The Freedom to Write About History Without Fear

“Freedom” is a word on many lips this week, especially “freedom of speech,” “freedom of expression,” and the “freedom of the press,” because of the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, the office of a satirical paper, in Paris. 

Since the attack, many articles have been written about why satire matters, and why we must defend someone’s right to write things we may actually disagree with. 

As a quote attributed to Voltaire says, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

But it is not just satire that needs defending. The right to free speech must extend also to history. British Scholar Tom Holland discovered this when he published a study, which was later turned into a film documentary, which questioned the history of Muhammad and traditional, historical accounts of Islam.

“The collapse of Roman power in the Near East was the flip side of another story: the rise of Islam,” wrote Holland in a Wall Street Journal article describing his study. “The Arab armies who seized from the Romans the provinces of Palestine, Syria and Egypt were Muslim, according to traditional historiography, and had been inspired to their remarkable feats of conquest by the revelations of a prophet, Muhammad. It took me only a cursory immersion in the scholarship of the period to realize that these presumptions were (to put it mildly) widely contested.”

Tom Holland pic via Channel 4
Tom Holland pic via Channel 4

“Indeed, it was hard to think of another field of history where quite so much was up for grabs. Questions fundamental to Islam’s traditional understanding of itself turned out to defy consensus. Might the Arab conquerors not actually have been Muslim at all? Did the Quran, the supposed corpus of Muhammad’s revelations, in fact derive from a whole multiplicity of pre-existing sources? Was it possible that Muhammad himself, rather than coming from Mecca, had lived far to the north, in the deserts beyond Roman Palestine? The answer to all these questions, I gradually came to conclude, was yes,” wrote Holland.


After the study was published, he was not threatened in any way. But as soon as the documentary was aired, he began receiving threats. And he was not the only one threatened, his family was too.

The study of the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam should not be something to make a scholar fear for his and his family’s life. This is one of the many reasons we defend the freedom of the press. “Just a few minutes into the broadcast, my Twitter stream was going up in smoke,” wrote Holland. “By the time the show ended, the death threats were coming in thick and fast—and not just against me but against my family as well… Two weeks later, I was still fielding death threats from Muslims convinced that the only plausible explanation for my having made the film was that I was in the pay of Mossad or the CIA or both. The most chilling moment of all came when Press TV, a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, aired a documentary leveling pretty much that accusation.”

Gradually though, the threats faded. The Holland family no longer has to be on high alert, and Tom Holland is now able to discuss his work.

At a conference organized by Oxford University, Holland was invited to discuss his book and movie. He was asked if there was anything he learned from the experience. “…the freedom to write history without intimidation was no longer something that I took for granted,” answered Holland. “But I also had learned that it was possible, when my work came under attack, to defend it without yielding to threats.

I have not changed my mind. My experience did not remotely approach the horror of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, but just as its staff were willing to die in defense of what they saw as the legacy of Diderot, so should historians be conscious of what is at stake in defense of the legacy of Gibbon.”


To read more about Tom Holland’s experience, click HERE. 



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