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Webchat with Mark Little

Mark Little wasa online for a live webchat on Monday 27th March from 4.00pm to answer your questions about the show.

This is what he had to say:

Mark: This is Mark Little. Thank's for all the questions. I'm going to to deal with as many as I can in the next hour.

David: This has been a great investigative report on a serious and complex issue. Do you think that Western media has been even and balanced in its approach to the Middle Eastern question or Islam on whole?
Mark: I think there is a temptation for us all, whether we live in the East and the West, to see the world as we want it to be rather than the way it actually is. So yes, there has been a tendency in the Western media to paint a simplistic or self-serving portrait of Islam. But, believe me, you would be stunned by some of the gruesome and bizarre characterisations of the West or the Americans or the Jews that are also common in the Arab world. Hopefully our programmes are a tiny contribution to rectifying the problems we face in understanding Islam. I hope they are. But I will leave it to you to decide.

john: given recent events re cartoons, the rushdie fatwa and the murder of theo van gogh are journalists afraid of islam
Mark: I don't think they are afraid of Islam so much as getting dragged into the competing war of words that surrounds the religion. Generally, if you try and describe modern Islam you are going to offend and very often not really inform. But there has to be a way past that.

gavin: do u feel the experince as the washington corrispondant opened your eyes to the different cultures in the world?
Mark: My time in America taught me to question all my preconceptions about different cultures and countries. Believing the cliche is often far easier than trying to understand the reality. I think that applies to so many subjects from America to Islam. It's the most important thing I have learned on my travels.

Colette: Hi Mark, wonderful program. Any plans to do more documentaries?
Mark: If RTE keep investing and people keep watching than me - and people like me - will keep making this type of documentary series. I'd like to think in years to come we'll have as much real-life television as 'reality' TV

ColmC: Were there any instances during the making of the programme that you feared you're own personal wellbeing was under threat?
Mark: No. In general, the warmth of the welcome we received on our travels was humbling. Except for a couple of scary moments in Karak in Jordan when a fairly angry group of local teenagers thought we were Israelis. That - in itself - says something.

Caitriona: are you on Bebo?
Mark: No but I have all his albums. Seriously, I only discovered its existence in recent weeks, much to my shame. I will probably regret this but if you do want to send me any comments or questions my e-mail is mark.little at

Ayat: Well done on the programme..very interesting viewing,will there be any exploration of Islam and muslims in Ireland in the final part of the series? I felt that there were many questions raised but no clear answers..its very complex though, not so black and white
Mark: We do touch on some issues facing Islam in Ireland in the last episode but we did try and keep it fairly international, to show the big challenges facing the entire Western world. That said, there is a really fascinating encounter between Irish catholicism and modern Islam at the very end of the last episode. I won't spoil the ending ... so tune in, Sunday night at 10.25.

Michael Hayes: In answer to the question in the title. Whos afraid of Islam. Any muslim who converts to another religious belief.
Mark: won't argue with you there.

brian foley: to what extent do you think the rise of islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East is predicated on the failure of arab nationalism in general and the decline of the PLO in particular ?
Mark: Good question. I think many Arab Muslims feel their scholars, and their politicians, and their supposed liberators have failed them. In that context, radical Islam is the cool, clean alternative - the new label to apply to an old struggle. It also helps when radical Islam has a ready-made battlefield in Iraq with which to burnish its credentials as the authentic Islamic resistance.

John: What do you think could be done to educate the U.S public about Islam? It would seem unlikely that a series such as yours would be shown in the U.S. in the current climate where it appears to be ok to brand all muslims as terrorists or 'towel heads' without fear of being accused of being racist.
Mark: I would be careful about reading too much into the obvious ignorance of certain strands of American society. Take a look in our bookshops here in Dublin and then take a look at the average bookshop in the US. There are far more books about Islam in that American shop than here. Also, the only really comprehensive series of this kind made in recent years was actually made by the American public service network, PBS (by the Frontline strand). I think we tend to overestimate the stupidity of Americans and underestimate our own lack of knowldge of the world.

Paul: Whats the one thing you will take away from the making of this programme?
Mark: The need to make television that rewards people for paying attention and which challenges their preconceptions. That, and the need to drink lots of water when you are filming in the Arabian desert in August.

Mary: Hi Mark. Dr Hebba Essat spoke last night about wearing the head scarf was to protect her modesty. She stated that women in the west are scantly clad and some have tattoos . Do you think her views on women in the western world are as narrow-minded as ours toward the Muslim dress code?
Mark: I think just as we in the West have fairly cliched views of life for Muslims in the Arab world, there is a really depressing cliched quality to their views of us. And that is part the problem. If all Arab Muslims see when they see the West is booze, violence, sex and godlessness, then there is very little hope of any great conciliation. Then again, when I walk through Dublin city centre on a Friday night i wonder if they have it totally wrong.

Mary O Reardon: Do you really believe Muslim women are free to choose whether they can wear the veil or not?
Mark: Clearly, some Muslim women are legally compelled to wear the veil (in Iran and Saudi Arabia for example). But it is hard to make any generalisation for other Muslim women. I think where there is traditionally less of a public role for women, and where the Muslim revival is strongest, the veil has effectively become compulsory, that is, if you didn't wear it you would be made to feel like an outsider. But, as this Muslim revival is felt in places like France and Britain, many Muslim women are actively choosing the veil as a way of making a political statement, as a way of saying Islam is the only thing that won't fail me in a society that is constantly failing me.

Kilian: Hi Mark, great programme - very interesting. I notice you did not visit Bosnia on your travels. Bosnia, as you aware, has a high Muslim population and life in cities such as Sarajevo remains tense between the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Any reasons why it was not included on the travels?
Mark: We did consider it but time and money were a big factor. And more importantly, Islam is truly global in its breadth with about four out of five Muslims living outside the Arab world. If we did Bosnia, we wouldn't have got to Malaysia

declan turk: Hi Mark do you miss being in the action rather then in a studio
Mark: Yes but you can strike a balance if you are lucky. As long as I get the occasional fix of reporting, the studio can be a lot of fun and a big challenge

Scarlett: During what period was this programme filmed?
Mark: We filmed - on and off - between June 2005 and January 2006. We spent about a month last August on a gruelling world tour in which we met most of the main characters. For further information on our travels and sources, I've posted a little background piece on the RTE website - there's a special section in the TV section on Who's Afraid of Islam.

Ayat: Well done on the programme..very interesting viewing,will there be any exploration of Islam and muslims in Ireland in the final part of the series? I felt that there were many questions raised but no clear answers..its very complex though, not so black and white
Mark: That's a good observation. We had the choice of either delivering grand judgements from on high about Islam or providing as many voices from the debate inside Islam and letting you the viewer decide. I'm glad we decided on the latter. Hopefully, where we left loose ends people will pursue answers for themselves.

fionna o' connor: Mark - congratulations on the series so far - it is engrossing.Will we be seeing and hearing more of Rumi and the Sufis in the final programme - I hope so - am a big fan of his - his amazing capacity to touch the heart and open the mind!
Mark: Unfortunately, we had to exclude many fascinating aspects of Islam because of pressure of time and money. But I would urge everyone to check out the Sufi tradition, which is more mystical and less political than other strands of the religion. You probably know it by the whirling dervishes we featured but there is a lot more to it. In the words of one liberal muslim I talked to, 'Islam will become Sufism in time.' Don't know if he was right but worth checking out.

MingYe: Did Mohammad have more than 4 wives while prescribing only a maximum of 4 for his followers? Did he say a woman's sole testimony is not admissibile in a court of law? Did Mohammad urge his followers to fight non-believers until no other religion except islam is left?
Mark: I suspect from the question you already know the answer. But you raise an important issue. There are plenty of things about the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad which are objectionable to those of us who believe in modern notions of democracy and human rights. To simply ignore them is naive and dangerous. But, by the same token, it would be equally dangerous and naive to ignore the aspects of the life of the Prophet and the Qur'an that proved to be a liberation for many Muslims down the ages and which still inspire progressive Muslims today. Keep both competing and contradictory realities in your mind and you go some way to understanding the debate in modern Islam.

Patrick: Simple question. I missed episode 2, will this series be shown again at a later stage? Or could RTE possibly allow such excellent content to be available online for download?
Mark: Arrangements will be made to stream chunks of the three programmes on the RTE website in the coming days. The programmes should also be repeated at some point in the weeks and months to come, but as the lowly presenter, these are issues way out of my control

patrick o'donnell: Because of Islam's insistence that the faithful must believe every word of the Koran and because it cannot be changed then Islam is the only religion in the world which is incapable of reforming itself. Would you agree with that this is true and, if so, does it make every muslim a fundamentalist?
Mark: I think the important thing is to distinguish between the literal words of the Qur'an - on which, you are right, there is no debate among Muslims - and the wildly different interpretations of what those words mean - around which there is a fascinating debate among Muslims. As I said in Episode One, Islam is what Muslims say it is and they are saying very different things.

Andrew Laine: Hi Mark! I was just wondering where you found that Muslim Pop Star. She was pretty Cool.
Mark: Her name is Deeyah and you can check out her work and life-story on

Lefty: Great documentary! The interview last night with your man Ramadan - the radical political Islamist in London - left some unanswered questions though. He seemed to be trying his utmost to appear moderate, denying any aspirations towards an Islamic state. In this case, what exactly are his aims?
Mark: It's hard to say. I think Ramadan is the personification of Islam in the West, in that he has the potential to be a very positive force but hasn't yet shaken off the lingering doubts. I he is due to visit Dublin next month so watch out for his public engagements - he is well worth seeing and hearing in the flesh.

Ronnie: I dont mean to sound impolite, but I cannot remember the name of the feminist woman from Canada whom you spoke with on the show last night. How did you feel about what she had to say?
Mark: The Canadian woman featured last night was Irshad Manji. She is the author of a book called 'The Trouble with Islam' and she has an interesting website at

Harry: Well done on the programmes. What opinions did you have altered and reinforced while making them?
Mark: I suppose I have ended up in a position where I have a more positive view of Islam, as a religion, and its potential to evolve. But I have also come away with a more negative view of those forces inside modern Islam who want to block that evolution. In short, I think the religion is less of a threat than I first assumed but the conservative elements within are more of a threat.

bryan jones: do you believe that huntingtons's theory on a 'clash of cicilisations' is beraring fruit, or are many of the issues explained by the fact that Arab states have only recently escaped from a colonial environment, and have not had sufficient time to resolve the difficultires between religion and state
Mark: I don't necessarily buy into the Clash of Civilisations concept. Islam, and the West for that matter, are so internally conflicted it is not possible to talk about two defined civilisations. However, I do think there are those within Islam who would seek to use their religion as a weapon in the service of some pretty ugly political objectives. In turn, I think there are Western political leaders and commentators who seek to use threatening interpretations of Islam to bolster their positions (I'm thinking of far-right parties like Vlaams Blok in Belgium, for example). In short, there will be definitely be some form of conflict as Islam and the West come in closer contact but that will only turn into a broader clash if we allow the extremists control the debate about modern Islam

Thora El- Sayed: Congratulations on a wonderful programme we're wondering how you managed to get access to so many of the people you managed to meet especially in the Middle East? you must be very persuasive!!
Mark: Thanks for your comments. The great thing about your question is that is allows me to credit the other members of the team behind 'Who's Afraid of Islam?'. In many cases, it was our researchers, Dhruba Banerjee, and associate producer, Ronan O'Muirthile, who persuaded the guests to overcome their initial suspicions of this project and talk so frankly. Credit also goes to our network of fixers and translators in the various countries we visited.

Mark: I think that's all from me. I just want to say how grateful I am for all your comments and all your questions. I am sorry I couldn't answer nearly all of them. But please enjoy the last episode of our series on Sunday night. All the very best, Mark

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