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In the shadow of fear

In Britain, an author received death threats for the TV adaptation of his book on the origins of Islam. This raises a big question: how far can intimidation curtail free speech. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Sep 15, 2012 02:02 IST
Farrukh Dhondy
Farrukh Dhondy
Hindustan Times
Farrukh Dhondy,Channel 4,Britain

Channel 4, Britain, has cancelled the repeat showing of a controversial documentary that attracted 2,000 'complaints'. It was to show the documentary to an invited audience of academics, scholars and religious leaders, but announced that this event had to be cancelled on 'security advice'.

If you've guessed by now that the documentary in question had something to do with Islam, you're right. It's called Islam — the Untold Story and is a discursive and dramatic presentation of the theses and historical contentions of the writer Tom Holland.

You've by now probably guessed that 2,000 complaints to the Channel 4 and to the official TV regulator are not rare events in the day-to-day life of British television. The volume didn't trigger the panic and cancellation. Those were the consequence of death threats aimed at Holland the historian, whose work the documentary was. After the first screening it was evident that a tiny and not very articulate section of British opinion would treat his arguments, research and conclusions as asking for the Salman Rushdie or the Danish-cartoonist treatment.

I worked for Channel 4 in its formative era for 14 years and was willy-nilly included as an editorial executive in most debates and decisions about censorship. There were frequently matters of fact, taste, law and broadcasting regulation which demanded decisions about whether to transmit or not. I can recall cutting programmes or bits of programmes on several grounds such as libel, balance, obscenity, considerations of the exposure of a fact to further the public interest and several other constraints of broadcasting law or convention. There was never a programme censored or taken off the schedules because of death threats from anonymous and, one must conclude craven and cowardly, jackals.

There were threats and there was blackmail, but I can recall ignoring such, feeling at the time that their barks were more vicious than their bites.

That was before and during the affair of The Satanic Verses which was, for Europe, a defining moment. I was asked on a TV programme after the publication of the book whether I would consider putting The Satanic Verses on a Channel 4 screen as a drama. I said it would depend on the dramatic strength and allure of the scripts I was presented with.

Two of the other panellists on the programme, one of them the singer Cat Stevens who was now wearing pantomime London-Muslim attire with a beard and a white cap and the other fellow called Kalim Siddiqui, known in Britain as the Iranian bagman as he was a paid lobbyist for Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, stood up and shouted at the cameras calling for my execution. These barking dogs made clowns of themselves in the studio and I am told the altercation, which didn't reach the screen, has been transferred to and preserved on the internet though I haven't bothered to check.

Holland's programme is a TV exposition of his book In the Shadow of the Sword. It contains, together with the history of the beginnings of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism a scholarly history of the origins of Islam. The 7th century AD may be a well-documented period but from the quotes that Holland produces in the book it is clear that historians of the period were not very diligently factual, non-partisan or the mere recorders of events. Some form of belief or faith overshadows their records and any contemporary historian has the heavy task of interpretation on his or her hands.

Holland, among other things contends that the Koran was not written in the century of Mohammed's life. He also controversially contends that Islam did not emerge as a distinct religion, with the Koran as its book and the various layers and forms of Hadith as its guide, till at least two centuries later. Another contentious argument he presents is that Mohammed was not from Mecca at all but was born and grew up in the area which is now Israel or Palestine.

This last argument shouldn't matter to people of the faith. Where a prophet is born and brought up on God's earth is surely not central to the religion. This contention about the birthplace does however lead to several other conclusions about the origin of the religion and the significance or insignificance of Mecca.

The Muslim reaction to the documentary (the book came in for some, but death-threat-wallas are mostly not great readers) was universally negative. Some of it was polite and willing to argue and the rest can't really claim the description of discourse.

The programme and the reaction are now not part of the necessary debate on Islam and the place of belief in a civilised society. It has degenerated into the big question of free academic speech and how far intimidation should curtail it.

Tom Holland was in a sense asking for it. His contentions about Islam were entirely focussed on what was true or untrue about it in the 7th century. There was no balancing presentation of the sophisticated evolution of Islamic thought into the great Sufi interpretations of Rumi, Ghazali or a hundred others. Holland can rightly say that that's another book and a different documentary.

The commissioning editor at Channel 4 should have realised that he or she (Or is it a committee nowadays?) was asking for the reaction by narrowing the programme to Holland's very well-researched and readable thesis about the origins of monotheism and even then concentrating on Islam which is by no means the only focus of his book.

I have now read three of Holland's books. One of them was compulsive reading for me as it was the first detailed, accessible history of the Achaemenid (Zoroastrian?) empire that I have come across. I shall continue to read everything that Holland chooses to write about; but for now I have adopted the strategy of cutting out the cover of a popular book called Fifty Shades of Grey and inserting Holland's text inside it while I travel and read on the tube or bus.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Sep 14, 2012 22:14 IST