Prophet and loss

Western liberal democratic societies are increasingly confronting the frightening implications of the violence-prone Muslim populations to which they are playing hosts. And it is not clear that they possess the internal fortitude necessary to protect the fundamental principles of freedom of speech upon which they are founded.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Britain, where the television broadcaster Channel 4 has been so intimidated by a public hate campaign orchestrated by Muslims on Twitter and other media that it cancelled a second airing of the documentary, “Islam: The Untold Story”, which was researched and presented by the eminent historian, Tom Holland, and which concerns the increasingly controversial revisionist scholarship surrounding the origins of Islam.

Holland was written a series of well-received histories of the ancient world, including Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003), Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2005), and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (2008). This year he published a massive volume, In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, upon which the new documentary is based.

In The Shadow Of The Sword is a brilliant work of popular history that draws upon the same body of revisionist scholarship about the historicity of Muhammad and the accuracy of the received accounts of the early years of Islam that I surveyed in my July-August Quadrant article, “The Revisionist Case That Muhammad Did Not Exist”. That article focused on another new book on the topic, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (2012) by Robert Spencer. As these publications show, and as Holland’s work has now made very public, there is a very powerful case that the traditional accounts concerning Muhammad and the origins of Islam will have to be completely re-assessed.

“Islam: The Untold Story” includes a contribution from Professor Patricia Crone, a prominent member of this revisionist group of experts who have been carefully exploring the historical origins of Islam for about four decades. It is to her credit that she has been prepared to appear in this fashion because, as I describe in my article, a number of the other revisionist scholars have been so intimidated by the threat of Muslim violence that they have for years carefully kept low public profiles and at least two of them publish and appear under false names. Others have suffered physical harm. All of them are aware of the fates that befell Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others who have been victimized by Muslim authorities and fanatics, often with the connivance of supine Western governments and institutions.

It was allegedly fear of such violence that led to the cancellation of the documentary. Holland received threats after the program was first shown, being warned that “You might be a target in the streets. You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety,” according to reports in The Independent. Consequently, as a Channel 4 spokesperson said: “Having taken security advice, we have reluctantly canceled a planned screening of the program ‘Islam: The Untold Story’.”

Three things can already said with certainty about this affair, even at this early stage. Firstly, the revisionist scholarship will not go away and the historical understanding of the origins of Islam will be re-shaped. Secondly, Muslims around the world will be increasingly outraged as this process of re-assessment proceeds and they will turn to violence, to the great discredit of themselves and their religion. Thirdly, Western institutions will be challenged, yet again, to stand firm for the principles upon which our liberal democratic societies are founded.

Less certain will be the response of these institutions. Will they once again fail the test, as it appears at the moment to be the case, or will they finally realize that we are involved in an increasingly rancorous ‘clash of civilizations’, that this cannot be wished away, and that it demands a resolute response if our civilization is to survive.

Dr Merv Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication. He wrote on “How Civilisations Die” in the April issue of Quadrant

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