Request: Please turn off your television set as you read this article.)
Karachi the murder and mayhem have been going on for years. "The
only social activities left in the city are those related to death,"
wrote a Karachi newsmagazine editorial some years ago. "Funerals,
burial, mourning." When you leave the home in the morning,
you don't know whether you'll return safely that evening. Wherever
you look, you can see fear, uncertainty, and depression. Yet, among
all the fearing and grieving that accompanies the tragedy, the dish
antennas on the rooftops has been flourishing.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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."
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.
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 judgement 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.
Is The Message
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.
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
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.
Work And Television
this dangerous drug be somehow converted into a medicine? Not too
long ago, a young professional in the U.S. approached prominent
Muslim scholar 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.
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."
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,
and ignorant of today's realities. Let us grant them their day in
court and look at their case objectively.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
Can Be Done?
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
can help by educating the people about the perils of watching TV,
countering the social pressures, and providing healthy alternatives.
The TV Free Month.
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.
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.
course, if you are convinced, do not wait until Ramadan.