Last night’s Channel 4 polemic, “The Origins of Violence”, had the potential to be a fascinating dive into a deeply important topic; how Islamic is the Islamic State (Daesh)?
That had been the title of an essay by the well-regarded Muslim commentator Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman in March 2015.
Hasan pointed out that those who spent time living with Daesh hadn’t found them very religious at all, indeed copies of the Qur’an were curiously absent and political discussion dominated.
Hasan’s conclusion was that to understand Daesh as particularly Islamic was “dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides [its leader] Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.”
This should not have been a particularly objectionable take – anyone with a Wikipedia-level knowledge of Islam agreed that setting people on fire or drowning them in cages hasn’t much to do with a religion which is avowedly peaceful. Indeed, anyone who wanted to make the opposite case more had to explain why so few Muslims were violent – if Islam itself was the problem.
Tom Holland, a historian of the Greek and Roman era, objected to Hasan.
He was generously allowed a response in the following edition, called “We must not deny the religious roots of Islamic State”. He has since written a film version of his argument, which aired in the UK last night.
To research his own take, he travelled to the ruins of Sinjar, and a Christian monastery in northern Iraq, visited a hardline Salafist in Jordan, and interviewed a survivor of life inside Daesh. He went to Paris and visited the site of the Bataclan attacks.
His conclusion – Daesh can only be truly understood if you admit that its reading of the Qur’an is somewhat valid.
If Samuel Huntington’s thesis on “The Clash of Civilisations” had a 21st century disciple – it was clearly Holland.
He flits within minutes from mediaeval struggles over Constantinople to the rise of Ataturk to the personal beliefs of Osama Bin Laden.
Might his next documentary be about how Brexit was really caused by the Norman invasion of England in 1066, or the rise of Donald Trump can only really be understood by understanding New York planning laws?
Holland’s response, which mixes a simplistic populism with wild irrelevancies, speaks to the fundamental inability of so many Western intellectuals to view the world in nothing less than stark apocalyptic terms, in clashes of civilisations and religions, in centuries-long sweeps of superficial but ultimately unsatisfying analyses.
This brand of political analysis – often made by the more well-heeled of the Western intelligentsia, ritually ignores the material impact and immense frustrations that inequality, under-employment, public corruption and lack of security can have on life in Muslim countries.
It isn’t all about Islam – sometimes, it’s about issues so mundane as housing, petrol prices, schooling or universities. In fact, it’s far more often about that. One can focus on their extreme ideology, which is interesting in a parlour room sense – or you can focus on stopping the bombs going off, and the genocides Holland rightly seems concerned about – by addressing legitimate grievances first and draining the extremists of their recruitment pools.
A white Christian man denigrating well over a billion Muslims is not going to do that. Holland should know – the last time he made a film about his views on Islam, called “Islam: The Untold Story”, it drew a staggering 1,200 very justified complaints.
Holland, no doubt with the best of intentions, is helping Daesh get what they want. His grandiose take – which positioned the Christian West versus the Muslim Orient, ended with supremely chilling films of the 2005 Paris riots.
The footage itself was old hat; it was Holland’s take on it that was troubling – these rioters were “Muslim”, his voice-over alleged, not French, or Algerian, or North African, or Arab, or perhaps just poor, unemployed and fed-up. All Holland wanted his viewers to know was that they were “Muslim”.
Holland then rightly points out that Daesh was calling the Muslims of these banlieues the “grey zone”. The Daesh propagandists wanted a black and white, West versus East, Christian versus Muslim world. Sound familiar? Holland could have written their manifesto himself.
His implication was also clear – the Christian French should watch out for your Muslim neighbours, any of them could be an Islamic State operative, and of course this being a British documentary – perhaps we should watch out too.
Fostering of mistrust between communities is exactly what Daesh want, and that is exactly what Holland’s documentary did. He described violent verses in the Qur’an as “improvised explosive devices”, laid out in the Prophet’s era as time bombs for today. This is incendiary talk, no pun intended, of the most serious nature. It betrays a deep ignorance of Islamic scripture. He even played on the far right trope of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] being a paedophile. What then, is to distinguish him from the far right activists he would surely ordinarily distance himself from?
Channel 4 is more often on the right side of history when it comes to the Middle East. Jon Snow’s glorious diatribe against the barbarous excess of the Israeli state during the 2014 conflict was admirable.
They should be ashamed however they ever let an anti-Islam ideologue make a documentary that so clearly does the work of Daesh for them.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi could not wish for a better pro-Daesh propagandist, though that surely was not Holland’s intention. Or was it?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.