What Can Be Done?
(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 unavoidable.
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
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
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
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
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
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 objectively.
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
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
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
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 television.
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.