Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Isis: The Origins of Violence – a brave documentary that will start many a fight. By Mark Lawson

One of the peculiarities of this week’s Bafta TV awards was the BBC receiving more prizes than Channel 4 by a ratio of 19 to 1. This may have been because of voters punishing the network for poaching The Great British Bake Off. But the results were unrepresentative of the state of television, because there is a sort of programme that only Channel 4, among British broadcasters, would and could make – and Isis: The Origins of Violence is a stark example.

Presenting foreign documentaries is often thought of as a glamorous profession – free air travel and hotel accommodation in hot places in exchange for a few pensive walking-talking shots – but this invitation to historian Tom Holland promised an explosion on his Twitter feed, and possibly one under his feet. While visiting sites of Isis atrocities that have not yet been made safe, he was required to address the philosophical question of whether Islamic doctrine contains a strain of thought that can be used to justify extreme violence and even genocide.

Although Holland rightly emphasised that the “vast majority of Muslims” find the deeds and reasoning of Isis abhorrent – and acknowledged that the west has its own history of bloodily targeting foreign lands in the name of God – this remained a courageous film exploring questions left unspoken in large parts of the media through a combination of liberalism and fear. Many articles have explained the origins of jihad and the Islamic State dream of a global caliphate, as Holland does, but he heads from there into rare depths.

As an essay of ideas, the film most resembles the work of Adam Curtis, although, rather than delivering his monologue of quizzical authority out of shot as Curtis does, Holland is constantly on screen, looking brooding on the tube or metro, or walking through ruins. There is one direct overlap between Isis: The Origins of Violence and Curtis’s trilogy The Power of Nightmares (2004)Both deal with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian official executed in 1966 for attempting to assassinate President Nasser. Qutb’s rhetoric calling for a fundamentalist enforcement of Islamic laws as a bulwark against western decadence inspired first al-Qaida and then Isis, which – in the closest this topic has to a joke – was formed by terrorists expelled from al-Qaida for having views thought too brutal… read more:

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