The 30 November launch of Bridges TV has given the American Muslim community a chance to convey a more authentic representation of Islamic culture, many Muslim activists say.
The new English satellite channel is a Muslim-run venture that combines "lifestyle, cultural and entertainment" programming designed for Muslim Americans, as well as non-Muslims looking to educate themselves on a religion that is increasingly prevalent in the public discourse, according to Muzzammil Hassan, the president of Bridges.
"We're trying to build bridges of friendship and understanding between American Muslims and mainstream America," Hassan said.
The Bridges launch could not have come at a better time for Muslim Americans frustrated by media coverage that often associates Islam with terrorism and violence, according to Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Muslim Americans say US media
associates Islam with violence
"I think it gives American Muslims a voice in popular culture and it gives a more accurate portrayal of the reality of the American Muslim existence," Hooper said.
Bridges offers a diverse programming line-up that includes shows on cookery, travel, history, women's issues and politics. It even has cartoons for children.
The station is available through Globecast World TV, a satellite service provider with roughly one million subscribers - 100,000 of whom are Muslim Americans, Hassan said.
In addition, Bridges recently signed a deal with Comcast Cable, a national cable company with 22 million subscribers, and is working on carriage-affiliation agreements with several regional cable providers.
"There was nothing on the television that was celebrating both parts of [Muslim] identities"
head of Bridges TV
Bridges received its first round of funding from 50 private investors and its second round from several private equity firms. While Hassan will not disclose the station's operating budget, he says there is "two years worth of cash in hand".
Thus far, he said, feedback from Muslim viewers had been overwhelmingly positive. Vocal supporters of the station include Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion, who called Bridges "the best way to overcome the erroneous image of American Muslims".
Many Bridges viewers, including Hassan's four children, are pleased to have programming that speaks to their dual backgrounds as American Muslims, something they struggled to find before, he said.
"There was nothing on the television that was celebrating both parts of their identities, Hassan said.
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The station's decision to broadcast only in English or with English subtitles is part of a concerted effort to appeal to Muslims of all sects and ethnic backgrounds.
The Bridges website says the goal is to promote discussion and debate of "various philosophies and sects" in a way that "caters to mainstream Islam as defined by belief in the oneness of God, acceptance of Muhammad as a messenger from God and a seal to all prophets".
While Bridges was conceived primarily as a television station designed for the Muslim American community, Hassan said they were reaching out to the broader public.
Programming development, he said, was based on research that examined the preferences of both Muslim and non-Muslim viewers.
"The secondary market is the mainstream Americans who are curious about Muslim culture," Bridges said.
"We want people to
know exactly who we are and what we stand for"
Muslim American Society
For Muslim viewers, research indicated that "foreign films, food shows and travel shows" were the top priorities. Non-Muslim viewers, meanwhile, were most interested in lifestyle shows, programmes that offered Quran lessons and political talk shows.
Hassan said the stations had received "a lot of emails from non-Muslims who watch".
"American Muslims are really motivated to find a voice, but we are also finding that mainstream Americans are really motivated to listen," he said.
At a time when both public and government scrutiny of the Muslim community is at an all-time high, supporters of Bridges TV say it is necessary to incorporate a balanced message, devoid of any religious or political extremism.
Souheit Ghannouchi, president of the Muslim American Society, said Bridges had to be fair and objective and should welcome diverse viewpoints in order to "overcome all the fear and suspicion that is out there".
Bridges TV will welcome diverse
viewpoints to overcome distrust
"We want people to know exactly who we are and what we stand for," Ghannouchi said.
While an inclusive format is important, Bridges also has a responsibility to address certain cultural issues relevant to American Muslims that often receive scant attention from the mainstream media, according to Luay Safi, executive director of the Leadership Development Centre at the Islamic Society of North America.
"These types of issues can only really be dealt with on a television station like Bridges," Safi said.