Controversy about Halal-TV erupted even before the first episode aired on Monday night when author and commentator Dilsa Demirbag-Sten, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who moved to Sweden at the age of six, pointed out that one of the show's hosts had previously said she thought that stoning a woman to death was an appropriate punishment for adultery.
While the now 23-year-old Cherin Awad has since distanced herself from the comments she made five years ago, that didn't stop Demirbag-Sten from questioning SVT's decision to have Awad lead a programme about Muslim women in Sweden.
“There are many ways for public broadcasting to use high standards of journalism to address the diversity issues which affect the Muslim part of the population without reducing the group to deeply faithful, headscarf bearing, homophobic teetotalers who believe that women should be virgins until they are married and support stoning for adultery,” Demirbag-Sten wrote in a column published last week in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper.
In addition to Awad, a lawyer, Halal-TV also features 22-year-old doctor-to-be Dalia Azzam Kassem and 25-year-old dental hygienist Khadiga El Khabiry, all of whom were born in Sweden, but who have roots in different countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The show is meant to show how the three women view their Swedish homeland through the lens of their Muslim beliefs. SvD described Halal-TV as a “road trip” through Swedish society, with the three lead figures at the wheel which ultimately is meant to help deconstruct the often monolithic view of Muslims held by many Swedes.
“We are three individuals, and just like a Moderate and a Christian Democrat are both alike and different, we also have different opinions. Sometimes our views are similar, sometimes we get angry with one another and the programme heats up,” Azzam Kassem told SvD.
And the trio didn't waste any time stirring things up in Halal-TV's premiere episode, which examined class differences through segments filmed in two Stockholm suburbs, Danderyd, one of Sweden's wealthiest, and Botkyra, one of the poorest.
In one of the segments, Awad and El Khabiry refuse to shake the hand of Aftonbladet newspaper columnist Carl Hamilton, electing instead to greet the guest by putting their hands on their chests, leaving Hamilton's extended hand hanging in the air and prompting a sharp exchange.
“I'm sorry, you ought to shake my hand,” said Hamilton, according to a transcript published in the Expressen newspaper.
“That's something I decide,” replied El Khabiry.
“No, I don't think so!” Hamilton shot back.
The war of words escalated when Azzam Kassem then asked Hamilton what he thought a Swede who had converted to Islam ought to do.
“He should shake hands when in Sweden. If he can't manage that then he can go live in a cave and be a hermit,” said Hamilton.
“It's about how we live as Swedes. That's how we socialize, we shake hands. It's not we who are the problem. The problem is that you come here and don't want to shake hands, so it's actually you who are the problem.”
“We didn't come here. I was born here,” El Khabiry reminded Hamilton.
Writing about the incident on Tuesday in a column in Aftonbladet, Hamilton asked, “Is it racist to want to shake hands with a Muslim?”
He further vented his frustration at not being told at the time that the exchange had been recorded, highlighting what he saw as the central issue behind the handshake controversy.
“Who should adapt to whom? For the hosts of Halal-TV, the answer is obvious. The handshaking majority in Sweden should adapt themselves to the Muslim-believing-non-handshaking minority,” he writes.
“I don't have a problem with faithful Muslims or others who don't want to shake hands. On the other hand I have a hard time understanding people who think that I'm discriminating against them because I want to greet them as most people are greeted in Sweden.”
Considerably fewer viewers, 295,000, tuned in to watch the Halal-TV than the 400,000 viewers producers had hoped would watch the new programme.
Reviewing the show in SvD, columnist Annina Rabe said “the confusion was total” and criticized the programme for being simplistic, bereft of statistics, and not addressing religion at all.
“Put simply, bad journalism,” she writes.