The BBC has started broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer as part of its services to Muslims during the coronavirus epidemic. Apparently, Muslims need this in order to feel a sense of community while they are in isolation:
“Many Muslims will feel a void in their lives where prayers used to be – a feeling the will be magnified as we approach Ramadan. Local radio is all about connecting communities and we hope these weekly reflections will go some way to helping Muslims feel a sense of community while they are isolating.”
Well, that makes some sense, although like Christians, I am sure that most Muslims feel able to pray at home or at work. But have the BBC panjandrums considered the nature of the broadcasts they are so happy to provide? Does the BBC think it is acceptable for one religion to put out prayers that could be er, challenging, for others? Apparently so.
So what is debatable about these Muslim prayer broadcasts under BBC policy?
At the beginning of April, fourteen BBC local radio stations started broadcasting Muslim prayers ‘and reflections’ at 5.50am on Friday mornings. The locations included are: London, Berkshire, Merseyside, Warwickshire, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Stoke, Leicester, West Midlands, Manchester, Lancashire, Sheffield and Leeds. These broadcasts involve the Muslim call to prayer. That’s the one that starts with “Allahu akbar”.
There is a problem with this for Christians and for other religions too, if they care to think about it. Firstly, the fact that the BBC will not apparently put out anything Christian that could ‘offend’ others, and secondly, the nature of the Muslim call to prayer within that context.
The azan, or Muslim call to prayer, specifically states that God’s revelation to Muhammad has supplanted and superseded God’s prior revelations to Moses in the Old Testament and to Jesus in the New Testament. The words include:
Allah is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to salvation
According to priest Father Jules Gomes:
“It [the azan] conclusively and unambiguously asserts that God’s revelation to Muhammad has supplanted and superseded God’s prior revelations to Moses in the Old Testament and to Jesus in the New Testament. It is a triumphalist declaration of Islamic supremacy over Jews and Christians”.
I did not see any announcement of these broadcasts in the wider BBC – I could ask readers to wonder why that may be, but I assume we already know the answer. Predictably, complaints resulted. I’m not for one minute defending racist comments or complaints about Muslims rather than complaints against the BBC’s decision. But this is something of a watershed in the UK. The national broadcaster is allowing one religion to proclaim its supremacy over all the others in the country – in a clear and unambiguous manner. Weekly, during the current crisis. Hands up if you think this will be curtailed once we’re back to normal. This call to prayer, which is a prayer in itself, is pretty strong stuff.
Would the BBC find it acceptable for Christians to be treated to the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, for example, broadcast as stand-alone items? I doubt it. The usual caveats would include ‘We don’t want to offend non-Christians’ and ‘We are here to serve the whole country’. On this ground, Thought For The Day is typically so anodyne it is barely worth the name. Yet the Muslim azan is broadcast – a prayer that proclaims in no uncertain terms that Islam is superior to all other religions and Allah superior to all other gods. This is clearly acceptable to the BBC.
In response to the complaints that appeared on social media, Harry Farley, a journalist with BBC Radio 4, responded to criticism by pointing out that the BBC already broadcasts Christian services every Sunday.
“And to those complaining about/questioning this, just a reminder that a Christian service is broadcast each Sunday at 8am on all 39 BBC local radio stations,” he tweeted.
Far be it from me to deny this fact, but most BBC spokespeople and staff don’t seem to actually be Christians, so they’re probably not the best to comment on the quality of the BBC’s Christian offerings. Yes, we occasionally get some good Christian content, but I always get the feeling that these odd cases have managed to slip through the net of BBC ‘sensitivity’.
Whatever – Farley is answering the wrong question in his comments. The issue is not that Muslim prayers are being broadcast, although some will have problems with that. It lies in the fact that the BBC does not seem to permit the same level of robust statements of belief to Christians on its airwaves.
Of course, in order to respond to that criticism, the BBC and its employees would need to admit to what seems to be its pro-Islam and arguably anti-Christian stances. For examples of this, just look at the recent coverage of Muslim parents protesting about LGBTQ lifestyle teaching outside primary schools in Birmingham. The BBC nearly tied itself in knots in its attempts to be supportive of one of its favourite victim groups while at the same time disapproving of the Muslim anti-LGBTQ perspective. Sensitivity was, however, the order of the day. The protesters were accorded plenty of airtime and interviews through which to proclaim their beliefs.
Had those protesting parents been Christians, dare we hope that the same levels of sensitivity to their religious beliefs would have been shown in news reports? Would they have been enabled to proclaim their beliefs in the same way? Answers on a postcard, please.
And what of the Church’s response to the broadcast of the claimed fundamental supremacy of Islam over all other religions? On an individual level, the usual unthinking multicultural champions of anything but their own faith offered their wisdom on Twitter:
“As a Church of England Priest, I am fully supportive of this idea. I am thankful that the BBC is supporting the faith of my Muslim brothers and sisters”
wrote one user, clearly unconcerned with the lack of equality between the BBC’s policy on Christian broadcasting and of Islamic broadcasting.
“As a Christian I think this is an excellent idea”,
wrote another. Surprise, surprise.
But what about the response of the Church as a body? There has mostly been a deafening silence. Where there has been response, guess which side it is on?
As an example, let’s look at the Moderators of the United Reformed Church (URC). They have been so affronted by social media criticism of the BBC’s Muslim prayer broadcasts that they have expressed their ‘shock and sadness’ at the ‘Islamophobic and xenophobic’ comments made about this. Fair enough, in the case of genuinely unacceptable comments.
But I suspect that they have simply joined the bandwagon of deeming all criticism of Islam to be xeno- and Islamophobic. This is ridiculous. Criticism of a concept or a group is allowed – if it couched in reasonable terms. Yet it seems that even the Church is now joining the club of those who think that certain groups and faiths are exempt from any criticism just because of who they are.
The URC is proudly part of the Inter Faith Network UK, an entity that is also home to the Druid Network, the Pagan Federation and the Spiritualists’ National Union. Oh yes, and to the Mormon church. The Inter Faith Network UK says that its aims are
…[T]o advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain including awareness both of their distinctive features and their common ground and to promote good relations between persons of different faiths.
Very good. But has the leadership of the URC noticed that bit about the ‘distinctive features’ of the different faith communities in Britain? Apparently not.
URC Moderator Derek Estill, an Elder in the URC, said:
“As we approach Holy Week with our minds focussed on the incredible selfless sacrifice that Jesus made for the whole world, it is with deep sadness that we find Islamophobic and xenophobic comments after the action from the BBC. As we know, the new commandment that Jesus gave the world to ‘Love God and each other as I have loved you’ applies to everyone without exception. It is clear, now more than perhaps we have realised before, how important this is as we fight the coronavirus pandemic together, irrespective of faith or culture. We all need to show support and sensitivity to our Muslim sisters and brothers as they approach Ramadan, a very special a time of prayer, fasting, sacrifice and charitable giving for Muslims across the world. We remember how important it is that we live out Jesus’ new commandment, so simple and powerful, and just what our world needs now more than ever. So, let us all do our best to live the life of Jesus today reaching out in love to everyone.”
Where to start. This is yet another example of the business-speak waffle that passes for church communication these days. Everything is love and understanding. Sensitivity and support. Reaching out. Blah blah.
Yes – that’s all correct. But it completely misses the point – which is that our national broadcaster is now allowing one religion a freedom to do what it denies to Christianity.
The inability of the URC Moderator to tell the difference between loving our Muslim neighbours – with which we can all agree – and supporting the broadcast of a call to prayer that openly and triumphantly claims superiority over the Christian faith, beggars belief. Doing the commands of Jesus does not involve supporting prayers and other religious expressions that deny the very core of our own faith.
But are we really surprised that the BBC feels free to do this?
Last year, we had a church in Darlington offering to segregate men and women and cover its crosses and a picture of Jesus so as to allow Muslims to pray in the church.
Back in 2015, a church in London hosted Friday Muslim prayers within the church sanctuary. There were accusations that this violated canon law regarding only using authorised worship. The Rev Giles Goddard, vicar of the church in Southwark, was criticised for his closing prayers, which appeared to equate the Christian God with Allah. He had read from Psalm 139, before concluding: “Allah, God, is always with us and around us, and is within us. And this is from the Hebrew scripture, so it is our shared, we all share, these great traditions. So let us celebrate our shared traditions by giving thanks to the God that we love, Allah, amen.”
The traditional Muslim invocation to worship was performed in front of 1,000 people at the launch of a multi-cultural Faith Exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral in 2019. The Imam of the local mosque was invited by church leaders to carry it out in the cathedral’s 11th century Chapter House. Complaints followed but were taken off the internet. One post on the removed thread said:
“It’s wonderful to be multicultural, but faith is set apart. We are never to worship other gods in a house built for our Saviour. My ancestors built this cathedral and to allow a practising Muslim pray to another god [inside its walls] is insanely naive. What did you think it would do? Encourage them to convert?”
The Very Reverend Stephen Lake, Dean of Gloucester, said:
“The exhibition promotes religious tolerance and understanding [groan – here we go again]. Over 1,000 people from different Gloucester communities attended to share and learn about each other’s spiritual practices and traditions. It is important to stress that neither the art exhibition nor the gathering on Saturday afternoon took place in a sacred space but were held in the Cathedral Cloisters and Chapter House. Furthermore, the launch was not in the context of worship. Whilst the Cathedral’s primary purpose is as a place of Christian witness and worship, it is also a place for all people – everyone is welcome, whatever their faith or background. We are proud to be holding the exhibition and would encourage everyone to visit to learn more about people of different faiths.”
So it is fine for this to take place in a cathedral as long as it is not part of ‘worship’. Don’t you just love the mantra of ‘religious tolerance and understanding‘? A one-way street, I suspect.
A further episode of the Muslim call to prayer took place in a cathedral during a performance of Karl Jenkins’ musical piece, The Armed Man (which is a brilliant Mass for peace, by the way). The call to prayer was part of the presentation. An outcry followed, but this was after the event. As Jules Gomes says quite bluntly on his website:
“Instead of evangelising Muslims, the Church of England is actively encouraging the Islamisation of its sacred spaces”.
Words fail. If the examples above are typical of the behaviour of some Anglican clergy, then we can hardly blame the BBC for getting it wrong.
I am all in favour of living in harmony with people from other religions – I live near a largely Muslim-populated city, for heaven’s sake, and have Muslim friends and colleagues – but ask me to endorse the proclamation in church that another god is superior to Yahweh and Jesus – and I have a problem. Now we are paying the BBC, through our licence fees, to broadcast prayers that proclaim beliefs that go completely against Christianity. And these are made in a manner that is not allowed to Christian speakers by the same broadcaster. That is the issue here.
On one level, the claims in the call to prayer do not matter to me – I don’t believe what is said in the prayer. But on another level, it matters very much. Our national broadcaster is allowing very robust statements of faith to one religion that it denies to Christianity. It is allowing its ‘sensitivity’ to the feelings of non-Christians to limit the kind of statements Christians can make over the airwaves in the daily prayers slots. But it does not accord the same sensitivity to Christians when they listen to broadcasts that they may not agree with.
Does any of this matter?
Well just what chance is there, do you suppose, of a Christian speaker getting BBC airtime to say “Jesus is the greatest, and we can only reach God through Him. Jesus is His divine messenger. No other faith is the way to eternal life. Christianity is the only way to God.” This would be as a stand-alone item such as Thought For The Day, not as parrt of a service being broadcast. No?
We live, in the UK, as part of a multicultural society. There is plenty of evidence that people of many faiths can live alongside each other peacefully. Long may that continue. We are where we are. But – we have to recognise where the red lines are in all of this. Christianity and Christian values are being openly put second to another faith. A level of freedom in broadcasting is being afforded to one faith that is denied to Christianity. Do our Anglican Archmuppets or junior Muppets have anything to say about this? Not so far – and I am not holding my breath.
I suspect that this is yet more of the thin end of a very big wedge that is coming for traditional Christianity and Christians in UK public life. Folks, we need to be aware of this and consider our positions – prayerfully and with a view to the future. What next?