Channel 4 this week announced that the Muslim call to prayer, the adhan, is to be broadcast on air throughout Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. It's been decided as a deliberate act of "provocation" aimed at viewers who associate Islam with terror and extremism and quite frankly it has been a long time coming.
Growing up as a British Muslim brought with it a plethora of problems (cue the world's smallest sitar playing the world's saddest ghazal), but bear with me. I was lucky enough to grow up in a diverse environment, namely north-west London where it didn't matter if you were black or white or even brown for that matter. Fasting at school was easy, it was during the winter months when sunrise was at 7.30am and sunset was at 4.30pm, it was a case of skipping lunch. I had a group of friends who did it, my parents had satellite TV which gave us access to Zee TV and Star TV (a big upgrade from Sunrise Radio, the bastion of any British Indian's upbringing) where we could watch the call to prayer, and it was altogether a pretty simple affair that I never questioned.
Then I left for university. The freedom! The friends! The fasting! Only one of these was hard to maintain. With Ramadan moving slowly towards the summer months - the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, so every year the month of Ramadan moves forward ten days or so - I started looking around me for support as the fasting itself became harder. Yes there was the university's "Islamic Society", but it always seemed marginalised and this one time, at Friday prayer back home at my local mosque, the Imaam told the group (in Urdu no less), that Christmas Trees were evil. I mean, really?
Keeping the faith became difficult. In Muslim circles I was an outsider, I still remember the looks I got when I wore a t-shirt emblazoned with "Don't Panic, I'm Islamic" and in British circles I was becoming "the Indian one".
Then I looked to the media. Zee TV and Star TV weren't cutting it any more. Either side of the airing of the call to prayer were people reciting the Qu'ran without subtitles. Whilst on my journey through educational enlightenment I wanted to understand more about my religion, but no-one seemed to make it easy. My Arabic was rusty and I always felt like true understanding was at arms' length. The BBC had a breakthrough with shows like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42 that worked wonders for breaking down barriers and making light of what is inherently a fascinating race. All it required was one small aubergine but it was never quite enough.
Through a series of mishaps and what some might call 'kismet', I ended up working in media and the pool of people around me fasting dried up faster than an old date (incidentally the traditional food for opening one's fast). Put simply, would Eddie from Ab Fab be caught fasting if it wasn't cited as the latest diet fad? There was an underlying unsettled feeling for me about Ramadan. Did I want to fast? Is this a crisis of faith? What's behind this?
And then I read about Channel 4's decision to broadcast the call to prayer and I was bouncing off the walls.
The provocation is essential. Whilst Nesrine Malik over at the Guardian argues that this is "busy-bodying do-goodery" and the MailOnline calls it a divisive and cynical stunt, my counter argument is that this goes beyond just the non-Muslim community. The provocation is also important for mainstream Muslims.
The call to prayer on national British TV not only goes to remind Muslims who have grown up in Britain about the key parts of the day, but also brings up the conversation about why we're fasting and doing what we're doing. "What, you can't even drink water?" is a question I often hear. I used to say "No, it's nil by mouth" I would reply somewhat timidly and perhaps even ashamedly but now, thanks to Ralph Lee and his team at Channel 4, I feel like there's now an open, non-judgemental forum for conversation and understanding about what it means to be a mainstream Muslim in modern-day Britain and I for one can't wait to get stuck in.