Working to educate the youth

Doug Harris, member of the <a href="http://www.reachouttrust.org/">Reachout Trust</a>, explains the

My job, simply put, is to convince as many people as possible that cults and occult practices are potentially dangerous. It's obviously not your typical nine-to-five gig. Recalling my childhood daydreams of what I would do when I grew up, this certainly wasn't even on the list.

Just how I got to this point began in the early 1980s when Reachout Trust was born, initially to “reach out” and provide help to local people who had suffered as a result of their being involved with one cult or another. However, in just a few years we had expanded geographically and also philosophically. We ultimately realised that we needed to help those still involved in occult practices.

The creation of Reachout Trust drew responses from a few young people who realised that they needed to be free from the spiritual powers that had trapped them, and could achieve that freedom by turning to the greater power of the God of evangelical Christianity.

Since then, the work of Reachout Trust has often been maligned as being negative and hopelessly idealistic, but we maintain that what we do is positive; we help people find a better life. Also, what some people consider idealist rhetoric is actually some very sound advice that has helped many people. Nevertheless, there are an increasing number of young people today, who do not or will not accept this.

At first, this rejection was perplexing. We were, after all, trying to help them, but all they wanted to do was criticise and contradict us. However, over the years we have come to understand why young people are often hard to reach. Throughout their largely secular and media-influenced lives, they have not received any clear Biblical Christian education. They have instead been bombarded, or at least showered, with various aspects of the occult and other do-it-yourself religions. How can they understand and accept a message that has not been on their radar during their formative years?

Keep in mind that we are not accusing parents of falling asleep on the job. Starting in primary school nearly everyone warns his or her children about with stranger danger and the risks associated with playing near railway lines. As children grow the dangers of drugs and promiscuous sex become relevant. All this amounts to one big list of prohibitions, a list of what not to do. Yet is this advice perceived as negative? Certainly not! Then why shouldn’t we, in a similar vein, share information on the dangers of the occult, which can also yield negative consequences?

Unfortunately, such a warning is seen as too religious, and is discarded in favour of a more liberal stance on youthful experimentation. Most young people, however, do not content themselves with just a small dabble into the occult. They start to wade in to the excitement, intrigue and mystical paths that are explained in magazines, TV interviews and, of course, the Internet.

This is the struggle that Reachout Trust has been increasingly facing for the past 25+ years. It certainly isn’t going to get any easier and as long as society continues to label our efforts and intolerant and conservative.

Should we give up? Certainly not; that is the worst thing we can do. We will adapt to the situation in which we find ourselves, speak with a reasonable and considerate voice, make clear well-constructed arguments and continue to educate all those who will listen on the dangers of the occult. We will, in the same way, seek to show that there is a far safer way to experience spiritual enlightenment: through the tried-and-tested beliefs of the abundant life in the Jesus Christ of evangelical Christianity.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.