Tiptoeing in the Mecca Ballroom
Tom Holland’s film on the origins of Islam deserves praise for not shying away from controversy
When my colleagues at the Guardian and Observer level accusations of political correctness gone mad, you had better take notice. Things must have reached a pretty pass to draw such complaints from such quarters. So it appeared when the Guardian‘s television critic complained that Tom Holland’s documentary on the origins of Islam “tiptoed around the subject and apologised for his findings”.
On the face of it, the critic was right. Channel 4’s documentary — Islam: The Untold Story — seemed as nervous as a Victorian debutante at her first ball. Holland is a conservatively minded historian with a strong sympathy for the religiously inclined. Holland’s documentary was as formal and — apparently — as inoffensive as a courtly dance.
Holland took a step forward and advanced the claim that there is no evidence in written records, coins or inscriptions that a new Islamic religion inspired the armies that erupted out of Arabia and conquered the Persian Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire. Having advanced, Holland took a step back and allowed religious conservatives to assure the viewer that the oral tradition, which emerged into the light of history in biographies of the prophet written 200 years after his lifetime, was all the evidence we needed that the word of God as delivered to Muhammad inspired the Arab conquests. Holland said nothing, moved a step to the side and advanced again to say that there was only one ambiguous reference to Mecca in the Koran, and what evidence we have suggests that the koranic city was 100 or so miles north of the modern place of pilgrimage. He then stepped back again, and allowed the purveyors of conventional wisdom to assert this was not the case. He did not harry them with sceptical questions but moved to the side once more, stepped forward and explained that Islam became the religion of the new empire some 40 years after the conquests when its rulers decided to harness the power of monotheism and distinguish themselves from the conquered Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews of the near East. The dance finished when he stepped back for the final time and sought assurances from an orthodox believer that he was not guilty of orientalism or imperialism or any other ghastly “ism” that right-thinking people so rightly deplore.
Holland appeared gentility personified, but appearances deceived. The critics may not have realised it, but censorious clerics did.
In my recent study of censorship — You Can’t Read This Book — I examined the manufacture of offence. A writer or broadcaster did not need to have been deliberately offensive for trouble to begin, I said. Religious reactionaries had “to feed their supporters a diet of indignation, and needed to supply them with new targets for their rage”. The identity of the targets they selected was almost irrelevant. As we have seen from Salman Rushdie onwards, the smallest transgression can lead to a disproportionate response that defies rational explanation. Not all manufactured offences generate fatwas and bomb alerts. But whether the controversy explodes or the bomb is a dud the manufacturing process is the same.
The Ramadhan Foundation denounced Channel 4 for distortion and bias. It said that Holland had claimed that “Mecca was never mentioned in the Holy Quran,” when in fact he had said there was one ambiguous reference as I said above. It went on to say the Koran mentions Mecca twice, which is not true either. “The British Muslim community will not allow Channel 4 to distort our faith and our history,” it declared. “The Ramadhan Foundation calls on Channel 4 to apologise for this programme.” The Islamic Education and Research Academy joined the fray. It accused Holland of failing to discuss the hadiths, the oral traditions about the life of Muhammad. Holland had spent a good part of the programme doing just that. Undeterred, the academy thundered, “he saw what he wanted to see and rejected recklessly what he didn’t like. His exclusion of established academic positions and material facts points to the only conclusion of justifying his own prejudices and ignorance of Islamic tradition.”
Anyone who writes or broadcasts gets used to abuse. But in the context of 30 years of Islamist intimidation, demands for apologies and inquiries, and accusations of prejudice and distortion about a programme on the origins of Islam, are more minatory than everyday insults. Channel 4 cancelled a public debate about the programme. Holland became the target of hate attacks on Twitter. “You might be a target in the streets,” read one. “You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety.” The police offered advice on how best to stop the controversy turning into a confrontation, and said words to the effect of “issue a bland statement, then shut up, say nothing and hope it will all go away”. The broadcasters have done as they were told, and for the moment everyone seems safe. The next historian or novelist may not be so lucky.
In these circumstances, Channel 4 and Holland deserved more praise than they received. It is easy to mock Holland’s earnest, careful manner and accuse him of being an over-respectful historian. But at least he is an honest historian, not just in his books — which are a delight, if you have never read him — but also in the frightened and phoney world of British television. Compare the evidence he laid before the viewer about the debates on Islam’s founding myths with the BBC’s 2011 Life of Muhammad. The BBC did not discuss the work of Patricia Crone and the other academics who point to the faults and the omissions in the conventional account. The corporation was too frightened to let them speak: frightened of violence, frightened of accusations of Islamophobia — so frightened indeed that it would have been better if it had been honest with itself (and its viewers) and scrapped the programme. Or look at this year’s Hajj exhibition at the British Museum, the most propagandistic exercise that great institution has ever presented. Curated by timid men and women, it did not say that some scholars doubted whether the Mecca of the Koran was the Mecca of the modern pilgrimage or hajj.
In You Can’t Read This Book I said: “Islamist violence ensures that every mainstream broadcaster in the West is frightened of exposing Islam’s founding myths.” It is to Channel 4’s and Holland’s credit that I am going to have to cut that confident statement for the next edition.