Drama in the age of Prevent: why can't we move beyond Good Muslim v Bad Muslim?

Our play about the radicalisation of young Muslims was pulled. But the National Theatre’s is going ahead – with no censorship or police intervention. Why can’t Muslims tell their own stories?

Last year, using actors drawn from all over the country, we created Homegrown, a large-scale play that set out to examine the radicalisation of young British Muslims. Halfway through rehearsals, the National Youth Theatre pulled the plug, despite the fact that that it had approached us with the original idea for the show. Telling 115 young people that the play in which they had invested so much love and care was suddenly no more was heartbreaking.

The cancellation came after local government intervention led to us being thrown out of our original venue, and after police had suggested security measures that included reading drafts, attending rehearsals, planting plainclothes officers in the audience, and carrying out daily sweeps of the venue by a bomb squad. Since then, there has been much media attention, but little dialogue. There is still no clear explanation.

So Homegrown is in danger of becoming one more unfortunate incident – just another case study in the shameful back catalogue of censored work in Britain. While we have received gestures of solidarity, there has also been a backlash – a nagging sense that many people thought that radicalisation wasn’t a safe subject to explore with our young cast, aged 15 to 23, and that there must have been something, however small, in the text (or the show’s makers) to cause such a reaction.

Nabil Elouahabi as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Another World.
Nabil Elouahabi as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Another World. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This week, Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State opens at the National Theatre. This verbatim play, constructed from interviews by Gillian Slovo and Nicolas Kent, attempts to investigate why young Muslims might want to join Islamic State. Rufus Norris, the National’s artistic director, has spoken of the “flak” the theatre anticipates, but said it was right to take part in a “national debate”.

This framing by Norris of an urgent, provocative work in relation to Islam not only boosts ticket sales, but also sets up a battle between brave artists and feared Muslims. While some may point critically to the generation divide, as well as the race and class position of Another World’s creators, what is far more insidious is the play’s form. Despite the veneer of authenticity that verbatim gives, it inevitably serves to mask the biases of the makers – their decisions about who to give voice to, what opinions to edit out. In verbatim, responsibility for whatever attitudes and ideas make it to the stage can always be conveniently devolved.

This might seem like the moment to tell you what we made of the show when we saw it in previews this week, to point out its basic attempts to humanise Good Muslims. But first we’ll mention what happened as we waited for the doors to open: an enormous group of Muslim schoolkids were ushered into the National by their teachers then, to our amusement, made their way into the comedy playing on the stage next door.

Another World isn’t the National’s first attempt to promote a show tackling “the Muslim question” as both timely and fearless. In 2012, DV8’s Can We Talk About This? addressed freedom of speech, censorship and Islam – from the Salman Rushdie fatwa to the Dutch Muhammad cartoons – by combining verbatim techniques with dance. Despite contemporary British Muslim life rarely puncturing the walls of the National, they presented Islam not only as a topic for dramatic exploration, but as an urgent problem: one that society has been too scared to confront.

DV8 were hailed as brave and daring – and the anticipation of Muslim protests was high. The closest they got, however, was the fake Muslim the production clumsily planted in the audience each night to stage an incensed walkout. This leaves British Muslims in a double bind: they tend to be left out of the conversation, yet their position is always presumed to be one of irrational rage. Their absence is never interpreted as an act of ambivalence. Instead it is cultural ignorance or crude protest.

In a recent episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on BBC2, the comic turned his gaze on Islam, promising to “lampoon a Muslim”. The gag lay in Lee’s struggle to balance two things: targeting public hysteria over Islam while trampling all over the liberal blindspot that grants it protected status. There lies the contradiction: a restless public appetite, fed by our political and cultural institutions, to uncover and provoke Islam – and a parallel clamour that says the unwillingness to offend Muslims is not only hindering urgent dialogue, but jeopardising freedom of speech.

Although this national debate is seen as being diluted by the fear of stirring up Muslim anger, one can’t help noticing Islam being regularly dragged through the mud – from bombastic Daily Mail headlines and exploitative TV documentaries to hackneyed thinkpieces on Woman’s Hour. It is the liberal drive, with its obsessive seeking of a universal position, that ultimately obscures the violence taking place in this faltering dialogue. This is evident in the popular Muslim voices that are allowed to be heard – and only to help us tell the Good Muslim from the Bad. If the acceptable parameters of this discussion remain inarticulate mad mullahs in one corner and self-hating talking heads like Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the other, all refereed by thinktank-dwellers such as Maajid Nawaz, progress will prove impossible.

‘Bucking lazy stereotypes’ … black comedy Four Lions by Chris Morris.
‘Bucking lazy stereotypes’ … black comedy Four Lions by Chris Morris. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Muslim voices are similarly policed in the arts. Hollywood blockbusters and TV dramas are saturated with mindless terrorists. The easiest way Muslim artists can get a foot in the door is by airing their dirty laundry – grooming gangs, FGM, honour killings and the like – and thus turning their anger on each other. At the other end of the spectrum, from Ayub Khan-Din’s play East Is East to Adil Ray’s BBC comedy Citizen Khan, artists who are willing to serve up monstrousness or minstrelsy are ultimately praised. There is little space for work that doesn’t want to play to this ugly binary.

Chris Morris’s black comedy Four Lions, about terrorist jihadis from Sheffield, was a radical departure, heartfelt in its sense of empathy, rigour and sophistication. Genuinely funny, it bucked lazy stereotypes and worked to find a new language to deride and critique. There was genuine hope that it would inject a popular, yet subversive, energy into the arts and help reorientate representations of Muslims. But since then, if anything, things have regressed.

Although the anger and disdain that characterises the work of Lee and Morris is celebrated as intellectually rigorous and astute, the same can rarely be said for progressive non-white artists. Both the persona and the work of such artists as Kanye West, Steve McQueen and Hilton Als are consistently characterised as ungrateful or belligerent. The fact is, had Homegrown been penned by Lee, Morris or another white enfant terrible, the police wouldn’t have attempted to interfere and the NYT’s artistic director wouldn’t have been able to get away with justifying cancellation by talking about the show’s apparently “one-dimensional tone and opinion” and the creative team’s “extremist agenda”.

Cancelled … performers from Homegrown.
Cancelled … performers from Homegrown. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

However, had Homegrown been pulled as a result of threats from some fringe Islamist organisation, we’d now be celebrated as this generation’s Salman Rushdies – courageous defenders of free speech fighting off conservative forces from within our imagined communities, rather than as troublemakers.

We’re all making art in a particular climate. It’s the climate of Prevent and Channel. These are government programmes that claim to protect communities by stopping people from getting drawn towards violent extremism. But what these actually create is an environment in which debate can be closed down. It’s the same climate in which 10-year-old Muslims are questioned by the police for misspelling “terraced house” as “terrorist house” or Muslim university students are referred to the police for reading books on terrorism for their counterterrorism PhDs. Although many would agree that Britain’s government is perpetuating national security fears through the daily monitoring and criminalisation of Muslim communities, there seems to be little understanding of the knock-on effect this has: increasing the difficulties Muslim artists face in making uncensored work.

Removed … ISIS Threaten Sylvania by Syrian artist Mimsy.
Removed … ISIS Threaten Sylvania by Syrian artist Mimsy. Photograph: Mimsy

Although the police are not actively shutting shows down, they are still able to use hysteria around Islam to serve their agenda. The most recent example of this censorship-by-bureaucracy occurred last September, when the Syrian artist Mimsy had her ISIS Threaten Sylvania pieces removed from an exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries. Despite the fact that the photos – of toy rabbits, mice and hedgehogs going about their daily life while armed jihadis lurk in the background – had been exhibited elsewhere with no fuss, after conversations with the police the works were removed. The gallery stated: “Westminster Police expressed concern about the potential risks of including Mimsy’s work. They made it clear that there would be an additional policing cost if the work was included in the exhibition.” This would have allegedly cost an insurmountable £36,000. What is equally alarming is that the police also allegedly said that Mimsy’s work wasn’t “real art”.

Rufus Norris wants us all to be better “informed”. But unfortunately the authentic voices put on stage for us in Another World – in order to better understand “our children” – tell us more about the closely guarded presumptions of the show’s creators than about our young British Muslims. Well-intentioned liberals such as Slovo and Kent seem unable to marry their universal humanism with narratives that reject Muslim respectability and move beyond the Good Muslim versus the Bad Muslim. If the National wanted to make a play that honestly assessed the hostile climate around contemporary British Muslim life, it should have put the voices that emerge out of the shattering legacy of Prevent front and centre.

Or how about something altogether more playful, something that turns all this culture talk on its head, a piece of art that doesn’t feel the need to educate or improve its audience: a world that could seemingly only be conjured up by the likes of Chris Morris – one where a beaming British tourist has his photo taken with a fake Egyptian suicide bomber on a hijacked plane.


Omar El-Khairy and Nadia Latif

The GuardianTramp

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