Halal TV: Before and After

These articles were written by Tasnim and was originally published at epiphanies. For another perspective on Halal TV, check out Ethar’s analysis here.

Critical Storm before the program begins–Halal TV:


“Critical storm before the program begins” the headline reads, and that, it seems to me, is exactly what happens whenever a head-scarf wearing Muslim woman makes up her little hijabied head to step into the public sphere, the limelight, the media, and presume to take on a role that contradicts the cherished stereotype of the “quiet Muslim wife”. It was what happened over Asma Abdul Hamid, the first hijab-clad presenter on Danish TV, and it is also what has happened now that SVT has decided that Dalia Azzam Kasseem, Kadiga El-Khabiry and Cherin Awad should be the presenters, or to use the less contentious words of the project leader, the “main characters” of Halal TV.

This critical storm response seems a little contradictory, considering the very many efforts exerted to encourage the supposedly too-secluded and sequestered veiled Muslim woman to step out of the private enclosure of her home. It is not, however, as strange as it seems, because in most cases, the criticism focuses not at all on that much-discussed creature, the Muslim Woman, but rather on the effect she will have on others, should she appear on TV.

For example: Dilsa Demirbag-Steen compares Halal TV to letting three Nazis write the script of a documentary, or letting a priest present it. Basically, ‘veiled’ women come with their agendas wrapped round their heads and she wants her TV visually agenda-less.

I’m not so unbalanced that I will not admit her point of view is convincing, though in this particular instance a very little bit offensively phrased. However, it is a point of view that comes with assumptions attached. Demirbag-Steen evidently feels that everyone everywhere will share her own opinion on what kind of people are presenter-material and that everyone everywhere will react to the same type of person as obviously neutral.

Except, I would argue that in doing so, they would only be reacting to a carefully modulated appearance in keeping with the latest memo on how to look neutral – that is, as western, secular and uniform as possible.

But of course, like the colour white, to be western/secular is a point of invisibility. The key words here are conforming and assimilation, and that type of multiculturalism seen exclusively from the melting-pot, subsume-all-difference into WASP-equivalence angle.

Veiled women, unlike “ethnic” dress or pink hair, are especially galling because, in addition to looking so full of hidden agendas and secret plots and covered hair, they obliquely commit that worst of atrocities in a postmodern world. They announce that they believe they have found the truth. That is, you can identify their religion, as well as their skin colour, just by looking at them. This is apparently offensive to some.

Because, as Luis Bunel said: “I would give my life for a man who is looking for the truth. But I would gladly kill a man who thinks that he has found the truth” – a sentiment he shares with the executioners of Al Hallaj, who in 922 announced: “ana/ara alhaq, I am/I see the Truth,” and was promptly dispatched for this outrageous presumption.

There’s just no escaping the glorification of doubt, the popularity of forever questing and questioning. I have nothing to say against that. That’s fine. Although it seems to me that “to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation”, I like the open-minded open-endedness doubt-glorification aspires to as much as I like to quote Life of Pi.

Seriously though, if in a postmodern world all truths are equal, why can’t a discipline of one particular truth be a TV presenter? Why kick up such a fuss over a woman whose religion you can identify appearing onscreen? Over, basically, a piece of cloth?

The critical storm has, as usual, shoved the attention away from the subject to the object. Halal TV is supposed to take up questions of equality and immigration. Not, or not exclusively, hijab. The three headscarf-clad presenters say, as they always say, that they are weary of negativity and want to change things. Just as this show seeks to make use of the shock value of three headscarf-clad women with “orthodox” Islamic values as presenters, the three headscarf-clad women seek to make use of the opportunity the show gives them to speak for themselves, and perhaps, alter misconceptions.

It doesn’t seem they have much of a chance, judging from this article, which begins with Demirbag-Steen’s full scale Nazi-comparison attack, mentions a worried woman who says that she “fled from this sort of thing in Iran” and demands the presenters tell her why Muslim women inherit less than men. The article ends disappointingly with the defensive project leader muttering that he honestly fully understands those who have “grim experiences of Islam”, but that he also thinks people should be “allowed to say they think Islam is good”. Note the “should be allowed to say they think.” Now that’s neutrality.

More on Halal TV

It seems that the shock value of three head-scarved women presenters is not quite as much of a draw as some expected. The first episode of Halal TV did not meet expectations, Metro reports, drawing only 295 000 viwers. Few young people tuned in, although they were apparently the target group, while a surprising 8.4 % of people over 60 watched the first episode. The director pointed out most young people would watch it on the net.

The metro article goes on to talk about the fierce criticism Halal TV has met, including the argument that three hijab-wearing Muslim women cannot be representative of all Swedish Muslims. I very much agree with that point, although I don’t think they’ve claimed to be representative. In fact they go out of their way to say they are not representing anyone other than themselves, fighting a losing battle against that old assumption that one person of an ethnic minority can speak for the entire community. The same assumotion Kobena Mercer has argued is based on the racist idea that “every minority subject is effectively the same.”

I personally think the programme would have been much more interesting if they had chosen a more diverse group. And another name. But only more interesting; I find it quite interesting as it is.

The metro article continues with a summarization of the handshake debate. Having listened to the tape, personally, what surprised me most was that they managed to talk about shaking hands for 9.49 minutes. But in any case, Metro’s summary goes something like this:

1. Two of the three presenters of Halal TV would not shake hands with Carl Hamilton of Aftonbladet (one did).

2. Carl Hamilton would not accept Cherin and Khadiga’s explanation that they greet people by putting a hand to their heart (think national anthem).

3. Hamilton “angrily” brings out the Swedish equivalent of When in Rome idioms (Ta seden dit du kommer).

4. Hamilton criticises SVT’s decision “secret tape” and their decision to make the squabble public in his article in Aftonbladet, (entitled: Is it racist to want to shake hands with a Muslim?)

5. Gunnar Hofvberg doesn’t think the handshake debate is what has made viewers turn away from Halal TV and says it was definitely the right desicion to make it public, arguing that “Respecting others differences is not always easy, in practise. Hamilton expresses this very tangibly, casting some illumination on the question in this discussion.”

A Swedish Radio presenter was disappointed by the handshake debate: “Just when the programme was beginning to get interesting, this silly tape appeared. Is this programme for children or adults?” This disappointment becomes more understandable when you turn to the blogosphere, where there’s a wide variety of opinions on Halal TV, but a lot of the debate is concentrated on this handshake issue. The same article which quotes the Swedish Radio presenter quotes this:

Medioman wants to see more of the programme, and how it deals with the subject of racism in Sweden. “I am convinced it will tell us a lot about gaps in todays Swedish society, about prejudice and hidden racism.”

But first and more emphatically, this: “I feel stupid, dirty, insulted and shamed when a Muslim man won’t shake my hand,” writes Morina on Metrobloggen.

It’s not that I don’t understand that feeling of being offended. I can see how someone refusing to shake your hand would result in, at the very least, an extremely awkward moment. It happened to me once, though it had nothing to do with religion or belief. Just someone who didn’t particularly want to shake hands.

But I don’t think getting all defensive about it does anyone any good. I mean, Muslims rushing in to explain, calm, justify etc., etc., etc. I’m just sick of all that. Some Muslims shake hands. Some don’t. Dalia did. Khadiga and Cherin didn’t.

Meanwhile, on SMP, Halal TV is referred to as Intolerance TV. Marcus Svensson’s sub-heading reads “Halal Tv is not becoming to SVT”. He argues that those who demand respect for themselves and don’t give it to others are intolerant, irrespective of whether they belong to the minority or majority.

Svensson somewhat weakly includes Hamilton in his criticism, although he hastens to add that everyone can become angry and had previously stated that Hamilton had an undeniable right to show he was offended. Svensson concludes: “With knowledge and respect we can come a long way. Will we get such a in-depth dialogue from Halal TV? The hope unfortunately died with the first episode.”

Perhaps that illusive in-depth dialogue can be found in the petition to put a stop to Halal TV. Or in the poll: which is the most beautiful woman hosting Halal TV? How thought-provoking.

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