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!]