When more or less abstract ideas begin to be translated by believers in them into facts on the ground then it behoves those of us who are the objects of this activity to pay some attention to the ideas in question. Channel 4’s film ISIS: The Origins of Violence by the (very) English historian Tom Holland looks both at some extremely grim facts already created by Islamic State and at the abstractions which have prompted them.
Early in the documentary Holland makes a statement and asks a question and these two things define the purpose of the exercise. The statement is that within the corpus of ancient Islamic texts, the Quran and the stories about its founder, are unexploded bombs waiting to be detonated. The question is why are they being detonated at this precise point in time?
There are two popular narratives about this. One supposes that Islam is an inherently violent body of thought and that every few generations a charismatic leadership emerges which follows the internal logic of the faith to its obvious conclusion and finds a sufficiency of followers to spread mayhem far and wide. Opposing this is the idea that jihadi violence has nothing to do with Islam as such but is an inchoate expression of rage against, on the one hand, Western colonial aggression in Muslim lands and, on the other hand, racism and Islamophobia experienced by Muslims living in Western lands.
Ton Holland can be interpreted as saying that neither of these hypotheses as they are normally understood is true. Neither in ancient texts nor in recent events can we find the deep causes of the current crisis. If, however, we consider the first sanguinary encounter between the Enlightenment West and the Muslim world, the conquest of Egypt at the end of the Eighteenth century by Napoleon as the origin point for jihadism then, in a sense, both narrative accounts become true.
The crucial argument here is that in occupying Egypt the French revolution not only attempted to hold land but also to colonise the minds of the people who lived on that land. Holland argues that the stories which Muslims tell themselves about themselves and, more particularly, about their prophetic founder changed in character as a result of this colonisation. Muhammad was reimagined as being himself a Napoleonic character with a will-to-power which gave a direction and purpose to his actions, particularly in Medina. This contrasts with an earlier understanding of him as a more otherworldly figure who is only reluctantly involved in the practical details of daily life.
Few of us know enough about pre-Nineteenth century Muslim biographies of their founder to be able to assess Holland’s thesis fairly. Proponents of the ‘Islam as inherently violent’ narrative would point to outbreaks of savagery against unbelievers long before the Egyptian conquest. Holland, I would guess, could contend that these were episodic and local whereas jihadi ideology is programmatic and international.
It might be asked why Muslim minds found this new way of telling their founders story so congenial instead of rejecting it as wholly alien to their tradition? As if in answer to this the film goes back to look at the regime of Terror in the French Revolution, from which Napoleon emerged as its master. Many of the features found by Holland in his trip to Iraq, beheadings, desecration of corpses, destruction of monuments could also be found in the France of the Jacobins (and he might have added, but didn’t, the genocidal fury against Yazidis by ISIS had a French parallel in the Vendée)
What does this demonstrate? Tom Holland suggests that enlightenment liberalism and Islam share a common vision, deriving from the Apocalypticism of the ancient Middle East, that there will be a final and total victory of truth and right accompanied by a final judgement upon the enemies of truth. That is, both liberalism and Islam have universalist aspirations and a conviction that they are on the right side of history. While Islamists are perfectly clear about this for liberalism it is an unexamined first assumption which may not bear too much scrutiny.
Is Holland as right about this as he is in some of his other campaigns to save hedgehogs and preserve Stonehenge? I think that as abstract ideas which may themselves be translated into facts on the ground they merit scrutiny and consideration. The forming of snap judgements never afterwards re-examined or revised is one of the problems which Holland encountered it would be too ironical to treat his ideas in the same fashion. Let us think about them before we praise or condemn them.
On my *other* blog I’ve written about Tom Holland’s earlier foray into Islam “In The Shadow of Medina”
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