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  Episode One
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  About the Show

About the Show

Who’s Afraid of Islam was commissioned by RTÉ’s Multicultural Department long before the row over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad hit the headlines. But it helped underline the need for a series like this. From the very outset, we wanted to explain where Islam has come from, and where it’s going, without taking sides in the bitter conflict that surrounds the world’s fastest growing religion.  But we knew that would require an exhaustive amount of research and travel.

The journey began at the end of 2004 when we first assembled our team: producer Adrian Lynch of Animo productions, director Ruan Megan and me, presenter Mark Little

In my role as an RTÉ reporter, I had travelled through many of the Muslim countries that define the debate about modern Islam, including Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. But I still felt that I had far more to learn about the broad sweep of Islam that lies behind the headlines.

Long before RTÉ gave this project a green light, I had chance meeting outside a Dublin shopping centre with an Iraqi-born Muslim who offered me an English translation of the Qur’an. In its pages were blindingly obvious facts that remain hidden to most of us. For example, there were numerous references to Jesus and Moses and other central figures from Christianity (Mary even has her own chapter). To Muslims at least, the Qur’an is the completion of the Christian message, not a replacement.  However, that first reading of the Qur’an would lead to as much confusion as clarity. Who’s Afraid of Islam would eventually bring me to a wide range of sources which helped shine some light on the conflict of interpretations in modern Islam.

The first discovery was that – unlike the original Arabic text - no two English translations of the Qur’an are the same, and often deliver conflicting nuances and detail in key verses. We decided to consult two of the most popular English translations: the work of respected scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali and the Oxford World’s Classics translation by M.A.S Abdel Haleem. The commentary in the Oxford World’s Classic was more up-to-date, as was as the actual language used in the text. This translation would become the source of the quotations used in series. For an exact definition of Qur’anic terms, I also found that the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, edited by John Esposito, was also hugely helpful.

In my search for sources about Islam, past and present, I received generous help from Jonathan Kearney, lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Languages at UCD. He provided me with a comprehensive reading list on all aspects of Islam, past and present. Among the most valuable suggestions on that list were Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven and the more detailed An Introduction to Islam by Daniel Brown.

The starting point on our travels was the early years in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. For guidance on that part of our journey, I relied on Barnaby Rogerson’s biography, The Prophet Muhammad, and the more scholarly book by Martin Lings called Muhammad.  For the broad sweep of Islamic history, Karen Armstrong’s book, Islam, was useful, although I found it quite dense and cluttered in places. In contrast, you get the most evocative and vivid history of the rise of Islam from Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arabs (another Jonathan Kearney recommendation).

Beyond that reading list, on the crucial issue of Jihad, I found a whole host of competing sources. American academic David Cook takes a valuable but troubling look at the concept of violence in the name of Islam in Understanding Jihad. John Esposito’s Unholy War – Terror in the Name of Islam, and his other book on radical Islam, The Islamic Threat- Myth or Reality,  are both very readable, although they tend to downplay the role of Jihad in mainstream Islam.
As for European sources, without doubt the best books about radical Islam are Al-Qaeda – Shadow of Terror by British journalist Jason Burke and Jihad – The Trail of Political Islam and The War for Muslim Minds, both by French intellectual Gilles Kepel.

In general, any book about Islam by John Esposito is a must-read, and the same came be said of any book by Bernard Lewis (The Crisis in Islam, being my particular recommendation). However, Esposito can often be a little too prepared to accept the best about Islam and Lewis can seem a little too willing to believe the worst. Of course, the nature of the debate about Islam itself has inspired many books of which the late Edward Said’s work Orientalism and Covering Islam are perhaps the most famous (in a sentence,  Said said Westerners often seek to understand Islam in order to dominate it). For the polar opposite (and far more populist) point of view, there is no more provocative take on modern Islam than The Trouble with Islam, written by Canadian Muslim dissident Irshad Manji.

When it comes to the state of Islam in the global age, some of the books that inspired me on this journey were written by Muslims in America. Two of the most important progressive Muslim thinkers are Reza Aslan (author of No God but God) and Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl (who has just written a great book about Islam’s internal battle called The Great Theft). I also recommend After Jihad by Noah Feldman: it provides a hopeful, if a tad simplistic thesis, about the future of political Islam. But – once again – the definitive books about modern Islam have been written in Europe. For my money, the most compelling thesis about Muslims in the modern world is to be found Olivier Roy’s Globalised Islam. It is a little academic and the translation leaves a little to be desired, but I highly recommend it. I also think The Challenge of Fundamentalism, by German-based Muslim academic Bassam Tibi is worth reading.

One of the most interesting areas of Islam right now is the growing popularity of the mystical traditions of the Sufis. Their traditions tend to shy away from politics and extremism, and put the stress on the most intimate form of connection with God. Even for a convinced non-Muslim it is well worth dipping into the work of the great Sufi master, Rumi.

Since the debate surrounding modern Islam is focused heavily on the internet, there were various Muslim websites I consulted. I found Islam Online delivered an insight into how traditional Muslim leaders would like their religion to be seen. For a more progressive vision of Islam, it is worth looking to an American website, The MEMRI website offers some interesting translations of the sermons of Islamic preachers operating in the Middle East.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the details of our travels. We began filming in June of last year in Amsterdam. During one marathon journey that filled up August, we traveled to Malaysia, Jordan, Syria Lebanon, Egypt and Britain. During the Autumn, the programme team made separate trips to Turkey and to California. The director Ruan Megan traveled on his own to Texas and Chicago before Christmas to film Irish-American convert, Fidelma O’Leary, and Muslim comedian Azhar Usman.  He also filmed by himself in Cork and London over the Christmas holidays. The team was re-united for a final weekend of filming in late January in London.

We did try and secure entry to Saudi Arabia, and traveled to London to discuss our project with the Saudi Embassy in London. We were eventually refused the appropriate visas. The desert scenes which relate to the life of the Prophet were filmed in Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan. 

Finally, special mention must be made of Mick O’Rourke, who – by and large - is the man behind the camera and the sublime images that are presented in this series.