UK's Islam Channel under investigation

Britain's broadcasting watchdog is investigating the country's most popular Islamic channel after a moderate Islamic think tank accuses the station of bigoted programming.

London // Britain's most popular Muslim TV channel is to be investigated by the government's broadcasting watchdog after being accused of promoting extremists. The Office of Communications (Ofcom) took action after an in-depth survey of the programmes on the Islam Channel by the Quilliam Foundation, a moderate Islamic think tank based in London.

After monitoring the output of the satellite channel for three months, the foundation reported: "The gravest concern regarding the Islam Channel is its failure in combating extremism. "A number of presenters with extremist tendencies were regularly given the opportunity to air their opinions on the network without a challenge from more moderate Islamic voices." The report also condemned the channel, which is headquartered in London, for being demeaning to women, saying that programmes instructed women that they could not refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands.

Under British law, a husband who forces his wife to have sex with him can be charged with rape. The report added that on one programme, women were told that they should not leave their homes without their husband's consent and should always have a male escort. Another suggested that women who wore perfume were prostitutes. Concerns were also raised in the report over a religious advice programme in which viewers were told that "the majority of people in hell will be women" because they are the cause of "calamities, hardship and suffering" in western society.

Talal Rajab, author of the report, said: "Unfortunately, during the three-month period that we monitored its output, it repeatedly promoted bigoted and reactionary views towards women, non-Muslims and other Muslims who follow different versions of Islam. "Although the channel does not directly call for terrorist violence, it clearly helps to create an atmosphere in which religiously sanctioned intolerance and even hatred might be seen as acceptable.

"By promoting a single, narrow version of Islam, Saudi Wahhabism, the Islam Channel is wasting an enormous opportunity to positively shape the nature of Islam in Britain." The channel was accused of promoting the speeches of Anwar al Awlaki, an extremist preacher who has been linked to al Qa'eda, and the views of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a fundamentalist organisation the former prime minister Tony Blair had tried to ban.

Maajid Nawaz, the director of the Quilliam Foundation, said that since its launch in 2004, the Islam Channel had become "hugely influential in the British Muslim community, where it has played a pivotal role in the development of a British Islam". This was the first time, however, that its output had been scrutinised, along with that of Mohamed Ali Harrath, the channel's chief executive, who is wanted by the authorities in his native Tunisia because of his links to an alleged terrorist organisation.

Mr Nawaz said: "Much of our findings clearly demonstrate that the channel is being used to spread a very narrow vision of Islam on to British Muslims. "The question then arises: what is the role of government, regulatory bodies and mainstream media in dealing with this? "Regulatory bodies such as Ofcom must step up their game in monitoring and bringing to task the channel for repetitive violations of their broadcast guidelines. A full investigation is needed."

A spokesman for Ofcom, which fined the Islam Channel £30,000 (Dh164,000) three years ago for breaking political impartiality rules, said: "This report raises some serious allegations. We will investigate where our rules might have been broken." In a statement, the channel said it "promotes the role of women in society and that is why almost half of those working at Islam Channel are women". The statement added: "We strongly reject all forms of extremism. We condemn unreservedly all forms of violence and the killing of innocent people regardless of their faith and ethnicity."

Mr Harrath, 46, who remains an antiterrorism adviser to Scotland Yard despite calls for him to step down, established the Tunisian Islamic Front (FIT) in his homeland 24 years ago. According to the Tunisian government, the organisation was a terrorist group that advocated the establishment of an Islamic state "by means of armed revolutionary violence". FIT has also been accused in the French courts of terrorism activities, but Mr Harrath refutes this, saying his movement was a "non-violent political party". He says he has been persecuted and tortured by the Tunisian authorities because of his opposition to what he describes as a "one-party state".

The Islam Channel is watched by an estimated 59 per cent of the UK's two million Muslims. It is also available as a satellite channel across Europe and Africa.