BBC’s Muslim head of religion reveals a Protestant work ethic
Christianity is still the schedule’s cornerstone, says Aaqil Ahmed
Aaqil Ahmed is friendly when we meet, but a little nervous. Understandably so. When last May the BBC announced that he would become the first Muslim head of religious programming (and the second non-Christian after the 2001 appointment of Alan Bookbinder, an avowed agnostic), it received 115 complaints.
Most, the BBC admitted, centred on the fact that Ahmed was not a Christian. A member of the Ulster Unionist Assembly called his appointment “insulting to Christians”. On hearing the news, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, reportedly complained to Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC and a Roman Catholic, that the “Christian voice” was being sidelined”.
Was he surprised? “It would be naive to think that there would not be any kind of reaction,” Ahmed replies in a light northern accent. “I’m not going to lie. I found some of it bizarre and personally distasteful, but I truly believe that people are entitled to hold whatever opinion they like.”
Ahmed, 40, who is accompanied throughout the interview by a BBC press officer, does not wish to be drawn on his personal faith: “Of course I’m a believer but I don’t want it to be the story,” he says. “It really isn’t relevant to the job. I don’t think for one second that being a Muslim makes my job any easier or harder.”
He expands: “I’ve worked in television for 17 years. I’m a professional. I cannot stress enough that my priority is to successfully navigate religion through the BBC.”
Six years ago Ahmed, then deputy documentaries editor at BBC Religion and Ethics, was appointed Commissioner for religion and head of multicultural programming at Channel 4. While there, he commissioned The Qur’an, Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber, and more recently Christianity: A History, an “edgy” eight-part series whose guest presenters included Howard Jacobson and Cherie Blair.
Nearly three months after his move from Channel 4 to the BBC, Ahmed will not reveal details of future programming, other than mentioning the seasonal staple broadcasts that mark Christmas, Easter, Lent, Advent, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and Ramadan. And announcing a new six-part television series, A History of Christianity, which starts next Thursday and is presented by the Oxford historian Diarmuid McCulloch, on BBC Four (a channel which, he says, tends to have a more upmarket, male audience than the more mainstream viewers on BBC One and Two).
Concerns were voiced, perhaps unfairly, when Ahmed was appointed, about the BBC’s commitment to Christian programming. Although he does not give a percentage (“I don’t think I have any percentages as such”) for the number of Christian programmes included in the BBC’s 163 hours of religious television each year, Ahmed says that Christianity, as the “majority faith” in Britain, is the "cornerstone” of the BBC’s religious schedule.
He is the “proud custodian” of Songs of Praise (BBC One)). Growing up in Lancashire — his parents migrated from Lahore to Wigan — he was a big fan of The Message (1976) starring Anthony Quinn. “A lot of my generation learnt about the history of Islam from that film,” says Ahmed, who named his son Hamza after Quinn’s character. Unlike his brothers, he opted not to join the family clothing business, set up by his father after a few years in a Wigan dye factory. The 4am starts to man the market stall put him off, he jokes, although they left him with a “northern Protestant work ethic”. At 16 he wanted to be a graphic designer, but then “Apple Mac and computer graphics came along”. So, after attending art school in Wigan, Ahmed took a degree in film at the University of Westminster, including work experience stints at the BBC. This led to a job as a researcher at BBC Birmingham and eventually as a producer in news and currents affairs, an area that led — and leads him still — to religion.
A self-described religion “geek”, Ahmed says that he could “bore people to death” on subjects such as the Dark Ages, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Reformation “and what those particular chapters in British history mean today”. Ignorance of religious history, such as the evolution of Christianity, “a Middle Eastern religion that’s becoming westernised”, he finds “frustrating”. Ahmed says he is fascinated by how religion interacts with society and culture. He is the first joint head of Religion and Ethics and Commissioning Editor for BBC TV.
“Personally I don’t know how you can dismantle religion from the world we live in today,” he says.
Does he think religious broadcasts have a responsibility to uphold public morality? “This isn’t a cop-out,” he replies, “but an honest answer. All programming, whether Question Time or The Big Questions (BBC One’s Sunday morning ethical debate programme), has a moral responsibility,” he says. He cites illegal internet downloads as a “clear example” of the kind of ethical dilemma ideal for debate on the BBC.
“People forget that is the electronic version of ‘Thou shalt not steal’. I know, as somebody who has covered copyright theft as a producer in current affairs, that I obsessed with the actual manufacture and distribution of DVDs and didn’t think for one second about the moral issue of ‘this is theft, this is someone’s property’,” Ahmed says.
Would he pull a programme if it offended religious believers, as BBC Three did in 2004, with Popetown , a satirical cartoon about the papacy which drew thousands of complaints? “In the six and a half years I spent at Channel 4 we never pulled anything, simply because we always knew what we were going to do. I don’t think for one second we should need to be in that position,” he replies. “Nothing should come as a surprise.” Really?
Watch this space.