DV8: Can We Talk About This?

Can We Talk About This? Can We Talk About This? - © Prudence Upton
Posted: Mon Feb 27 2012

DV8's new piece tackles Islamism and censorship through dance. Creator Lloyd Newson explains.

When DV8's 'Can We Talk About This?' opened in Australia last summer, Time Out Sydney described it as 'without doubt one of the most important works of our age'. Rare praise indeed. But DV8's show is no ordinary piece of theatre, being a verbatim dance piece whose words come from the verbal and published testimony of players in big clashes between Islamic and Western values, like Salman Rushdie and Ishtiaq Ahmed (the ex-general secretary of Bradford Mosques who facilitated the burning of Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses'). And its creator, Lloyd Newson - already controversial and celebrated in the dance world - is no ordinary theatremaker.

Small, slender, shaven-haired and bright-eyed behind his clear glasses, Newson is charismatic, lucid and very confident about his right to dance where many liberals fear to tread.

'Of course you must not stereotype Muslims,' he says. 'I want to make it clear that this piece is not about condemning people of any faith. But according to a survey produced by the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies,
0 per cent of British Muslims think homosexuality is acceptable. So who is doing the stereotyping?'

The purpose of 'Can We Talk About This?' is, says Newson, 'to provide information, hear progressive Muslim voices and to find a way of talking openly on about issues like forced marriage, censorship and extremism.'

The British left has often been nervous about critiquing Islam and intervening in 'Muslim issues', especially when such issues have been hijacked by the far right. 'The concept of Islamaphobia conflates race and religion and is used to silence debate,' argues Newson, 'Cultural relativism has become state-sponsored policy in Britain. Britain has allowed 85 Sharia courts to operate that don't allow Muslim women equal rights with other British women. It costs them twice as much to get a divorce because all their evidence has to be corroborated. And they're asked to leave court if they're menstruating because they're considered irrational. Why can't we talk about this? And how do we support the progressive Muslims and the gay Muslims?

'It's easy to say that these arguments become white against brown. But we interviewed 40 gay British Muslims for this piece and not one of them wanted their names or identities to be revealed. Why are they so scared?'

DV8's piece is likely to provoke when it comes to the National Theatre on March 9 - the last time the theatre took on racial/religious stereotypes, via Richard Bean's stereotype-packed comedy 'England People Very Nice', anti-racist protestors invaded the stage.

'Can We Talk About This?' is a subtler work, which uses movement as a poetic subtext and accompaniment to its verbatim script. But it is also a chronology of controversy which begins in the 1980s with recently deceased headmaster Ray Honeyford, whose teaching career in Bradford was destroyed when he objected - in patrician language - to officially sanctioned cultural practices such as the removal of children from school for long periods to visit relatives in Pakistan and ends in 2011 with the case of Dr Usama Hasan, a scientist and imam for 25 years at Leyton Mosque.

'Last year, Dr Hasan said that evolution may be compatible with the Koran,' explains Newson, 'And that it wasn't obligatory for women to wear hijabs. He received death threats and ended up retracting part of his statement. This is an intelligent, highly devout man and he's silenced here in London. Do I, as a white liberal go, “It's not my business?” '

When I put it to Newson that 'Can We Talk About This?' is a timeline of extreme examples and may therefore be unbalanced, he disagrees: 'We wanted to hear everybody's perspective, he insists. 'So, for example, we also have Mohammed Ajeeb, the first Asian Lord Mayor in Britain, who campaigned for Honeyford's dismissal. It's verbatim. And all the voices belong to people who have direct experience of multiculturalism, Islam and censorship.'

Censorship - including self-censorship - has and does silence debate in the UK, on every side.

In 2007, three Muslim men were jailed for six years for 'soliciting to murder' when they protested outside the Danish Embassy about satirical cartoons featuring Mohammed. And recently in London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist societies at the University of London and the LSE were ordered by their student unions to remove an 'offensive' cartoon of Mohammed and Jesus from their Facebook pages. Whatever 'this' is - and people disagree, sometimes violently, on whether it is freedom or Islamophobia - we can't always talk freely about it. 'We must,' Newson insists. 'Things are not going to get any better unless we do.'

'Can We Talk About This?' boils down thousands of hours of testimony to ask questions about Islam in the west and in the world, focusing particularly on censorship, tolerance and human rights.

We asked two of its contributors, ex-Muslim and One Law For All campaigner Maryam Namazi and progressive Muslim academic Irshad Manji about the issues behind the arguments. We also asked Muslim Council of Great Britain's secretary general Farooq Murad for his response to the issues raised.

Maryam Namazie is a human rights activist who campaigns against Sharia Law in Britain and is the director of the ex-Muslim Council of Great Britain.

Is there a lack of open debate or censorship of open debate around Islam in the UK?

Maryan Namazie I find that there is a great deal of censorship as well as self-censorship on the issue of Islam. There are many reasons for it, including a racism of lower expectations ('we' can handle offence; 'they' can't); a climate of intimidation and fear that Islamists have created; the perception that Islam is an oppressed religion bullied by US imperialism; multi-culturalism, which gives identity politics supremacy at the expense of individuals within a constructed homogeneous 'Muslim community'; and bogus accusations of racism and Islamophobia.

What difficulties have you encountered in campaigning against Sharia Law in the UK?

MN It is difficult to campaign against Sharia under such circumstances. The subject is seen to be taboo so there is often pressure on those who work with us. We face pressures too, whether in the form of death threats or threats of violence to our events and speakers. Most recently our talk at Queen Mary College was cancelled as a result. Whilst we have managed to mobilise large numbers of groups and people - for example Baroness Cox who has a private members bill on the subject and has said she was inspired by us - our work continues to be 'ignored' by government and the media. Also the fact that the far-Right has hijacked the issue in order to scapegoat Muslims and immigrants makes it complex.

Is it racist or Islamophobic to criticise Islam in a way which offends believers? Should such criticism be prevented?

MN Offence is irrelevant but like the bogus concept of Islamophobia, it has become part of the mainstream discourse of free expression. The devious thing about using offence to silence people is that it is subjective. We're not all necessarily offended by the same things. The religious are usually offended more often than not. And Islamists are offended all the time. They are offended if you are gay, if you are unveiled, if you leave Islam, if you listen to music, if you dance, if you have religiously unsanctioned sex, if you're a woman, if you want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, and on and on. By hiding behind the excuse of offence, Islamists are basically saying that because it is deemed offensive, with the person who is offended making that judgement call, you must limit your right to free expression! I believe whether someone is offended is as irrelevant as what a woman was wearing when she was raped.

Most importantly, since when is a criticism of a belief racism? Islamophobia is another bogus and political term used to scaremonger people into silence by attributing human qualities to Islam and Islamism in order to rule out and deem racist any opposition or criticism. But criticism, mockery, opposition to and even hatred of a belief is not racism.

In my opinion, concepts such as offence, respect, and Islamophobia are not there to protect Muslims from bigotry but to protect Islam. But Islam like any belief system cannot be off-limits. It must be open to criticism and offence. Anything worth expressing will cause offence.

Where do you think the balance lies between defending people's rights, preserving freedom of speech, and integrating people with opposed values into one state?

MN Freedom of speech and expression is a precondition for defending people's rights so in my opinion there can be no limits on it even for bigots, fascists and Islamists. In fact the best way to challenge despicable and inhuman views is to be able to hear them and respond to them. The problem in the UK is that there is a concerted effort to incorporate people's beliefs into society. In fact, in a plural society, in order to promote cohesion, you need to keep people's beliefs out. Inclusion is about including people and so a return to the concepts of citizenship (irrespective of one's beliefs) is key as is a promotion of secularism (the strict separation of religion from the state) and universalism.

What are the most important untold stories?

MN The most important untold story is the resistance that takes place day in and day out against sharia law by Muslims themselves and those labelled as such whilst all we hear is that Sharia is their culture and religion.

Irshad Manji is the Director of New York University's Moral Courage Project and author of the new book, 'Allah, Liberty and Love' (Simon and Schuster, UK).

What do Muslims in the US and Europe need to do to protect their human rights?

IM It's not just 'their' human rights that need protecting; it's everybody's. All the more so in a multicultural country like Britain, where so many good people fear offending as if that's the same as oppressing. More of us ought to recognize three simple things:

First, cultures are not God-given; they're man-made. Therefore, there's nothing sacred about cultures and nothing sacrilegious about condemning oppressive aspects of cultures.

Second, diversity is not simply about different skin colours and religions. Diversity is also about different ideas. Different ideas are bound to offend different people. So offence is not a problem to be avoided at any price in the name of diversity. Offence is the price of honest diversity.

Third, the word 'respect' needs to be critically re-thought. 'Respect me' has come to mean, 'Don't challenge me.' But if we avoid asking each other pointed and searching questions, then we're implicitly treating each other as infants. That's not respect. That's disrespect. That's also dishonest diversity.

Are you optimistic about the power of dissent within Islam?

IM Yes, I am. I see the power of dissent everyday, as people share with me how they've grown by speaking truth to power. Dissent can transform someone who merely has an identity - labels - into someone who has integrity - wholeness.

The most powerful form of dissent that I've come across is moral courage. This is the willingness to speak truth to power within your own community for a greater good. At first, it would seem that moral courage is about being 'against' your community. Not true. When you hold your community to higher standards for the sake of a greater good, you're actually showing faith in your community - faith that they can be better than they're giving themselves credit for. In this way, moral courage is marked by love. As the philosopher George Steiner has observed: 'You honour a person by asking of him or her an effort.'

Sometimes western liberals are nervous about critiquing Islam because they don't want to be Islamophobic or racist. What's your view?

IM Would white liberals say that Muslims in Europe or in the Islamic world have no right to criticize U.S. foreign policy since they don't live in America? Of course not. The same standard should apply here.

Let me invoke a liberal icon to explain this point. Martin Luther King Jr. dared to take the civil rights movement out of his home state, Georgia, and into other states. Clergymen in Alabama accused Rev. King of being an 'outside agitator.' To which King shot back, 'We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny.' Bottom line: in an interdependent world, there is no such thing as other people's business. Similarly, what happens within Islam affects countless lives outside the fold. Which makes it a truly public conversation.

We know we can't leave reform of Wall St to insiders, since insiders seek to preserve their power. Same in religion. Power is power.

Farooq Murad is the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain.

Is there a lack of open debate or censorship of open debate around Islam in the UK?

Farooq Murad Not to our knowledge. Many Muslims feel that most aspects of their faith have been critiqued and indeed vilified in our public space with impunity. We are not immune to criticism of our faith, and welcome free debate on Islam. Such was the situation faced by the Prophet Muhammad during his time. What we call for is an atmosphere of respect and mutual dialogue, not one of mud-slinging and abuse of a faith followed by a minority community or demonisation of it.

Is there a problem with imbalanced or offensive media coverage of Muslims in the UK?

FM Yes, the testimony in the Leveson Inquiry is the latest in a string of recent evidence showing a vilification of Muslims in our mainstream media. As a result we have seen the rise of the far right in the form of the English Defence League who are feeding off the vitriol against Muslims. This is not a concern from people who are protesting against attacks on our faith, this is a concern from people who fear violent attack because they choose to follow a particular religion. Another dimension we need to be worried about is the violence we witnessed in Norway.

Where do you think the balance lies between defending people's rights, preserving freedom of speech, and integrating people with opposed values into one state?

FM Living in a plural, multi-faith and multi-cultural society, achieving that balance is very important. We are not against freedom of speech. We do not think our values are necessarily opposed to each-other. We are not calling for special treatment. Critiques of faiths are fine, but we must equally question motives. There is a right to free speech, but the right to offend surely divides societies. At the same time, we call on those who are offended to take up the mantle of peaceful dialogue to register their dissatisfaction.

Is Islamophobia a bogus concept that conflates race and religion?

FM Overt Islamophobia has fostered an irrational contempt against a faith and its followers. Similar critiques against other faiths would automatically (and rightly) draw responses of hatred and indeed racism. Victims of the growing number of violent Islamophobic attacks in this country would not consider the concept as 'bogus'.

What would you say to critics of Islam who argue that it is intolerant - particularly with respect to women's equal rights under law and in society, and with respect to homosexuality?

FM Many critics of Islam view our faith through those who follow faith through cultural values - some not in tune with the Islamic values; others see through Islam that enshrine and promote equal rights. We say that equality must be paramount, ensuring the rights of Muslims and others. This is true for women's rights, and the Muslim Council of Britain has long argued that regardless of the religious views on the practice of homosexuality, we are firm against all forms of discrimination, including homophobia.