PeterK sends in this Ed West post about a Channel 4 documentary called, “Islam: The Untold Story,” and asks, “Why can’t we have programs like this here?” It really sounds like a fascinating show. From West’s piece:
Last night’s Islam: The Untold Story will have made uncomfortable viewing for some people. It certainly seemed to be for one of the featured experts, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian Islamic philosopher who had the look of a man whose faith is facing the rising tide of scepticism and godlessness. It is one Christians from the past century and a half, from the early days of higher criticism to the recent plummet in religious attendance, will recognise well.
In this atmospheric and intelligent documentary Tom Holland, whose recently published In The Shadow of the Sword took the burgeoning study of early Islam to a popular audience, looked at the early history of the religion and sought to explain what evidence we have for the traditional history, as viewed by the faithful.
“The evidence is almost nonexistent,” he says. “When you start looking, everything is up for grabs.”
Holland is clearly not trying to threaten anyone’s traditions, and is not anti-Islam or anti-religion, as anyone who has read the book will testify; he prays with the Bedouin and is awed by the beautiful Dome of the Rock. His previous book, Millennium, was a very sympathetic look at how Christianity forged European civilisation, and in particular how the Pope and emperor of the 10th century helped to make secularism possible one day.
Professor Nasr clearly respects his motives, Holland’s “honest effort”, and yet it is clear he feels culturally under attack from Western-dominated criticism. And it’s hard not to feel sympathy when he says that “once the world is reduced to a mechanical way then all the other versions of reality lose their status as being real. And are relegated to the realm of so-called superstition. And what is not seen is considered not to have existed.”
It is an understandable fear, and yet although many of us lament in some way the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Christianity’s fading strength, we accept that with knowledge comes doubt, and that we cannot cling to the comfort of certainty. If the Islamic world is to go forwards in a direction that makes life better for its inhabitants, and its neighbours, it needs to face these uncomfortable questions and embrace the pain of doubt.
As the radical Islamist (and chief Muslim Brotherhood ideologue) Sayyid Qutb well understood, the Western tradition — that is to say, Modernity — represents a direct assault on Islam. This is where Islamic fundamentalism comes from: it’s a reaction to modernity, and thus is itself a modern phenomenon.
Roger Scruton, in his post-9/11 book “The West and the Rest,” argued persuasively that we in the West would do well to try harder to understand the psychological environment that most Muslims, especially in the Middle East, live in. It is absolutely the case that their most cherished beliefs are under direct threat. This is not reason to keep them coddled, but we ought to understand the force of alarm pious Muslims feel when traditions and beliefs they have had since time out of mind are now suddenly called into question. You can’t expect people to accept that with ease. It has been observed before that the Al Qaeda revolutionaries are not pious rustics, but rather well educated Arab men, many of whom were educated in the West, or in a Western style, and who reacted to what they learned there, and to the Western mindset, by adopting religious fanaticism.
We in the West have had centuries to get used to this. They are having to deal with it rather suddenly. When I was at a conference in Dubai in 2006, a Lebanese journalist tried to help me understand what it’s like culturally and psychologically for the Arab world to deal with the media revolution. He said something along the lines of, “In the West, you have had television for 50 years. Most of us just got it. We are having to live through 50 years of cultural development almost overnight — and we started at a much more conservative and rigid place from where Americans did. It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this is.”