In an ambitious attempt to improve the image of Muslims, two businessmen are preparing to launch North America’s first English-language Islamic television channel next year.
The founders of “Bridges TV,” aiming for a summer 2004 launch, find some of the rationale for their venture in America’s attitude toward Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In its promotional material, the network quotes leading figures such as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, saying, “Islam is the religion of our enemies,” and the Rev. Franklin Graham, calling Islam a “wicked and evil religion.”
“American Muslims saw their entire faith hijacked as the perpetrators of these murders claimed Islam as their religion,” the fledgling company said. “The Muslim victims were not only the 358 innocent souls that perished that day, but the entire 7 million American Muslims.”
Some analysts believe the U.S. has considerably fewer Muslims, perhaps as few as 2 million, but the venture’s founders believe they have an audience among rapidly growing Muslims and “mainstream” Americans.
Bridges TV’s CEO is Muzzammil S. Hassan, most recently a bank vice-president in Buffalo, N.Y. Its chief investor is Omar S. Amanat, founder of Tradescape, an Internet brokerage firm sold to E*Trade last year for $280 million.
Despite his success, Amanat said as a Muslim he never felt fully accepted on Wall Street.
“I realized that the only way to undo misconceptions was to create our own media forum from which our stories and culture would be shared with the world,” he said. “Other cultural groups have gained acceptance and increased understanding through the media. Why can’t Muslims do the same?”
Bridges TV sees a successful niche-market model in channels such as Telemundo and the Black Entertainment Television network. Its research shows about one-quarter of American Muslims are of South Asian origin, while the rest include African Americans and Arabs.
The venture distinguishes itself from foreign-language broadcasts geared to Muslims, such as the Arabic ART TV, which are popular with immigrant parents but not among U.S.-born Muslims.
“Our channel is in English and about life in America,” said Amanat. “We want a Muslim child who grows up in America to be able to watch our channel and identify with the characters, or to be engaged by the dialogue of issues pertinent to him or her.”
Broadcasting from Manhattan via cable and satellite, the channel plans to “emphasize news stories and talk shows, wholesome sitcoms, advice shows, children’s programming and movies about Muslim life in America.”
Bridges TV says it wants to “celebrate the rich diversity and talents of American Muslims and to build bridges of understanding and friendship between American Muslims and mainstream Americans.”
The launch date depends on how quickly the network can gather the 10,000 paying members it believes are necessary to demonstrate public support.
Among its “key advisers and supporters” are Nihad Awad, executive director of the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Others include Iman W. Deen Muhammad, president of the American Society of Muslims, boxing great Muhammad Ali and NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon.
Awad emphasized the importance of North American Muslims having “our own media outlets, our own timing and our own kind of programming.”
“Therefore, we can decide what kind of messages we send out,” he said.
CAIR’s communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, said Bridges TV “is just an example of the growing maturity and sophistication of the American Muslim community that people are even at this stage where we can contemplate this kind of network.”
“So I think it’s a good sign for the community, and we encourage every one to support it,” he said.
Bridges TV said most of the programming will be original since very little exists that would be of interest to U.S. Muslims.
Amanat wants to see stories that highlight the contributions of American Muslims to modern science, art and entertainment.
The network plans to feature sitcoms that represent American Muslim family life, modeled after the “The Cosby Show,” the hit program that portrayed an African-American family.
Amanat said the company successfully completed its first round of fundraising last year, netting $1 million in seed capital, mostly to cover legal, filming, marketing and licensing fees. The next goal is to secure 10,000 paying monthly members. The network’s sponsored studies indicate American Muslims are willing to pay as much as $10 per month above their current cable or satellite fee for the channel.
The response so far has been overwhelming, Amanat said, with more than 1,000 paying members signing up in just one month.
“An American Muslim television channel is the greatest need of our times,” he said.
The plan is to broadcast four to six hours per day in the first year and within four years evolve into a 24-hour network.