Using the arts to show a new perspective and horizon
by Raheel Mohammed
What does it say about our society, when some of us are censoring our most natural actions in order to fit in? Where there is a feeling that particular gestures or words will have undesired consequences, or worse, lead to some kind of punishment.
In the not so distant future at the annual Fun Fair to celebrate Great Britain’s Best Ideas, a mother and daughter stop at one of the many attractions that celebrate the country’s past and champion its innovative rules for the many communities that live on Her land.
This attraction is entitled: How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt To Love the Muslims
Mummy: “He’ll perform for you, just keep feeding him with money.”
Little Girl: “Look mummy, he won’t stop smiling, he must be happy. But he doesn’t say anything. Does he have nothing to say?”
Mummy: “Why should he say anything? You decide what he says. Look, that’s why they’ve left some pens and paper here. He then learns what you’ve written, word for word. He can be anything you want. That’s why he’s called No One. Every day is new for him. The days before have no meaning, he has no memories. That’s why he needs new stories which we write for him.”
Little Girl: “He doesn’t have his own stories?”
Mummy:(laughing), “No! Of course not. I think they used to let them speak but no one could understand what they were saying. It was gibberish…”
Little Girl: “I feel sorry for him.”
Mother: “It was sad but then he got angry and it started to upset other children, and then the parents got angry, so they decided to keep them all silent.”
“I gesture a lot, but I try not to wave my hands around too much in public, because you know, being a black woman, people might think I’m mad.”
I met Pauline briefly during a project in Leicester when she told me this without fanfare or drama. This was an everyday check for her, a way of surviving and not drawing attention to herself. It was a response to a political and social climate where the most innocuous gestures can seem dangerous.
W.E.B. Du Bois writes about this sense of being scrutinised in The Souls of Black Folk: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
What does it say about our society, when some of us are censoring our most natural actions in order to fit in? Where there is a feeling that particular gestures or words will have undesired consequences, or worse, lead to some kind of punishment. Where there is a fear that society will take a course of action that will permanently scar your future.
What is the response to a pervasive fear of self-expression? Isn’t this where the arts suddenly become vital?
In all of our work at Maslaha, whether it is our criminal justice projects such as All We Are – www.allweare.org.uk or our Muslim Girls Fence project – www.muslimgirlsfence.org – or our education work – www.radicalwhispers.org – artists are a vital part of the process. They help to raise our voices above the din that shouts down granularity and applauds conformity.
When everyday language and communication begins to stunt the imagination, the arts do a side-step and show us a new perspective and horizon, where previously there was just the fog of hollow words.
But the fear of the Muslim is not producing that side-step. At a time when the Muslim communities’ imagination is being rigorously patrolled by the Prevent duty – Section 26 of the Counterterrorism and Security Act places a legal duty on public services such health and education to report signs of radicalisation — our major arts institutions are not rising to the challenge of responding to and exploring a significant abuse of free expression. I have been approached by a number of producers and artistic directors who want to respond, but don’t have the vocabulary, feel unequipped to navigate these unfamiliar and disturbing waters. There are other producers and institutions, however, who are either afraid or seem unable to focus clearly on this issue seeing Muslim communities as flickering, inarticulate shadows on the wall.
But where has this fear come from and how can it have such a concrete impact on people’s lives. Warwick University’s, Counterterrorism in the NHS report, explains how the Prevent duty operates in the pre-criminal space. “This is not a recognised term in criminology, social science, or the healthcare professions.” This is uncharted territory, and summons up the spectre of George Orwell’s 1984 thought police. The report goes onto state: “The United Kingdom is the only nation in the world to deliver counterterrorism within its education, healthcare and social care sectors as safeguarding.” Yet, the question we have to ask ourselves is, how can a policy that is so pernicious to children and young people be described as safeguarding.
Based on the government’s own statistics in 2015/2016, nearly two-thirds of referrals to Prevent were linked to Islamist extremism – 4,997 Muslims. The data shows that three in 10 were under 15 which is nearly 1,500 young people, but only 108 were deemed to require counter radicalisation support. This would be like telling the parents of nearly 1,400 Muslim children we think your child is being harmed. Actually, sorry, we were wrong. If 1,400 middle class white parents received a phone call tomorrow wrongly suggesting that their children had been radicalised, what would happen then?
Talk to parents where referrals have been mistaken, and they will say how they carry around a shame and stigma for months, not telling anyone, even though neither they nor their child has done anything wrong. The statistics hide the fear and mental burden that is insidiously creeping into homes and threatening to become the norm. And yet a cold calculation has been made by successive governments that despite the evidence presented about the negative effects of Prevent on Muslim communities, it does not warrant a change.
What this has meant is that whole communities are censoring themselves, parents are avoiding having conversations about politics or religion in case their child says something at school that could be misconstrued. I have spoken to teachers who are avoiding contentious issues in case a student says something that has to be reported.
We have a generation of young Muslims potentially afraid to express themselves and learning that if you are challenging, the state will respond no matter how young you are. Primary school children have now become potential threats to our way of life the argument goes.
Artists, some at the margins of the arts landscape, have been responding to this political and social environment. Mainstream arts organisations must recognise these voices and produce art that responds to this challenge to imagine freely and express freely. What is stopping this? Is there a fear of responding creatively to this controversial issue or is it that the typical white/male/middle class/middle-aged producer does not have his ear attuned to different narratives?
The “Inconvenient Muslims” who are much closer to the scuff and hurt of life are avoided at all costs because their stories are too complex. They don’t fit the formula of producing stories that serve to deaden inquiry and ambiguity.
This poses a different danger. Nature doesn’t like a vacuum, and recognising that the Muslim voice is missing from our collective story-telling, we risk that an inauthentic trusted white artist or “safe Muslim” will be recruited in order to do justice to those stories.
The arts organisations will feel that this is a job done, that lack which existed no longer does and we can all move on. But these stories are rootless, nourished by expediency rather than heritage and memory. We’re not willing to emulate the safe, smiling Muslim because as Audre Lorde writes, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
If you’re a public arts institution you have a duty to tell the stories that are not being told, otherwise, why do you exist? But you must also have that artistic urge, no? To be challenged, to hear artists unsettle you, to be startled by new ideas. If not, why do you exist? In the long term if the arts organisations play too safe, society as a whole will lose out.
There is a rich spectrum of artists working in this area such as Javaad Alipoor, Nadia Latif, Zia Ahmed, Alia Alzougbi, Aliyah Hasinah, and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. These are more well known but they have all struggled and continue to struggle to ensure they can create freely. There are many more who are creating in this rich radiation who should be recognised.
The philosopher John Dewey emphasised the need to engage with the rough grain of difference in order to see the great moments of truth in art. He thought resistance would make the artist grow. And the same can be said of arts institutions who should not stop seeking new artists who may make them feel uncomfortable. Otherwise we are losing stories, stories so powerful that they cannot be contained within buildings, that spill out onto the streets, cling to the air and to your skin and clothes – and there is no way of shaking them off.
And when our rights are under threat it is these stories that demand we bear witness and challenge and refuse to be silent.