By Khalid Baig
(Author's Request: Please turn off your television set as
you read this article.)
Television has spread like a wild fire in the world,
including the Muslim world. It seems to have overcome the
limitations of space and time.
Consider place. In Saudi Arabia, one can find the imprints
of Hollywood only a few yards away from the Haram, the
most sacred of all sanctuaries of Islam. Videocassettes
are easily available at stores. A hotel attendant, at a
walking distance from the Haram al-Sharif in Makkah can be
found busy watching English movies on the television in
his office even as the prayers are going on. At the Jeddah
airport, the Umrah pilgrims can watch a European beauty
contest courtesy of an Egyptian TV channel being broadcast
to the airport television sets.
Consider time. Ramadan is the most sacred month in the
Islamic calendar, a period of time that is to be devoted
to direct acts of worship of Allah. Yet, during Ramadan,
believers around the world can be found glued to their
television sets when they should be busy making dua, doing
dhikr and tilawa or offering nafl prayers.
Or consider the time of suffering. Hardly a day goes by
when we do not get the news of pain and suffering from
Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or a
dozen other hot spots around the globe. Yet, between all
the suffering and grieving that accompanies the tragedy,
the dish antennas on the rooftops have been flourishing.
In the past at times of catastrophes people would turn to
Allah, would stop going to the cinema houses, and would
repent from sins, even though temporarily. Today, there is
an ever-increasing appetite for the television fun. This
is also true in the lands closest to the areas of
suffering. On days when a strike is called to protest
Indian atrocities in Kashmir, the video stores in Karachi
run out of videos of Indian movies.
Throughout the world religious, moral and social values
have been drastically undermined by this great
"technological gift" of the century. And entire nations
seem to be helplessly "enjoying" the invasion. When people
are doing nothing, they watch television. When they are
doing something else, they still have television in the
background. The device has contributed to the addition of
a new space in the architecture of the private home: the
TV lounge. It is a space where perfect strangers come to
pedal nudity, immorality, and hedonism. This is the space,
which increasingly controls the entire house.
It is fashionable to complain about "excessive" sex and
violence on television. Even those who make money from
this enterprise willingly do that. CNN tycoon Ted Turner
said in July 93 before a U.S Congressional subcommittee:
"I don't need experts to tell me that the amount of
violence on television today and its increasingly graphic
portrayal can be harmful to children. Television violence
is the single most significant factor contributing to
violence in America." And a poll released in February 95
in the U.S. by Children Now, whose directors include TV
producers and Warner Brothers Chairman, reported that most
children believe that what they see on television
encourages fornication, disrespect for parents, telling
lies, and aggressive behavior.
The most significant thing here is that what the TV
industry wants us to discuss (and we willingly follow) is
what is ON television, not television itself. Everyone
will wholeheartedly agree with the problems with TV
programs and offer all kinds of advice. (Watch the
programs with your children. Tell them what is wrong. Be
critical. Be creative.) Irrational and meaningless as it
is, this exercise will nonetheless soothe your irritation.
In the meantime, keep on watching. It is fun. It is also
In about two decades, this "wonderful" technical
development has played havoc with societies around the
globe. But what is even more unprecedented is the
ambivalence with which these societies face this greatest
of all invasions. Underlying this is a strongly held
belief that television is a neutral tool that can be used
with equal facility for good or evil. Unfortunately, this
position has been taken without any critical examination
of the facts. It is about time that we approached the
subject with an open mind.
Is technology ever neutral? "[Every technology] has within
its physical form a predisposition toward being used in
certain ways and not others," writes Niel Postman, chair
of the department of Communication Arts at New York
University. "Only those who know nothing of the history of
technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral."
(Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985).
What about television? It reflects the idea that serious
discourse can be carried out through pictures instead of
words. As Postman explains: "The single most important
fact about television is that people watch it, which is
why it is called 'television.' And what they watch, and
like to watch, are moving pictures__ millions of them, of
short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of
the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in
order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest."
Words and pictures do not occupy the same universe of
discourse. A piece of writing requires one to go beyond
the shape of the letters to read them. It requires thought
to understand what is being said. Television does not
require reflection, in fact it does not even permit it.
That is why little children can spend hours in front of
the mini screen. Television can titillate, it cannot
teach. It can bring images into our heart, not ideas into
our mind. It appeals to the emotions, not the intellect.
But isn't a picture worth a thousand words? Is it? It is
important to note that this claim itself is made in words.
A picture cannot make any claims. For reason, arguments,
claims, and judgment belong in the universe of words not
pictures. That is why advertisers love pictures. Consider
an ad for, say, Coca-Cola, that just shows young people
singing, dancing, having fun, and enjoying the drink. The
audiences make the connection between happiness and Coke.
This ad cannot be refuted. It makes no claim, so there is
nothing to refute.
Medium Is The Message
The above explains Marshal McLuhan's famous aphorism. The
inherent, built in biases of a medium allow certain types
of messages and not others. The communication is
conditioned by the medium. It is enhanced or distorted by
it. The medium is the message. And when the medium is TV,
the message is Entertainment. As Postman notes:
"Entertainment is the supra ideology of all discourse on
television." Whether it is news, science, religion, or
education, if it is happening on TV, it must follow the
dictates of entertainment.
In fact, a new term has been coined indicating a blend of
education and entertainment: Edutainment. It smells like
the language problem of a TV baby. But remember that it is
already being used by the serious press. Which suggests
that edutainment will produce even more edutainment!
Like A Drug
Actually, TV is not just another kind of entertainment
either. As a project by the National Institute of Mental
Health in the U.S. involving 1200 subjects in nine studies
over a 13 year period found in 1990, television is like a
drug. The researchers asked the subjects, ages 10 to 82,
to note down their activities and moods every time a
beeper was activated, which was done randomly. The
researchers found that when people sit down to watch TV,
particularly for long periods, they tend to be in low
moods. The longer they watch, the less able they are to
concentrate. As time goes on, they grow sadder, lonelier,
more irritable, and more hostile. Although people are
relaxed when the television set is on, when they turn it
off, they are less relaxed than before they began, "much
like a drug that makes people feel better while they are
doing it but worse afterward." And just like a drug the
weaker segments of the society are its greatest target.
Thus in the U.S. blacks tend to watch more TV than whites.
And now thanks to satellite TV transmissions over which
the poor countries have no control, the rest of the world
is being turned into the U.S. black under class.
Islamic Work And Television
Can this dangerous drug be somehow converted into a
medicine? Not too long ago, a young professional in the
U.S. approached prominent Muslim scholar and Deputy
Cairman of the Jeddah based Islamic Fiqh Council of the
Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Justice Taqi
Usmani to inquire about his profession. He produced
computer graphics for the television and motion picture
industry. This is the age of the media, and the only
effective way to spread Islam today is through television
and movies, he argued. If we do not learn the trade how
shall we be able to produce such programs and if we don't
who will, he inquired. Yet, some people had told him that
it was not a good profession.
"I have given a lot of anxious thought to this issue,"
replied Justice Usmani in his characteristic measured
tone, weighing every word. "And I have reached the
conclusion that the cause of Islam cannot be served
through television, especially under the current
circumstances. You should seek another line of work."
Frankly, there are lot of enthusiasts who may be totally
bewildered by this answer for it challenges both
conventional wisdom as well as some dearly held dreams.
They may even consider anyone making this suggestion as
belonging to the Flat Earth Society: backward,
anti-progress, ignorant of today's realities. Let us grant
them their day in court and look at their case
The enthusiasts have shown interest in three primary
areas. The first deals with propagation of Islam. There
are lots of sincere Muslims putting lot of hope in a
yet-to-be-released video that will attract the people of
the world to Islam by the thousands. They are simply
confusing Dawah with propaganda! Dawah means inviting
people to the Straight Path by relaying the True Message
to them without any distortion. It is a very serious
message and requires a serious medium to deliver it. The
message is for their own benefit and what they do with it
is their own business. Our job is done once we have
communicated the message correctly. Our job is not to
manipulate people into submission to Allah any more than
it is to coerce them into it. A Dawah worker is a teacher,
a propagandist is a manipulator. Television is a good tool
for manipulating, not for teaching.
The second area deals with the education ("edutainment")
of children. Many videos have already been produced for
this purpose. In one program from a popular series of such
videos, a puppet named Adam drives a skateboard to the
mosque. Scenes of Adam doing his antics are mixed with the
videos of real children praying. But there is no doubt
that Adam is the hero of this story. Here is a clear case
of the medium distorting the message. The children who
learn to pray this way may learn the mechanics of Salat,
but they would have paid a terrible price for it. The idea
of Salat will be associated in their mind with the images
of puppets, skateboards, and the idea of fun. Missing will
be the spiritual dimension of prayer, the solemnness and
grace of this pillar of Islam. Such videos are very
popular as they help assuage the guilt feelings of parents
over their failure to control the TV in the first place.
To be fair there is a useful role for these videos but it
is not normally perceived. Doctors use nicotine patches to
help their patients stop smoking. Nicotine is not a
medicine, but it becomes therapeutic under the
circumstances. Similarly, the TV addicts may be helped by
such videos to get over their addiction. It might work if
that is the goal. But this is very different from the view
that here is a Brave New Way of teaching Islam. The
children and their parents must realize that ultimately
they have to learn their religion the old fashioned way:
read books, listen to lectures, work hard.
The third type of videos are used by relief organizations
showing the terrible situation of Muslims in Kashmir,
Bosnia, Palestine and elsewhere. The intentions are noble,
the results look great. But someone must ask the hard
question: Why should the Muslims need disaster pornography
before they can come to the help of their brothers and
sisters? What are the implications of this practice for
both present and future?
There are, of course, cases where the TV is being used
against its grain, where the only video is that of a
talking head. Such Islamic programs in Egypt or Saudi
Arabia, as elsewhere, may not contain all the dangers
cited above, solely because there the TV is being used
just as an expensive radio. The problem is such programs
will not be able to withstand the onslaught of CNN or MTV,
of dazzling colors and dynamic pictures. The question
remains how long can you use a tool against its grain?
The simple fact is that no one buys a TV and VCR because
they desperately wanted to learn about Islam and it was
the best way of doing it. The TV lounge is not a study
room and all the Islamic videos in the world are not going
to make it one. It is a peace of Hollywood. The rest is
camouflage or self-deception. The earlier we get out of
it, the better.
What Can Be Done?
Television is powerful. It is everywhere. Is there
anything that us mortals can do about it? The answer is
yes. Things can be done at individual, as well as
collective levels. At the individual level, try using the
ON/OFF switch. It takes some effort and will power, but
the device can be turned off. The key is to involve the
entire family. Those nervous about the idea may rest
assured that there is no known disease linked to lack of
exposure to TV! Also those who have tried it know that it
becomes easier with time. Community Organizations and
Islamic Schools can help by educating the people about the
perils of watching TV, countering the social pressures,
and providing healthy alternatives.
Ramadan: The TV Free Month. Our best chance of kicking the
television habit comes in Ramadan every year. It is the
time of year when every Muslim who has any trace of Iman
in his or her heart, is naturally inclined toward doing
good and staying away from evil. And it should be like
that. Did not the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam,
curse the Muslim who finds Ramadan but does not use it to
seek forgiveness for his previous sins? If we cannot leave
sins or vain activities during Ramadan, when can we? We
not only have the strongest moral and religious reasons to
do so, it is also easy because the regular activities of
Ramadan leave little time to be wasted in front of
Muslim organizations and communities will do a great
service by launching a campaign to declare Ramadan as the
TV free month. Urge all the Muslims in your community to
turn it off for at least one month. And who knows, after
one month many may decide to stay away from it because of
the personal insights they got through the experience.
Of course, if you are convinced, do not wait until the
next Ramadan. Start today.