Brave Broadcasting: Tom Holland's documentary "Islam: The Untold Story"
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.