Tom Holland, Charlie Hebdo, and the history of Islam

On the way back from a conference in Glasgow, I picked up a copy of The New Statesman to read on the plane. The cover story concerned Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire.” THAT caught my eye, so when I got back to the States I ordered it from our local library. It was massive, erudite, and worth every minute that I devoted to it. As I reflected on what I had learned, I thought to myself, “damn, I’m glad I don’t have to teach this stuff!” The problem that Holland addresses in his essay is very real. In the Western Civ classroom, I discuss how we can use sacred texts also as historical documents and how faith and history require different sets of evidence. I respect people’s feelings and I neither belittle nor propagandize in matters political or religious. I encourage respect for heterodox opinion. (Since my beliefs – disciplinary, religious, political – or themselves rather heterodox, this is self-serving, I suppose.) Even so, I constantly walk on egg shells and realize that one “offended” student could make my life a living hell.

Well, guess its time for me to offer my private opinion publicly that we should accord Islam the same respect that we show other faiths. As historians, that means doing as Holland and others have done is researching historical questions. As a teacher, this means extending historians’ tools the sensitive subject of the history of Islam. The tag line on my e-mails is a quotation from Kant, “Have the courage to use your Reason.” Time to live it.

I reproduce Holland’s essay below, as I am not sure how long the Wall Street Journal archives their essays.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The collapse of Roman power in the Near East was the flip side of another story: the rise of Islam. The Arab armies who seized from the Romans the provinces of Palestine, Syria and Egypt were Muslim, according to traditional historiography, and had been inspired to their remarkable feats of conquest by the revelations of a prophet, Muhammad. It took me only a cursory immersion in the scholarship of the period to realize that these presumptions were (to put it mildly) widely contested. Indeed, it was hard to think of another field of history where quite so much was up for grabs. Questions fundamental to Islam’s traditional understanding of itself turned out to defy consensus. Might the Arab conquerors not actually have been Muslim at all? Did the Quran, the supposed corpus of Muhammad’s revelations, in fact derive from a whole multiplicity of pre-existing sources? Was it possible that Muhammad himself, rather than coming from Mecca, had lived far to the north, in the deserts beyond Roman Palestine? The answer to all these questions, I gradually came to conclude, was yes. For the first time, I found that writing a book about ancient history was giving me sleepless nights. That, though, was nothing compared with the nervousness I felt after receiving a second commission: to make a film about the origins of Islam. It came from Channel 4, a TV station that had been set up in the U.K. back in the 1980s with a publicly funded remit to serve as the BBC’s naughty younger brother. Ever since, no Christmas or Easter has been complete in Britain without a documentary in its schedule questioning the historicity of the Bible. Never before, though, had it—or, indeed, any other British TV channel—aired a documentary questioning the basis of what most Muslims believed about the origins of their faith. I still remember a feeling of almost physical panic as I stood on the battlements of an abandoned Roman city in the Negev Desert and raised the possibility, on camera, that Muhammad might not have come from Mecca. The director, the brilliant and award-winning filmmaker Kevin Sim, had aimed to make me and my anxieties about what I was doing a part of the film, and he more than succeeded. There is barely a shot in the documentary in which I do not look mildly terrified. Nevertheless, by the time the program finally aired in late August 2012, I had come to feel more sanguine about its prospects. My book had come out four months before, and I had not felt threatened in any way. Reviews had been mixed, which was no surprise considering how controversial the subject matter was: Some were adulatory, some vituperative. Muslim critics, without exception, had hated it. None, though, to my relief, had disputed my right to subject the origins of Islam to historical inquiry and to publish my conclusions. For that reason, as I looked ahead to the airing of the documentary, I felt tolerably confident that no one would get too upset. It didn’t take long for me to realize my mistake. Just a few minutes into the broadcast, my Twitter stream was going up in smoke. By the time the show ended, the death threats were coming in thick and fast—and not just against me but against my family as well. Channel 4 was also deluged with protests. A private screening scheduled for assorted movers and shakers had to be canceled after the police warned that they couldn’t guarantee the security of those attending the event. Because many of the invitees had been journalists, this naturally gave the controversy a new lease of life. Two weeks later, I was still fielding death threats from Muslims convinced that the only plausible explanation for my having made the film was that I was in the pay of Mossad or the CIA or both. The most chilling moment of all came when Press TV, a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, aired a documentary leveling pretty much that accusation. It was the one time that I seriously imagined I might end up as the new Salman Rushdie. Gradually, though, the protests faded away, as storm clouds of outrage tend to do. My wife and children put away the emergency call devices given to them by the police, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Over the succeeding months, I was invited to address various public meetings hosted by Muslim organizations, and the attendees, though rarely enthusiastic about my arguments, gave me a perfectly amicable hearing. At a conference organized by Oxford University to discuss my book and film, I was asked what lessons I had learned. The chief one, I answered, was that the freedom to write history without intimidation was no longer something that I took for granted. But I also had learned that it was possible, when my work came under attack, to defend it without yielding to threats. I have not changed my mind. My experience did not remotely approach the horror of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, but just as its staff were willing to die in defense of what they saw as the legacy of Diderot, so should historians be conscious of what is at stake in defense of the legacy of Gibbon. Compared with satirists and polemicists, we stand a good way back from the front line, but none of us should be in any doubt that we are in the same fight.

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About George Vascik, Historian

A 1988 graduate of the University of Michigan, I have taught history at Miami University since 1992. I maintain blogs on teaching Western Civilization and on Great War. My research focuses on anti-Semitism and rural politics in northwest Germany. I am completing a monograph for Bloomsbury Press, Anti-Semitism and Rural Politics. You can follow my project at http://peasantsandjews.org. Along with Mark Sadler, I have published a book of primary documents on the Stab-in-the-Back Myth (Dolchstoßlegende). http://www.dolchstosslegende.com. I also invite you to visit my profession web page at http://georgevascik.org.
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