Somebody at Channel 4 has been making an effort. A few weeks ago a documentary called “Dispatches: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim” criticised the rising tide of Islamophobia in the British tabloid media and the corresponding rise in physical attacks on Muslims. The presenter brought up a series of stories which I half remembered hearing before, and half remembered feeling vaguely embarrassed about. Like how the NatWest bank got rid of its piggy bank posters to avoid offending over-sensitive Muslims. Like how British hospitals have to rearrange their wards so the beds all face Mecca. Like how a Muslim hate mob vandalised a house in which British soldiers returned from Afghanistan were to be billeted. All of these stories were completely false. The Sun was not charged with incitement to hatred.
The documentary didn’t take on Islamophobia in the so-called ‘quality press’, legal system or government, and beyond references to the July 7th bombs in London it did not give a wider political context for the surge in Muslim hatred. It did, however, point to how serious the problem is becoming. According to opinion polls, which are slippery by nature, 51% of British people believe Islam in general is to blame for the 7/7 attacks. 26% think the presence of any Muslims in the country is a security threat.
A couple of days later there was a great British screen moment. The screen read: After The Qur’an, Big Brother – which blasphemously reminded me of the Islamic “After your mother, your father.” But “The Qur’an” meant a two hour documentary on various ways of reading the text in various social contexts.
Despite the inevitable simplifications (Iranian women are “uniformly dressed in chadors”) the documentary did an admirable job of showing the range and flexibility of Qur’anic interpretation. Space was given to mullahs and Sufis, liberals and conservatives, the hijabbed and the non-hijabbed, to stake their very different claims on Qur’anic meaning. One interviewee said, “The Qur’an is like a supermarket; you can take what you want.” Although the Tesco’s imagery grates, this is of course correct; like the Bible, the Upanishads and Shakespeare, the Qur’an is vast enough to provide succour to almost any world view.
As a corrective to the unreconstructed ‘essentialist’ orientalist discourses we still hear so much from, the documentary shone a healthy light on the changing nature of Muslim societies. The society chosen for exemplification is Egypt, where almost no urban women wore the hijab thirty years ago but where almost all now do. The reason for the change was, I think, correctly diagnosed as “military defeat and economic failure” leading to a new search for identity.
“The Qur’an” spent a great deal of time examining (or at least quoting) verses which seem to encourage, on the one hand, fighting, and on the other, peaceful co-existence, and decided that the text promotes “tolerance and intolerance in equal measure.”
This made me think of the sometimes contradictory names of God: the Merciful and the Tyrant as well as the First and the Last. It made me think of all the strange binaries in the Qur’an. The words for ‘life’ and ‘death’ are each mentioned 145 times. ‘Spending’ and ‘satisfaction’ occur 73 times each. ‘This life’ and ‘the life after’ 115 times each. ‘The misled’ and ‘the dead’ 17 times each. And so on.
The Qur’an aims for totality, to broaden our horizons. It offers us a language to speak, a vocabulary - for instance - for both war and peace. And it describes itself as a ‘furqan’, a test.
The documentary reached a fine and logical conclusion: that in the Qur’an, “one consistent message comes through: think and think.”
But then it made much too big a deal about the Qur’an being originally written without tanqeet (punctuation distinguishing letters) or harekat (vowel markings), as if this was new information. One German professor’s interpretation of the Qur’an with the help of an Aramaic dictionary was interesting but vastly overblown. The dark-eyed maidens awaiting the faithful in paradise are translated by the professor as ‘bunches of grapes’. The documentary played this as if it would shake the foundations of Islam, but the general idea has always been uncontroversial. A clear majority of Muslims have always known that the descriptions of heaven and hell are symbolic images of the ineffable. The Qur’an (2:26) itself stresses this. At this point in the programme it seemed a bit like the writer had run out of things to say. He could have taken two more minutes on Palestine.
On that subject, the documentary stated: “In the last eight years, over 700 Israelis and over 2000 Palestinians have been killed.” While the real numbers are 1057 Israelis and 4862 Palestinians. http://www.ifamericansknew.org/stats/deaths.html#source The documentary also failed to mention the first and basic fact of the conflict: that most of Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and the remnant occupied and settled from 1967.
This lack of explanation makes the conflict seem like an ideological struggle between two equal parties, both with equal mythic allegiances to the land. This is misleading for two reasons. First, Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower while the Palestinians are stateless and very nearly defenceless. Second, although both sides do have strong mythical-religious claims on the land, and although both speak this resonant language when they are suffering or when they seek to mobilise their friends and allies, the conflict is no more about religion than the Northern Irish conflict was about Catholic-Protestant theology. It’s about territory and power and oppression.
If documentaries fail to give this context, who will? Certainly not the evening news.
While celebrating the 60th anniversary of apartheid Israel the Guardian stated that 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. I emailed to complain, and had to wait for more than a week until I received a reply saying that I wasn’t the only one to have questioned the figure, and that the Guardian was researching it. It took another few days for the hardworking research staff to learn that, since the work of Israeli new historians like Ilan Pappe in the 80s and 90s it has been accepted as historical fact that somewhere between 700 and 800 thousand Palestinian refugees were created in 1948. I wonder why it took so long to uncover this uncontroversial fact? I wonder which ‘research sources’ the Guardian relies on? I wonder how long it would have taken the Guardian to apologise if its front page had underestimated the number of Holocaust victims by two thirds? (No, I’m not suggesting that the two tragedies are analogous, but there is a link, made by the Guardian piece itself when it cast Zionism as the solution to the Holocaust).
No-one is more to blame for poor representations of Muslims and Arabs than Muslims and Arabs themselves. This is part of the general sickness. When I was researching Arab novels in English translation I discovered that none of the Arab culture ministries do anything organised to promote Arab writing and art abroad. Israel had a receptive Western audience for its 60th anniversary celebrations, but it was the efforts of its ministries, ambassadors and friends that allowed it to paint itself as a success story. Meanwhile in Egypt, this year’s Nakba commemorations were banned. (How many people in the West understand the word ‘nakba’? And whose fault is that?) I can understand the clients wanting to keep as quiet as possible, but not a country like Syria. Syria has a just foreign policy and a laudable history of ethnic, sectarian and religious co-existence. It is one of the world’s most generous providers of refuge – to Armenians, Palestinians and Iraqis. Despite being a nation of born storytellers, it has totally failed to tell this story internationally.