Fear and loathing: Another unholy row about Islam

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As fury at an obscure anti-Muslim US film spreads around the world, an equally explosive controversy is in progress in the UK about academic freedom and Islamic history

One is a piece of pop scholarship that attempted to offer a historical perspective on the early foundations of Islam. The other is a volatile hatchet job deliberately designed to insult and inflame opinion. But in the past 48 hours Channel 4's historical documentary Islam: The Untold Truth and the as-yet-untitled American-made history of Mohamed have combined to thrust Islam back on to the front pages with reports of protests and threats of violence.

The two films could hardly be more different. Tom Holland's documentary, first broadcast last month, took a revisionist approach towards the birth of Islam and questioned whether there was enough contemporaneous evidence for it to be possible to say for sure what exactly happened in Arabia during the eighth century.

The storm of criticism it provoked was largely academic, centring on allegations that Holland had presented a somewhat discredited school of thought as fact with few on-air caveats. But on Tuesday things appeared to turn nasty when Channel 4 said it had to cancel a private screening of the film after receiving "specific and credible" threats.

That evening, protests broke out in Egypt and Libya against a little-known, highly Islamophobic portrayal of the Prophet Mohamed that is believed to have been created by a US-based Israeli filmmaker. The film was released in July but only received attention in the Arab world when excerpts of it, complete with Arabic subtitles, began to surface last week. By the end of the evening, the US embassy in Cairo had been attacked while in Benghazi the American ambassador and three other staffers lay dead.

The more excitable commentators began comparing the reaction to the two films and raising the spectre of global protests created by the Danish cartoons or the death threats following Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. But while the biography of Mohamed – a crude attack that portrays Islam's founder as a fraudulent child molester – clearly has the potential to wreak havoc, the reaction to Channel 4's documentary has been considerably more nuanced.

"It's not anger," says Mohammed Ansar, a Muslim commentator who has been a prominent online critic of Holland's documentary. "Anger is what we're seeing in the Middle East. What we've seen in the UK has been much more measured."

Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, agrees. "I have no time for those who say Channel 4 shouldn't broadcast such a programme," he says. "Every broadcaster and historian has the right to examine the historical origins of any faith. But our objections were more about the quality of the documentary itself and the arguments Tom made."

The criticisms of Channel 4's documentary have considerable merit. Both Muslim and non-Muslim academics have poured scorn on some of the major conclusions that the 74-minute documentary tried to make – namely that there is not enough evidence to suggest that Mecca is the birthplace of Islam and that the early Arab invaders who conquered the Middle East following the death of Mohamed would not have described themselves as Muslims.

"Holland's work is based primarily on a lot of research that was published in the 1970s," Professor Hugh Kennedy, an expert on Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, says. "It's interesting and challenging but in the end unconvincing."

More recent scholarship, he argues, has tended to vindicate the narrative laid down by Muslim tradition. "Just because you cannot definitely prove that something happened doesn't mean it didn't occur," he says. "At the same time the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain were taking place. We don't have a huge amount of contemporaneous evidence but no one doubts it happened."

For Dr Carool Kersten, an Arabist at Kings College London, the documentary was "an oversimplified hypothesis which of course touches raw nerves" because of the intense Islamophobia often suffered by Britain Muslims. "It is a complicated story, of course, and if you don't explain it well then you can expect accusations from within the Muslim community," he said.

But he added that Channel 4's decision to cancel the screening would only fuel tensions. "It's a pity they caved in and pulled the documentary due to scaremongering from a small group of idiots," he said. "This, in a way, tars the whole community with the same brush – it almost sanctions the 'see what they're like!' response."

Channel 4, however, has defended its decision to cancel the screening, which was meant for a small gathering of academics and journalists at its Westminster headquarters. A spokeswoman would not be drawn on the nature of the threat against them but she insisted it was credible enough to warrant their decision. "Cancelling the screening was certainly not something we wanted to do but it was a decision we had to make after taking security advice," she said.

Without further details of what kind of threat Channel 4 received it is difficult to know whether the broadcaster has caved in needlessly or is making a sensible decision given the circumstances. So far the documentary has seen none of the angry protests from more extremist factions that Britain experienced during the Danish cartoon scandal and recent Remembrance Sundays. But the memory of Rushdie's decades in hiding inevitably plays heavily on the minds of any commissioning editor, be they a broadcaster or a publisher. Even though The Satanic Verses is nearly 25-years old it still casts a shadow of Rushdie's life. Earlier this year he had to pull out of one of Asia's largest literary festivals in the Indian town of Jaipur when extremist groups threatened violence against the organisers.

Whatever its academic shortcomings, Channel 4's documentary has shone a spotlight on how sensitive the subject of Islam's early foundations can be. Given that Muslims believe that the Koran is the unchangeable word of God revealed directly to Mohamed, any academic study that casts aspersions on the facts laid out in the Muslim holy book will inevitably be controversial – and potentially blasphemous.

Fiyaz Mughal, who promotes inter-communal dialogue through his group Faith Matters, says this historical sensitivity has been exacerbated by the particularly acute stigmatisation Muslims have received over the last decade.

"You do often seem to get a backlash when Western academics approach this subject, because there is a lot of wariness within the Muslim community about how the information will be used," says Mughal, who recently set up a telephone hotline – based on a similar Jewish initiative that has been running for decades – encouraging Muslims to report incidents of Islamophobia. "They feel under a spotlight and they think why are you looking into us, what are you going to do with that information, will it be used in a negative manner?"

Tehmina Kazi, from British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is critical of Islam: The Untold Story but says many Muslim groups are too quick to move into an overtly hostile position whenever anything controversial airs about their faith.

"I remember a few years back there was a BBC documentary exposing some of the things that were happening inside madrassas (Islamic schools) and one group was putting out press releases calling on viewers to complain before it had even been broadcast," she says. "The default response was complain, complain, complain."

She believes Islamic faith groups need to get better at responding with reasoned debate – something she felt many have done successfully over the Channel 4 documentary. "Respond, don't react," she says. "It sounds simple but that is what we keep telling people and it's something Muslims organisations are not very good at. They'll often react to something, get angry or outraged. But what we need to be doing is to respond with reasoned, rational arguments."

Additional reporting by Hajar Wright

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