Last night Channel 4 broadcast a deep and seriously important programme. ‘Isis: The Origins of Violence’ was written and presented by the historian Tom Holland and can be viewed (by British viewers) here.
Five years ago, to coincide with his book ‘In The Shadow of the Sword’ about the early years of Islam, Holland presented a documentary for Channel 4 titled ‘Islam: The Untold Story’. That was something of a landmark in UK television. For while there had previously been some heated and angry studio discussions about Islam and plenty of fawningly hagiographic programmes about the religion’s founder presented by his apologists, here was a grown-up and scholarly treatment which looked at the issue as though there weren’t blasphemy police around every corner.
Sadly, part of the reception of that programme, and numerous events in the years since have kept such displays of scholarly truthfulness nearly as much of a rarity since as they were before. Which is one reason why Tom Holland deserves even more praise for returning to the subject of his earlier documentary.
And not just returning to it, but – in ‘Isis: The Origins of Violence’ – returning to the hardest part of that subject. In a nutshell he posed the question ‘Why do Isis, and groups like Isis, do what they do?’ And he answers this with the only honest answer anybody interested in truth could possibly come back with – which is that although they may be inspired by many things, their most important inspiration is a version of Islam whose roots can be traced to the origins of the religion, its foundational texts and the behaviour of Mohammed.
Holland did not spare the viewer. Travelling from the scene of the devastating Isis attacks in Paris, to Iraqi towns decimated by the group, via Istanbul and an interview with a Salafi leader in Jordan, Holland showed the depth as well as complexity of the question and answer. The most moving sequence of all came in the Iraqi town of Sinjar which was levelled by Isis and whose mainly Yezidi population either fled, were sold as sex slaves or (as in the case of the town’s old women who could not be sold) massacred. In a profoundly moving sequence, picking his way up a demolished street, on the lookout for explosives amid the rubble, Holland speaks to camera. What he said needs thinking about:
‘There are things in the past that are like unexploded bombs that just lie in wait in the rubble, and then something happens to trigger them. And there are clearly verses in the Koran and stories that are told about Mohammed that are very like mines waiting to go off – Improvised Explosive Devices. And they can lie there maybe for centuries and then something happens to trigger them and you get this.’
The documentary will doubtless have many detractors from the many people – non-Muslim as well as Muslim – who want to cover over those IEDs. Holland’s documentary profoundly and carefully reveals why this is such a terrible mistake, and why from London and Paris to Istanbul and Mosul, the effects of failing to be honest in our assessment of the past has such serious repercussions for our present and future.
Finally it is worth saying that Channel 4 deserve a huge amount of credit for having the commitment to public broadcasting demonstrated by their commissioning and airing of such a documentary. Meanwhile, I see that the BBC has commissioned Nadiya Hussain, from the Great British Bake Off, to present a documentary about the wonders of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (where of course non-Muslims are forbidden to go). I wonder whether during that documentary Nadiya will make any acknowledgement of the IEDs of her faith? Or whether the BBC will continue to ignore the vast leaps forward in public knowledge demonstrated, and led, by Channel 4 and a few brave individuals like Tom Holland.
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