Bridges TV, the first English language American Muslim television network, is now reaching a wider audience of non-Muslims in the United States. It began in 2004 as a premium pay channel, but has now been picked up as a free service by several cable and satellite systems. The move will help advance the major purpose of this network -- to build bridges between American Muslims and their neighbors.
Citizens offers different perspectives of culture and media coverage:
Woman: "Because of the media, what you see on TV and what you see in newspapers, I think to a certain extent, again, it seems like an aggressive culture."
Man: "I heard some speakers on TV making the point that, in point of fact, at the core, some of the teachings of the Islamic faith are in fact violent and intolerant towards people from other religions."
It's perceptions like this -- about Islam and Muslims among average Americans -- that led Muzzammil Hassan to launch Bridges TV two years ago. "There were some comments being made," he said, "that were pretty negative about Arabs and Muslims. So my wife, being a mother, said: 'This is not a very good environment for children, or to raise children and there should be some kind of a media that lets American know who Muslims are, who Arabs are and that we are good people.' "
With generous contributions from American Muslims, Bridges TV was able to give that community a voice of its own, broadcasting nationwide from Buffalo, New York.
Two years later, the network is expanding, as major cable systems in the United States and Canada have agreed to include Bridges TV in their basic packages.
Ahmed Suleiman, Bridges TV's news anchor, says the network is serving as a real bridge between the estimated eight million American Muslims and the rest of the country. He says he is contributing to that mission through his program "Building Bridges".
"Each episode, I have a different topic. It could be about abortion, it could be about Jerusalem, it could be about violence in the name of religion, and we get the different perspectives and feedback of the Rabbi, the Priest and the Imam. What you realize is that while we differ in some opinions, we also have a lot in common."
One common thread is laughter. Recognizing that Americans like comic relief, the network offers a comedy show with two stand-up comics -- an Arab and a Jew:
One comedian, Rabbi Rob Alper says, "The original idea was to have a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian, but we could not find any Christian comedians."
Another comedian, Ahmed Ahmed remarks, "Both Jews and Muslims have a lot in common. Jews and Muslims do not eat pork, we do not celebrate Christmas, we both have "KHAH" in our pronunciation. We both are hairy creatures of God. The only difference between Muslims and Jews is that Jews do not like to spend any money and Muslims do not have any money to spend."
The newsroom staff reflects the network's inclusive philosophy. It includes the first ---and only -- national news anchor to wear the hijab -- the Muslim head cloth.
Sana Beg, who came to the United States from Kashmir, says Bridges TV brings a unique understanding to the day's headlines. "You have a lot of people that make it to the news, who claim to be Muslims. In actuality they use faith as a justification, as a crutch to justify their actions and what we are trying to do here is that if ordinarily a TV station would call somebody an Islamic extremist, an Islamic militant, we try to stay away from that because they are not Islamic in the first place. Because what they are doing is not really with the tenets of Islam. We are not trying to use terms like 'waging a holy Jihad' too loosely because we actually come from the faith so we understand what it really means."
Not all the staff is Muslim. News Director Nancy Sanders, a veteran journalist, is Catholic and is married to a Jew. She says she tries to present the many faces of American Muslims in Bridges TV's news programs. "We talk to a lot of different people living the American Muslim lifestyle and we present that as much as we can. For instance, Muslims celebrating the Fourth of July; Muslims who were affected by the 9/11 tragedy; we profile people who are business owners; we talk to people who want to see peace initiatives."
Bridges TV Chairman, Muzzammil Hassan says that by using different program formats that portray Muslims in everyday life, he can correct some of the misperceptions he believes Americans hold about Islam and Muslims.
He also believes the programming needs to be as accessible as possible. "By being in English, and by being on basic cable, it becomes viewable by mainstream Americans and that is where a building-bridges opportunity comes."
Hassan says that over time, he believes non-Muslim Americans will come to realize they and their Muslim neighbors share many of the same values -- raising families, pursuing careers, and finding peace.