Review: Can We Talk About This?

I went along to the National Theatre yesterday evening to take part in a panel discussion about Lloyd Newson’s latest dance production ‘Can We Talk About This?’ which revolves around theme of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam and is currently showing at the National Theatre. Also on the panel were Lloyd Newson himself and Maryam Namazie (of the Communist Workers Party of Iran, Council of Ex-Muslims and One Law for All).

The themes involved are quite complex and I left the performance (I was given a free ticket to view the performance on 10th March) feeling that they were presented in a very simplistic and one-sided way which made me uncomfortable and seemed to provide a lot of fodder for right-wing anti-Muslim bashers.

Here are a few reasons why I thought the performance was lacking nuance and a lot of context.

1. The performance opens with a character asking a question posed by the writer Martin Amis: “Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?”. Very few people in the theatre put their hands up and although the character thought it was around 20%, I estimated it at around 10% or less. As the performance develops it was clear that the character believed that more people should have answered in the affirmative but I am not sure it is ever a good idea to feel morally superior to anyone. In any case, Afghanistan has suffered 4 decades of war; the population is 72% illiterate and has a 44 year life expentancy. Whereas Martin Amis has received a good education and has been brought up in in peacetime Europe.

2. The 2004 murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh: Van Gogh is presented as a modern day martyr for free speech who was brutally killed by a young Moroccan Muslim because of his cooperation with the Somali ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the making of the film Submission which featured women with verses of the Qur’an drawn on their naked bodies. The performance did not provide any other context about Van Gogh. And just as it is not very useful to see only the final few frame of a movie it was not helpful that the production failed to look at what transpired before the murder? Surely it is important to look at what may have influenced such an outcome? Particularly Van Gogh’s disgusting bigotry and incitement against Muslims. I am with the late Fred Halliday here. Writing in 2008, a few years after Van Gogh’s murder, he said:

“In retrospect, the killing by Bouyeri appeared to be a one-off action, more akin to the death of John Lennon than to that of Archduke Ferdinand…Apart from other diatribes and slanders, Muslims, [Van Gogh] said, were geiteneuker, literally “goat-fuckers”. Any decent society, whatever its supposed discursive exceptionalism, should have prohibited such a statement and, were it made, to punish the perpetrator. Theo van Gogh should not have been murdered. He should, however, have been arrested and compelled to issue an apology. Had this occurred, Dutch society would have demonstrated its ability, cultural traumas or not, to meet its moral obligations towards immigrants. And, probably, Theo van Gogh would still be alive today.”

3. The performance makes clear that the UK government should not have banned the Dutch politician Geert Wilders from visiting the UK (the ban was later overturned). On this issue, I actually agree with Newson, but once again, Newson failed to provide important context about Wilders. It was not mentioned that Wilders’ Freedom Party advocates banning the Qur’an. And this is not a trivial point. Wilders’ party currently has 24 seats in parliament which amounts to 1/6 of Dutch parliament. In a performance about freedom of speech and Islam, one would have thought this was a salient point. Neither did the performance look at the other bans on Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Louis Farrakhan, Zakir Naik etc etc. Surely, they too should not be banned from visiting and speaking in the UK? The dance performance did not discuss or mention their cases.

4. The performance mentions a 2009 Gallup/Centre for Muslim Studies poll which found that 0% of UK Muslims (500 Muslims were polled) regarded homosexual acts as unacceptable. What was not mentioned was that the same poll found that 1/3 of UK public also held the same view. Conservative views about homosexuality are by no means the preserve of Muslim communities – just a look at the current controversy over the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay marriages.

And anyway, isn’t it the case that in a liberal society we do not police people’s private views. It is their actions that are of relevance to the law. The biggest opposition to laws prohibiting discrimination against gays has been from some evangelical Christian groups and the Catholic Church.

5. Newson says he is in favour of the day to day multicultural experience of people from different cultures living together but is opposed to what he describes as ‘state multiculturalism’ or multiculturalism as state-sponsored policy. But it is ‘state multiculturalism’ that has resulted in the Metropolitan Police amending their code to allow their female Muslim employees to wear the headscarf (in a black and white pattern). It is ‘state multiculturalism’ that has meant that the Ministry of Defence now allows its Muslim soldiers to keep trimmed beards etc. Surely, that is a good thing? These positive developments were not mentioned.

6. Shari’ah Councils: “Why has UK allowed these institutions in which Muslim women’s rights are less than non-Muslim women?” asked Lloyd Newson in the programme for Can We Talk About This? The way the questioned is phrased and the way Shari’ah Councils are portrayed in the production underlines the lack of colour and the simplistic black and white presentation of many issues it deals with. For example, it is not mentioned that these councils are entirely legal and work within the framework of the 1996 Arbitration Act, just as orthodox Jewish Beth Din courts do (however, the existence of the Beth Din is – inevitably – not mentioned in Lloyd Newson’s production). According to the figures published on the website of the Islamic Shari’ah Council, it is Muslim women who make up 90% of the clients of these councils because they are seeking to obtain Islamic divorces. Again, according to the ISC’s website, in the twenty year period from 1982 to 2002, they dealt with around 4,500 cases. That means less than 0.2% of UK Muslims have made use of their services in 20 years. So you can see what I mean by the lack of background provided by Newson’s production. No wonder that the Daily Mail’s right-wing pundit Quentin Letts praised the production – Newson was speaking his language.

7. To end on a more positive note, I think the production was entirely correct to highlight the importance of the freedom to think, write, speak, associate etc. I am currently reading David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, where he makes a very persuasive case that the huge and unprecedented technological progress that the West has made in the last 400 years is due to these freedoms including the freedom to question and reject authority, whether this be religious scholars or religious books. Without entrenching these important freedoms, it is difficult to see how Muslim-majority countries can emerge as world leaders again.

[I will add some links to the above article later – I have to go to work now!]

This entry was posted in Extremism, Islam and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Review: Can We Talk About This?

  1. cpsoper says:

    you recently posted ‘Why the “outrage” at Ashton’s remarks, Sarah? Are the Palestinian children who are regularly killed in far greater numbers by the Israelis any less human or innocent than the Jews that were tragically killed in France?’

    May I ask if you think that the murderer in Toulouse is comparable with the groups who deliberately plant their missile launchers in and near schools and hospitals to maximise their casualties?
    BTW, do you think they are morally superior to the Taliban or about the same level?
    Have you lost your moral compass completely?

  2. cpsoper: it is a common and racist tactic of the Israel lobby to blame the Palestinians for the killing of Palestinian civilians. ‘It was their own fault’, ‘They got caught in crossfire’, ‘The Israeli army are incredibly accurate in their shooting, the Palestinians must have killed themselves’. etc. Now fuck off back to McCarthy’s Place.

  3. s4r4hbrown says:

    I’m going to try to repost a comment I attempted earlier – I think there are some problems with WordPress at the moment. I thought that both Katwala and Malik (particularly Malik) raised interesting points, including reservations, in their reviews which I linked to on a recent HP post. Personally I too prefer a system which adapts headscarves/beards for contexts such as the Met rather than bans them. But I didn’t agree with all your points – for example not supporting gay marriage is very different from statements by some Muslim preachers.

  4. Roger says:

    ‘The performance mentions a 2009 Gallup/Centre for Muslim Studies poll which found that 0% of UK Muslims (500 Muslims were polled) regarded homosexual acts as unacceptable’

    Actually, the survey found that every single muslim in the survey- 100%- regarded homosexual acts as unacceptable,

  5. Roger: Yes, sorry, that was a typo on my part. I have now corrected it above.

  6. The Count of Monte Cristo in a Bubble Car says:

    So, we have to look to “Van Gogh’s disgusting bigotry and incitement against Muslims” to see some context for his murder. What you really mean, of course, but won’t say directly is that he may have deserved it. Christopher Hitchens said the Koran was laughable, and he openly mocked the literally ridiculous religious beliefs it enshrines, and for that you said the “world was a better place without him” following his untimely death. I am sure there are many other similar examples in your sorry repertoire where you wrap up your vile sentiments in arguments padded out with the shocking moral equivalences of your spiteful, jaundiced, Islamist worldview.

    And to borrow some words from the great Pat Condell, I don’t respect your beliefs and I really don’t care if you’re offended. After all, your beliefs, religious and political (and these are inextricably linked in your case) offend me greatly; and I don’t suppose you really care about that.

    Now why don’t you use some offensive Anglo Saxon invective against me as you have done with a previous commentator?

  7. Emma Goldman says:

    Theo van Gogh didn’t confine his bigotry and hatred to Muslims


    Van Gogh on Jews

    “Fornicating yellow stars in a gas chamber…. What a smell of caramel today. Today the crematoriums burn only diabetic [in Dutch literally: sugar-sick] Jews”. Thus van Gogh in Moviola magazine, 1991. The court then fined him 1000 guilders for anti-semitism.

    He pictured Jewish TV presenter Sonja Barend in a concentration camp, and Jewish author Leon de Winter in “Treblinka-style fornication with barbed wire around his dick”. When Jewish historian Evelien Gans criticised Van Gogh, he wrote in Folia Civitatis magazine: “I suspect that Ms Gans gets wet dreams about being fucked by Dr Mengele.” He hoped (Volkskrant, February 1995) Gans would sue him: “Because then Ms Gans will have to explain in court that she claims that she does not get wet dreams about Dr Mengele.”

    The rest of the article is revealing about Van Gogh’s disgusting views.

    Also, as for women

    Already in his first movie “Luger” (1981), Van Gogh, with sadistic pleasure, had a gangster push his pistol in a woman’s vagina. In the following 23 years he often spoke with much contempt of women and feminism, and of gays, whom he called “dribbling chocolate knights”. “Most women I consider little speaking cunts. Women do not think with their heads, but with their cunt”, he wrote. “Motherhood is the crown on your being a women!”, he often shouted. He referred to feminist authors as “the fossile little vaginal lips” of Left and feminist magazines. Indeed, he spoke out against all critical women: “The girls of 50 of today are not used to criticism. They are the product of an era which was dominated by “we women demand”. Never criticized, always morally right and now in bed alone.” For the 47 year old Van Gogh was very open about only having relationships with very young women, without – as he wrote – “hanging tits”.

    I suppose these views didn’t transfer to the form of modern dance.

  8. Count: If you read my blog properly you would see that I was agreeing with Halliday’s assessment that Van Gogh should not have been murdered but prosecuted for his anti-Muslim bigotry. As for Hitchens, I don’t care about his views on the Qur’an etc. It is for his shameful support for the utter liars who launched the Iraq war that I said the world was better off without him. At least he isn’t here to promote more deceitful wars.

    • hindutva inshallah says:

      Hear hear, prosecute a man for anti-muslim bigotry. Should we also prosecute those for homophobia as well?

  9. aculturedlad says:

    Loved this post, you at the panel talk and the show! Now, although I have some different opinions on the show to you I think that the show must be praised for all the reasons you gave above. What I thought was s fantastic about this play is that it got people talking and got me so interested in the subject matter.

    Would love it if you could check out my review and leave a comment? 🙂

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