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Dec 2001 Journal

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Facing Mecca


During the Second World War all Britons abhorred Nazism, but a minority – dubbed Vansittartites after the head of the Foreign Service – abhorred all Germans. Islamophobia, a contemporary mindset deemed important enough for the BBC to devote half a dozen programmes to combating it, is roughly comparable to Vansittartism. In saying this I am not equating the Muslim world with the Third Reich – although some Islamic fundamentalists are indeed as hate-filled, anti-Western and fanatical as the Nazis.

The analogy with Nazi Germany does, however, hold good if one views the recent BBC2 series Islam, Empire of Faith as an attempt to fill in the historical background to the present troubled East-West relations. On screen, the medieval societies of Cordova, Baghdad and Isfahan were portrayed as multicultural havens of scholarship and the decorative arts – with due tribute paid to the Arabs as transmitters of Europe’s lost classical heritage. They also added to it greatly (though they were helped in this by the proximity of India and China). The baton of Muslim leadership eventually passed to the Turks, at which point the tone of the commentary changed: in contrast to the encomia on the Arabs’ mastery of the arts of peace, the commentators now lauded the Turks for creating a ‘perfect fighting machine’.

And then at a point where that perfect fighting machine failed to capture Vienna early in the sixteenth century, the series abruptly stopped. The last half- millennium, during which Islam regressed to its present state – exemplified by censorship, religious frenzy, harsh intolerance, martyrs’ cemeteries, public executions, schools for pre-teen suicide bombers and relegation of women – was simply glossed over. It was as if, in the 1930s, BBC radio had broadcast a history series on Germany featuring Bach, Kant and Goethe, praising Frederick the Great and omitting Bismarck, the Kaiser and Ludendorff.
Richard Grunberger

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