FIRST, a story that wasn't. The likely end of the women-bishops
crisis doesn't seem to have been reported anywhere in the
mainstream press. I'm not sure whether this is because only rows
are news, or whether "Church of England being sensible and
thoughtful" is not news, even if it does seem out of character.
Then, a story that was everywhere: the Innocence of
Muslims video and its consequences. It's difficult to see this
as anything but a deliberate and fairly successful attempt to stir
up trouble in the Middle East.
The man behind it, reportedly a Coptic Christian with
convictions for fraud and arrests for running a meth lab in
California, first represented himself to The Wall Street
Journal as an "Israeli Jew" whose film had been backed by 100
The film itself had been made by deception: the actors (who seem
to have been ignorant and incurious to a degree unremarkable in
California) supposed either that they were making a film about the
oppression of Christians in the modern Middle East, or one about a
religious figure known in the script as "George". It appears that
the dialogue was redubbed in post-production to make it clear that
"George" was in fact Muhammad.
A crude trailer uploaded to YouTube, which is all that the world
has seen, would probably have languished in utter obscurity like
almost everything else there. But someone helpfully took a copy in
Cairo and dubbed it into Arabic. From then on, the story ran in
predestinate grooves, like a tram.
It appears that the attack on the United States' consulate in
Benghazi was, in fact, nothing to do with the video; but that made
little difference to the US media, who were delighted to find more
proofs that Muslims hate them, and hate freedom of expression. The
Newsweek cover showing very angry Arabs, along with an
essay on "Muslim Rage" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was the logical
culmination. Hatred satisfactorily stirred all round.
One point, of course, is that there is a real basis for the fear
and anger on both sides. Christians are horribly persecuted in much
of the Middle East, simply for being Christians. Muslims remain
unaccountably ungrateful for the liberation of Iraq, and even the
occupation of Palestine. Muhammad did marry a nine-year-old
But then, half-truths are much more effective at upsetting and
disturbing people than pure lies; possibly even more effective than
whole truths, though those are so seldom told that the sample is
too small to judge.
THE most articulate and forceful defence of First Amendment
absolutism was put by Nick Cohen, in The Observer: the
film was "an amateur and adolescent piece of religious propaganda
that depicts Muhammad as a violent and lascivious fool. Copts
probably made it. As there is no great difference between Christian
and Islamist extremists, why not intervene in this clash of
fundamentalisms and stop one sect inciting another sect to
But he never actually answered this question. On Tom Holland,
who made the Channel 4 film Islam: The untold story,
broadcast on 28 August, he was absolutely right and very quotable.
His film "was everything that the Muhammad trailer was not. Tom
Holland presented a thoughtful and balanced film on the arguments
among historians about whether the armies that exploded out of
Arabia to conquer the Persian empire and much of the Byzantine
empire were Muslim, or whether Islam came later.
"His documentary was public-service television at its most
scrupulous. I speak from experience when I say that he has no
hatred of religion. The last time I met him was at a debate where
he argued for and I argued against a motion that religion was a
force for good in the world.
"Nevertheless, Holland and Channel 4 had the integrity to break
a taboo that more frightened broadcasters are too cowardly to
challenge," Cohen continues. "They aired doubts about Islam's
founding myths, and the predictable fulminations followed. . .
Denunciations are all over the web, and could be picked up in Iran
or Egypt, or, indeed, Bradford or Birmingham and used as an excuse
to attack British interests."
Surely it matters that there were, in fact, few if any such
protests in Bradford or Birmingham? In any case, the fact that many
things should not be censored by no means proves that nothing
should ever be.
In the end, Cohen retreated into his only unassailable position:
fine rhetoric and wishful thinking: "Reactionaries are not hard to
beat in open debate. If you can't beat them without calling for the
cops or reaching for a gun, you should get out of the debating
business and make way for someone who can."