such Salafis are more of a danger to Muslims than they are non-Muslims. Most Salafis probably wouldn’t even consider me a Muslim. Which I’m assuming would be worse – I’m someone who should know better.

    I’m sure the Salafis you know/knew were harmless and most of them are harmless physically. But intellectually they are not so harmless. When they propagate their narrow version of Islam as the ONLY version of Islam then they are essentially alienating a whole lot of people, which has in the past, and will continue to, lead to a consistent conversion of Muslims to other faiths. Their self-righteous views are often enough to scare many Muslims as well as non-Muslims away from Islam. So the danger they pose, in my view, is more an intellectual one as opposed to physical.

  • Sobia

    Here’s more on the Christian fundamentalism doc by Dispatches.


  • http://www.progressiveislam.info Salaam

    Salaams Faith,
    In the US (my context, I don’t know where you are), hate speech or speech that incites violence (calling for the death of homosexuals and adulterers) would fall outside the protections of the first amendment (freedom of speech and religion). Of course, people in the US hold all kinds of hateful ideologies, but they have to keep them in the dark corners away from the majority who hold to what you could call an accepted norm.

    I can see the social utility of a show like this if it prompts an outcry that moves Umm Saleem to take her incitements to violence out of the public place and outside the accepted norm.

  • http://snowyheights1.blogspot.com Sofi

    I didn’t realise MM had moved!

    I believe the author of the initial blog entry is being overly and unnecessarily critical and is playing into the hands of the whole victim mentality – you’re undeniably missing the most obvious and crucial point of how useful this dispatches programme was to us – us as muslims and us in general.

    Sobia has raised some valid points. Ordinary people on the ground know about the mosque in question and its saudi links and its quite worrying that an undercover reporter had to “dig up some dirt” and air it. even so, to be quite honest, I am glad people were exposed for preaching something which goes contrary to the spirit of Islam – only then/now, will those in power be forced to make some changes. fact is, salafism is being taught in various mosques and even though we all believe in them doing that- those who are being taught this agenda should certainly know about it and choose whether or not they want to further this particular strand of literal Islam.

    it would be great if we can reclaim the central mosque in London – one that is highly influential to many unsuspecting Muslims and other smaller affiliated mosques/school etc – from the hands of the sauds.

  • Sobia


    I agree. If Salafis want to preach their version of Islam then they MUST make clear to their congregation what they are doing. At least then the audience can make an informed decision as to whether they want to listen or not.

    But since they consider their version of Islam the only version of Islam, they are deceivingly leading naive Muslims to believe that this is indeed Islam – not just the rigid, ultra-conservative, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

    Sorry, Faith, to be so picky about your piece. We may just have to respectfully agree to disagree. :)

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    Sobia said: “But since they consider their version of Islam the only version of Islam, they are deceivingly leading naive Muslims to believe that this is indeed Islam – not just the rigid, ultra-conservative, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.”

    That’s certainly what happened to me when I first took shahadah. I didn’t know there were other interpretations of Islam until I “took a break” and later connected with a different group of Muslims. I say alhamdulillah for that!