Historian Tom Holland is walking away from it all, albeit temporarily. Aware that his new documentary ‘ISIS; Origins of Violence’ would divide opinion, he booked a walking holiday in the English countryside. “I thought, I’ll take the blowback and then get away from it all, but you tracked me down, as of course did the news from Manchester”.
He sounds tired, not just from the day’s hiking, but with the knowledge of the Manchester terror attack. “You carry it with you. The idea that young girls can be targeted because they are young girls at a concert, I find it more upsetting than perhaps any other attack in Europe”.
Holland knows the violent Islamist rationale behind such barbarity – that any non-believer from the ‘Crusader’ countries is a fair target – because he has been studying the ideology of Islamist terror groups for years.
When ‘Origins of Violence’ was broadcast there was instant praise, and criticism. The film was described as brave by its supporters, but elsewhere as pro ISIS propaganda on the grounds that it sought to explain that the ISIS world view is rooted in its interpretations of the Koran.
Nevertheless, the reaction was less violent than to his previous documentary ‘Origins of Islam’ broadcast five years ago. “Then, the reaction was really horrible – multiple death threats. Within an hour, the Met were onto me asking about security so I was slightly nervous, but this time there have been a few responses but not like before. Why? I think ‘Origins’ was a shock to many people because I challenged the origins of the Koran and that very possibly came as news to a lot of people. A lot of Muslims thought I was either an idiot or in the pay of Mossad, or both. But this time with ‘ISIS: Origins of Violence’ it was saying something which lots of people are aware of.”
So, does he think these origins need a ‘Reformation’? “I think that formulation is terrible. It hovers behind the protestant reformation. It assumes that religions follow the same paths, but that’s ridiculous, Islam has a very different cultural DNA to Christianity. By and large we view things through the Christian prism, and Christianity does not provide a template on which to judge other belief systems.”
Perhaps ‘reform’ is a better word? “Well, by reform what people mean is making it compatible with western liberal democracy – they mean a westernized Islam. But I make the point in the film that Islam has been radically westernized in the past two hundred years. Abolition of slavery, and the ending of the ‘Jizyah’, (tax on non-Muslims) came about partially because of contact with the West.”
A study of the texts used by the jihadist groups, and a glance at the ISIS flag, tells us that they cast themselves as the real reformers of Islam, those who want to cleanse Islam of this Western influence. So, who does the historian think is winning the argument?
‘Globally? I don’t know. In Egypt, we spoke with a journalist who is a Muslim who said the clash was between Muslims who believe they are superior to non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t think that. He wasn’t sure who was winning that argument. In the UK I think the huge majority of Muslims are on the reforming side, but as we’ve seen this week in Manchester, not all.”
Next? “I’m writing a book on the way the modern West has been influenced by Christian assumptions. I’m fascinated that the word Judaism, as an idea, has been used by Christian writers since the early 2nd century, but Judaism itself didn’t begin to refer to it until the 19th century. It seems to be a Christian formulation used to construct Christianity partially by using Judaism as a mirror. The formulation ‘Judeo/Christian’ is similar. Jewish scripture is a fundamental part of Christianity, but then so is Greek philosophy.”
This may be safer ground. The halls of academia may resound to fierce debates about the construction of Christianity, but it’s doubtful the Metropolitan police will need to get involved. In the short term though, it’s back to covering the ground of the English countryside.