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Living in terror

26 May 2017


"Powerful": Alice Morrison outside Sankore Mosque in Morocco to Timbuktu on BBC Two

"Powerful": Alice Morrison outside Sankore Mosque in Morocco to Timbuktu on BBC Two

CHRISTIANS-as-victims is not a topic frequently encountered on TV; but in one telling scene in Isis: The origins of violence (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week), one of the last monks left in St Matthew’s fourth-century monastery in Iraq shows us the tiny hidden chapel cut into the rock: the ultimate refuge for the time when they will be finally overrun.

This film was the historian Tom Holland’s personal view: very per­sonal indeed, and costly — not just in the execration and threats likely to pile up against him in retribution, but physically: the scenes he visited of devastation and outrage visibly sickened him.

He took a long historical view, beginning with the decapitation of St Denis, the third-century Chris­tian martyr. The association be­­tween religion and extreme violence is as old as humanity; but, as he pointed out, here the martyr is the victim of the violence, and not, as IS would have it, the perpetrator.

Some members of the Bataclan murderers’ cell were apprehended just down the road from the great basilica built on the site of St Denis’s death. For Holland, this is far more than a coincidence: the Terror of the French Revolution provides the blueprint for every subsequent ex­­trem­­ist ideology’s recourse to viol­ence as the only way to purge the evils of corruption.

He traces a direct line from radical Islam’s struggle with Western Enlightenment as revenge for the humiliation visited on the religion by Napoleon’s con­quest of Egypt, and his army of savants, who eagerly revealed the ancient, pre-Islamic wonders of that great nation.

I found this thesis more illu­minating than the avowed aim of the film: to explore whether the brutalities of IS are a legitimate extra­­polation of themes that lie at the heart of Islam. Here, not enough varied expert opinion was sought to bring clarity.

St Denis’s church was, of course, in the 12th century, at the heart of Abbot Suger’s earlier en­lighten­ment: an explosion of scholarship and art that brought into Chris­tianity learn­ing from the widest of sources: a moment of illumination that vir­tually created Gothic Europe.

A Muslim parallel was the goal reached in the second episode of Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian adventure (BBC2, Thursday of last week). The Arabist Alice Morrison’s documentary occasionally lapsed into the banality of its genre, but its core was powerfully realised.

She was tracing the great trade routes of the western Sahara, ex­­plaining the life-or-death danger that attached to the merchants’ cara­vans that brought salt, gold, and slaves from Africa to the Medi­terranean. Not only did this traffic create great wealth, but it also pro­vided a route for the dissemination of learning, gathered, above all, in the fabulous libraries of Timbuktu.

Here, too, Islamic extremists have in our day sought to destroy; but in contrast to the popular image of their profession, the librarians have proved to be as heroic as any mar­tyr, risking their lives to save the manuscripts. These heroes are, of course, Muslims.

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