Ms Lorraine Heggessey
Dear Ms Heggessey,
During this past week we have received many complaints from British Muslims who saw the episode of the BBC drama programme 'Spooks' which was broadcast on BBC3 Digital on Monday 2nd June 2003, and is due to be broadcast on BBC1 at 9.00pm this coming Monday 9th June 2003.
Having now seen a copy of the broadcast episode we would like to draw your attention to the following serious concerns:
a) The programme, which was of a very sensational nature, unfortunately only served to reinforce many negative stereotypes of British Muslims. Instead of being a well-informed piece of film-making, this episode of 'Spooks' pandered to grossly offensive and Islamophobic caricatures of Imams, Muslim students and mosques.
b) The programme did not at all sufficiently point out how the 'bad Imam' would have been utterly disowned by the local Muslim community. Only Mr Fazl Azam was shown as lamenting the takeover of the mosque by a small criminally-minded group. Again, this is a distortion of reality and can only serve to further demonise the mainstream Muslim community.
c) Near the beginning of the episode, Johnny, a British infiltrator of the Birmingham mosque, is shown as having his cover blown and being subsequently beaten and tortured by the other Muslim students inside the mosque on the instructions of Muhammad Rashid, the sinister Imam. Johnny is then flung out of the top-floor window and falls face-first on to a car below. Your writer Mr Howard Brenton, seems to have allowed his imagination to get the better of him. What was this incident based on? If it was not based - however tenuously - on a real event, will it not lead many of your viewers to suspect that mosques are criminally dangerous places indeed, full of brainwashed and violent individuals.
d) The 'bad Imam' Muhammad Rashid was shown with a flowing beard, whereas the 'good Imam' Fazl Azam was shown as being clean-shaven, thereby buttressing the impression that bearded Muslims are to be feared. In fact, you will find that most 'good' Imams are actually bearded in line with the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
e) A lot of the programme revolved around events taking place at a Birmingham mosque. The mosque is a place where Muslims gather for their five daily prayers. Yet, in the entire programme, not a single Muslim was shown actually performing the salah, the Muslim ritual prayer. Many viewers will have been left with a distorted impression of what actually takes place inside mosques, perhaps now regarding them as a place for political intrigue and the plotting of acts of terrorism.
f) A 16-year old Muslim boy, Abu Hasan, is portrayed as declaring, "I must send an unbeliever to hell, only then will I see paradise". This is inflammatory and factually inaccurate. What did the writer Howard Brenton base this sentence on?
g) The same boy, Abu Hasan is shown at the end of the episode having strapped on an explosive belt and walking into the middle of a schoolground full of children. We are not aware of a single similar episode occurring anywhere in the real world. We realize that this was a fictional drama, but does this give licence to Mr Brenton to deliberately portray a Muslim in any manner he wishes, even if it will only increase the suspicion and hate towards Muslims?
In short, we believe that this episode of 'Spooks' will do a lot of harm to the already woeful image of the British Muslim community that the media itself has helped to create. It will only add to the fear and suspicion that many Muslims have to face in their day-to-day lives. It may even provoke an even greater increase in the amount of deliberate abuse and violence that has been directed against our community and its institutions in recent months.
We would like to ask whether - knowing full well the sensitivity of the issues involved - you consulted any Muslim organizations in the UK on the accuracy of your portrayal of Islam and Muslims in this episode of 'Spooks'?
To conclude, we believe the increased amount of Islamophobia that is sure to result from the broadcasting of this programme at peak-time on Monday is wholly unacceptable and a gross violation of your responsibilities as a public service broadcaster. It is odd that - on the other hand - factual and positive programmes on Islam often end up in your BBC1 graveyard slot at 11.30pm.
Therefore, we would like to arrange an urgent meeting with you to discuss this. In view of the urgency of this request, please could you reply by return of email.
Yours sincerely, Mr Inayat Bunglawala
RESPONSE FROM THE BBC
Dear Mr Bunglawala
Thank you for your letter about the BBC ONE drama series Spooks and for bringing to our attention the complaints your Council has received from British Muslims. I am sorry that this programme has given rise to concerns. This was not our intention.
Spooks is an award winning drama series that follows the activities of intelligence officers in MI5, Britain's Security Service. Spooks is set in the world of security, terrorism and espionage but it is entirely fictional and the audience is well aware of this as we are now into the second series . Previous episodes have dealt with topics ranging from pro-life terrorists, radical racism, an embassy hostage siege, Irish republicanism, corrupt politicians and Serbian extremism. The episode you refer to, which was premiered on BBC THREE on 2nd June and which will be broadcast on BBC ONE on 9th June, involves a suicide bombing. Given that this is a reality around the world it falls legitimately within the storylines of Spooks.
We do not believe that the programme reinforces negative stereotypes of British Muslims, nor does it pander to offensive or Islamophobic caricatures. On the contrary, we feel that the programme offers a balanced view of a difficult subject. At its heart there is a Muslim hero (Ibhn Khaldun) who is moderate and peace-loving and who works to stop the suicide bombing happening. This character is inspired by the true story of an Algerian agent, who greatly assisted the British Security Services undercover. The comments made to this character by the MI5 operatives when they recruit him, clearly highlight the difficulty the intelligence services have in recruiting members of ethnic minorities and how the problems of terrorism, wherever they may lie, can only be settled by bringing members of all the religions and cultures together. The character is depicted forming a close and mutually respectful relationship with the central character of the series, Tom Quinn. He buys Tom a copy of the Koran and this act symbolises the coming together of two faiths and cultures. Like many dramas, this story is ultimately one of good versus evil and the good, through the actions of a brave and inspiring man finally prevails.
The 'bad Imam', Muhammad Rashid, is depicted as exactly that, a dangerous extremist, perverting traditional teaching and so the programme does not suggest that mosques are a breeding ground for terrorists, more that as the character Harry Pearce says 'every religion has its crooked priests'. Another character specifically states that most immigrant Imams to the UK have done well, again demonstrating that the programme does not believe the fictional mosque in the programme reflects all mosques in the UK. You point out that the Rashid character would have been disowned by his community. Sadly there have been a tiny handful of real cases, which have been comprehensively reported, where this has not been the case, but the majority situation is reflected by Tom Quinn's line 'Problems in London mosques have been solved, thanks to their own communities'.
The character of Fazl Azam is depicted as the Founder of the mosque and, as you say, does indeed lament the takeover of the mosque by a small criminally-minded group. This is a fictional drama and this character is presented to represent the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Muslims. He expresses his support for the education of his daughter and has a complex and moving discussion with Khaldun about the history of Islam and its tradition of culture and learning. In depicting him as a broad-minded, educated moderniser surely this is not an offensive, Islamophobic caricature, but a wholly positive portrayal. The character was played by a respected Asian actor Roshan Seth .
You comment on the opening sequence where a young man is beaten and tortured. As you say, this takes place on the instructions of Muhammad Rashid, who is clearly depicted as an evil and corrupt individual. You suggest that the sequence has been imaginatively realised. We agree, but this is entirely what an audience would expect in a drama. It is certainly not based on a specific incident because the programme is a work of fiction.
The events take place in a fictional mosque and community centre, set in a fictional district of Birmingham. We do not show the salah because this is not part of the storyline and the scenes actually take place in the community centre, rather than the mosque itself. Furthermore we think that British viewers would be well aware that Muslims attend the mosque for prayer and religious teaching.
The 16 year old boy, Abu Hasan makes a number of comments which are indeed factually inaccurate and based on the corrupt teaching of Rashid, again demonstrating the latter's evil manipulation of the young people in his care for his own criminal ends. The same boy walks into a schoolground wearing explosives and he ultimately takes his own life and that of Khaldun while the agent is trying valiantly to stop the boy from committing this act. Khaldun is therefore a brave, devout man who has to sacrifice his own life in trying to save the boy. Naturally, there has never been such a dreadful incident in the UK, but as I say, the programme examines the subject of suicide bombing in a fictional way and speculates about what might happen if such an act did take place in Britain.
The programme was extensively researched and the BBC's usual rigorous editorial policy and legal requirements have been followed.
I have been out of the office all day at meetings so have not been able to reply to your e-mail until mid-evening on Friday but would like to set up a meeting at the earliest opportunity to discuss portrayal issues. My office will be in touch on Monday morning to arrange this.
BROADCASTING STANDARDS COMMISSION RULING
BBC3 & BBC1, 2 & 9 June 2003, 2230-2330 & 2100-2200
43 viewers complained about this programme. The majority considered it to have been Islamophobic, containing offensive racial stereotypes and likely to incite violence and hatred. A smaller number objected to violent and disturbing scenes.
The Broadcaster's Statement The BBC said that the Controller of BBC1 had been in correspondence with the Muslim Council of Britain prior to the programme's transmission on BBC1. Quoting from her response, the BBC said that Spooks was a drama series set in the world of security, terrorism and espionage, but it was entirely fictional. Previous editions had dealt with topics ranging from pro-life terrorists, radical racism, an embassy hostage siege, Irish republicanism, corrupt politicians and Serbian extremism. This episode did involve a suicide bombing but, given that this was a reality around the world, it fell legitimately within the storylines of the series.
The BBC did not believe that the programme reinforced negative stereotypes of British Muslims, nor did it pander to offensive or Islamophobic caricatures. At the programme's heart was a Muslim hero (Ibn Khaldun) who was moderate and peace loving and who worked to stop the suicide bombing happening. This character was inspired by the true story of an Algerian agent who greatly assisted the British Security Services undercover. The comments made to this character by the MI5 operatives when they recruited him clearly highlighted the difficulties the intelligence services have in recruiting members of ethnic minorities and how the problems of terrorism, wherever they may lie, could only be settled by bringing members of all the religions and cultures together. This character was depicted forming a close and mutually respectful relationship with the central character of the series, Tom Quinn. Khaldun bought Quinn a copy of the Qur'an, an act that symbolised the coming together of two faiths and cultures. Like many dramas, this story was about good versus evil and good, through the actions of a brave and inspiring man, finally prevailed.
The 'bad Imam' (Muhammad Rashid) was depicted as exactly that, a dangerous extremist, perverting traditional teaching. The programme did not suggest that mosques were a breeding round for terrorists, more that, as one character observed, 'every religion has its crooked priests'. Another character specifically stated that most immigrant Imams to the UK had done well, again demonstrating that the fictional mosque in the programme was not meant to reflect all mosques in the UK. Quinn stated that communities themselves had solved problems of extremists in London mosques.
The character of Fazl Azam, the founder of the mosque, was presented to represent the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Muslims. He was depicted as a broad-minded, educated moderniser. The incident of torture early in the programme was on the instructions of Rashid, who was clearly depicted as a corrupt and evil individual. These scenes were set in the community centre, rather than the mosque itself.
The programme was extensively researched and the BBC's usual editorial policy and legal requirements had been followed. The introduction to the programme had made clear that this was a fictional drama dealing with extremism. The script also pointed up that the drama was dealing with this subject. The emphasis placed on the extremism of the bombers itself helped to distance them from the main Muslim community. The BBC believed therefore that the drama could not be held to have depicted Islam in a way which would have led viewers to conclude the community would support and protect suicide bombers targeting Britain.
The programme team drew on the expertise of a Muslim adviser who in turn consulted other leading Muslims. The notes from this adviser had been examined and the BBC was satisfied that the programme-makers took proper account of the Muslim perspective he provided. The depiction of the renegade Imam was more than balanced by the views expressed and the actions taken by the two other main Muslim characters. Their warnings echoed recent stories that have appeared in the media, coverage of the recent Charity Commission report on events at Finsbury Park mosque and comments by Khalid Mahmood, a Muslim MP, which drew attention to the need to stop Islamic extremists from preying on Muslim youngsters and recruiting them for terrorism. The BBC said that it could not locate any language in the programme that it considered to be racist. A script line 'Death to the West' had been misheard by one complainant as 'Death to the Whites'.
Although the programme touched on tensions that exist within the Muslim community, it also had an underlying message that there is a need for greater understanding on all sides, with communities joining together to tackle the dangers of extremism. Since the Controller of BBC1 had written to the Muslim Council of Britain, she had met representatives of the Muslim community. Such contacts would continue.
The Commission's Finding
The full Commission watched this drama, noted the terms of the complaints and the broadcaster's statement. It recalled the discussions it had held previously with representatives of the Muslim community and acknowledged that for some within the community, this programme had appeared to be an affront to their faith and dignity.
It also acknowledged the concern felt by many British Muslims at the excessive emphasis on the tiny minority advocating violence in the name of Islam and the dearth of wider representations of Muslims in broadcast output (as confirmed by the Commission's own research.).
However the Commission, whilst expressing sympathy with the complainants' concerns, considered that this programme had been clearly presented as a drama, rather than as a factual account. As in other episodes of the series, the extremists had been clearly labelled as such. Whilst the Imam of the mosque was shown to be a corrupt character, the drama also contained sympathetic Muslim characters. The Commission accordingly did not consider that the programme was calculated to encourage Islamophobia, or suggested that followers of Islam were prepared to resort to violence to further their own ends.
Although the Commission had some reservations about the timing of the programme, it acknowledged that this series habitually addresses current issues and did not consider that the highlighting of this issue, at that time, was unacceptable.
Whilst the Commission acknowledged that the scenes of violence were disturbing, it considered that they were unlikely to have exceeded the expectations of the audience to this post-Watershed drama preceded by a clear warning.
In conclusion, the Commission considered that in the context of this drama, the content had not exceeded acceptable bounds. The complaints were not upheld.
Not upheld CN 11610.15/11641.