Muslim Aaqil Ahmed chosen as BBC’s head of religion
The BBC has appointed its first Muslim head of religion.
Aaqil Ahmed, who is to become jointly head of Religion and Ethics and commissioning editor for Religion TV, has made his name at Channel 4 where is he currently commissioning editor for Religion and Multicultural.
His biggest project at Channel 4 was the recent Christianity: A History series, which included programmes presented by Howard Jacobson and Cherie Blair. On his blog, Ahmed wrote: “It’s almost unheard of for a mainstream broadcaster to dedicate eight hours of prime time television to Christianity in this way. I think it’s fair to say that it’s a big risk, but a risk I really wanted to take.”
Ahmed, who is known for making difficult and potentially dull religious subjects lively and accessible and is also not afraid to ask the hard questions, also commissioned Channel 4’s The Qur’an and the BAFTA winning Saving Africa’s Witch Children.
When commenters on his blog criticised the series on Christianity as a hatchet job and accused him of error, he posted a video in response.
Aaqil Ahmed will move to the corporation from Channel Four, where he upset Roman Catholic priests by commissioning documentaries that appeared to contain a pro-Islam bias.
His appointment will also raise fears at the top levels of the Church of England, which has expressed its concerns over the BBC’s treatment of religion and warned that it must not ignore its Christian audience.
Leading church figures suspect that the BBC is giving preferential treatment to minority faiths, with a Muslim now in charge of its programming on television and a Sikh producing Songs of Praise, its flagship Christian show.
Christina Rees, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, has warned: ” The vast majority of the population identifies itself as Christian and as the established Church in England we would be negligent not to take an active concern in the changes happening with the BBC’s religion and ethics department.”
Mr Ahmed is understood to have impressed BBC executives by commissioning a series on Christianity that featured high-profile names, including Cherie Blair and Michael Portillo.
However, the series, Christianity, A History, was criticised by Church figures for trivialising the religion.
Furthermore, Channel 4 was accused of being biased towards Islam and failing to show enough respect to Christianity under Mr Ahmed, who was head of religious broadcasting.
Mr Ahmed will split the role of overseeing religious broadcasting with, Christine Morgan, who has been promoted to head of Religion Radio.
Ahmed’s appointment marks only the second time in the BBC’s 87-year history that a non-Christian has been appointed to the position, following the agnostic Alan Bookbinder in 2001.
The move is likely to be controversial with some — the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was reported to have raised concerns with the BBC director general Mark Thompson that the “Christian voice is being sidelined” after Ahmed was first connected to the role last month.
The BBC has also appointed Christine Morgan as a new separate head of religion radio. A BBC spokesman declined to comment on her religion.
The BBC said the appointment of Morgan, who has been executive producer of BBC radio religion and ethics since 2004, responsible for all religious programmes on Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4, was “another measure to strengthen the BBC’s religious programmes”.
A BBC spokesman said the corporation appointed individuals “on the basis of talent and suitability to the role, regardless of their faith or background”.
The two new appointments — part of a new management structure for the BBC Knowledge department — replace the previous combined head of religion and ethics role overseeing output on both TV and radio, which was held by the Methodist preacher Michael Wakelin.