Tom Holland addresses Islam

On 25 May 2015, Tom Holland delivered the inaugural Christopher Hitchens lecture at the Hay Festival. He called it De-radicalising Muhammad. It was an appropriate title for a speech in memory of a man who was so articulate in his condemnation of organised religion in general and Islam in particular.

Holland begins at 1:55 and ends at 37:40. The rest is questions.

He begins with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens whom he never met. He tells us that he has been instructed that to be true to Hitchens’ memory his talk should be controversial. If as a non-Muslim you are speaking about Islam, or any aspect of it, you are hard-pressed not to be controversial. Holland highlights this, while nevertheless pointing out with examples that Hitchens courted controversy on this subject with some eagerness.

“Nothing to do with Islam…” that is the stock phrase, trotted out by politicians after every new abomination committed by jihadists. Holland cites this as an attempt to de-radicalize matters, but also shows why it is counter-productive. Anyone, particularly a non-Muslim, who says those words is implying that he or she knows the nature of authentic Islam, a claim which is transparently absurd when even Muslim scholars can’t agree. He proceeds with a history lesson that starts with the life of Muhammad himself, including matters of contention surrounding its details.

From where I stand, as a faintly bemused outsider, Holland seems to address this history in about as balanced a manner as is possible, and his ultimate target slowly becomes clear. The fulcrum of the speech, the point at which we finish with the background and venture into a suggested route to a solution, arrives at 16:54 with the words, “Unless Islam can draw sustenance from its own traditions to purge itself of what is going on in its name then really there’s very little hope”.

I don’t want to say any more in description of this excellently structured and argued piece of erudition, because it’s time for me to don my rhetor hat.

Holland is doubly equipped with microphones. He has a face mic, and stereo mics on the lectern. One of those sound systems is providing the feed for this video, and I’m pretty certain it’s the one on the lectern. It is ‘splashing’. Splashing is a cousin of popping (and there’s a tiny bit of popping too). It is when sibilant consonants, principally the ‘s’ sound, give a distorted splashing sound on the output. It’s a pity when he is delivering such good stuff. Slap on the wrist for the sound-engineer.

He has a script. You may think it barely matters when he merely glances at it, and you’d be right to a degree. He does handle the script extremely skilfully, but still it detracts from his delivery. Occasionally he quotes someone else’s words and then I have no problem with it, but too much of his looking down is comfort-blanket stuff. Watch an instance when his eyes go down and ask yourself if he really needed to read those particular words to speak them. Most of the time the answer will be no.

If you want fully to appreciate the difference in quality of delivery when he addresses his script and when he doesn’t, watch a sustained period when his eyes stay up and he shoots a section from the hip. There is one such between 31:30 and 33:20. In it he is subtly more engaged with his audience than the rest of the time. More importantly (to him) he is every bit as articulate and coherent, employing the same high quality of phrasing, as when he is reading. It is this that he doesn’t quite trust himself on. He feels he has a need to underpin his natural fluency with the written word. He is wrong, but I suspect he would take some persuading.

For all that Tom Holland is an impressive speaker, and this is an important and valuable speech.

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