Censoring The Censors Won’t Do

Now a play about Islamic State has been cancelled, we can’t question its director’s dubious assumptions

Islam Screen Theatre
No chance for criticism: The NYT’s “Homegrown”, above, has been cancelled (©Helen Maybanks/National Youth Theatre)

When I heard Nadia Latif describe her new National Youth Theatre (NYT) play Homegrown, about British Muslims joining Islamic State, I could not wait to tear into it with the vim and vigour her sinister production deserved.

First, there was a small but telling point about her use of the English language. She did not love or respect it, even though she was a theatre director who relied on her mother tongue to put clothes on her back and food on her table. Any artist who could announce with a straight face that she wanted “to create a large-scale site-specific immersive play about the radicalisation of British Muslims” was a deserving target of satire.

Then there was her hypocrisy. Latif kept saying that her production was not agitprop, that it wanted to show complexity and nuance rather than follow a party line. Then she came out with this: “If the acceptable parameters of that discussion are to remain inarticulate mad mullahs in one corner and self-hating Ayaan Hirsi Alis in another, all mediated by think-tank dwellers like Maajid Nawaz, the conversation will go nowhere.”

Well, I thought, after that performance, I would have editors begging me to write. Perhaps they would start a bidding war, I mused, once again allowing hope to trump experience. No matter. They would take what I gave them in any event.

When a left-wing artist uses phrases like “mad mullahs”, she is being sarcastic. She mimics tabloid language to flag to her wised-up audience that they need not think about the mass oppression, rape and enslavement of women in the Middle East, about British Muslim volunteers throwing homosexuals off buildings, slitting the throats of charity workers, and persecuting Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims for their faith. To think about the slaughter and oppression clearly and condemn it without equivocation would be to announce to the world, or at least to your friends, that you are following the Daily Mail’s agenda and are therefore no longer part of the Left tribe. It is amazing how successfully partisans like Latif can deploy the fear of stepping out of line. Better to forget about the subjugation of women — never, of course, of you or your women friends — mass murder and the re-establishment of slave states in the 21st century than risk an uncomfortable argument with the person you met at the theatre bar five minutes ago and may never see again.

The “self-hating” description of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was not sarcastic, however. It was meant all too literally. In that phrase Latif revealed her worthlessness. A Somali woman who has experienced genital mutilation and been threatened with a forced marriage rebels and joins the fight for female equality. And she — what? — “hates” herself. She doesn’t hate the people who sliced her genitals or the Islamists, who want to murder her and did, in fact, murder her friend and Latif’s fellow artist Theo van Gogh. On no account should we see them as hateful. Only Hirsi Ali, the object of their violent lusts, is hateful; so hateful, indeed, she even hates herself.

If I had the space, I would have noticed that Latif’s dumb echo of the Israeli Right’s description of compatriots who disagree with the Netanyahu government’s treatment of the Palestinians as “self-hating Jews” would be funny in other circumstances. Here, I would have continued, it is just sick. Liberal Muslims such as Maajid Nawaz, who is denounced by both the religious Islamist Right and the illiberal white Left because he puts his body on the line to defend liberal democracy, and ex-Muslims such as Hirsi Ali are the true enemies. They think for themselves, they don’t fit the roles the directors of the theatre of identity politics assign them, so they must be damned.

I would thus have had much to say about Homegrown and its director. I would have taken them apart, one filthy, privileged prejudice at a time. But as I listened to Latif speak to an Arts Council seminar on censorship I learned that I wouldn’t have the chance to criticise. The NYT cancelled Latif’s show two days before it was due to open in the summer. The theatre’s artistic director, Paul Roseby, said: “The creatives have failed to meet repeated requests for a complete chronological script to justify their extremist agenda.”

Their decision is a sign of a change in the weather. Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Salmon Rushdie in 1989, threats to censor the arts and literature have come from outside the British state. Indeed, artists have often relied on the state for protection. The typical censor is an Islamist who threatens to kill an artist for failing to show proper respect to his myths. And very successful have their threats and the threats of other ethnic and religious extremists been in shutting down plays and exhibitions.

Now the British government has had enough. It is moving into the censorship business. It is telling universities that they must ban hate preachers — even if they are not inciting students to violence against women, Jews and homosexuals. The threat of Islamic State means that it is prepared to go into the once-forbidden area of suppressing prejudiced ideas rather than direct provocations to crime.

Lord knows, I understand the urge to laugh and say “I told you so, you bloody fools” to artists, students and academics who have for a generation banned speakers who were not inciting violence. All those who silenced opponents because some witchfinding prig decided that they were sexist, racist, transphobic, whorephobic or Islamophobic are now seeing the state treat them with the same disregard for essential liberal values. But, easy though it is to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of censors being censored, it won’t do.

At the end of her talk to the Arts Council Nadia Latif said that if Homegrown had been cancelled because of an Islamist threat, she would have been celebrated by those who profess to believe in freedom of speech. And she was right. Just because she wasn’t offending religious totalitarians does not mean, however, that the “irreducible right of all artists to make art” could be denied to her. And I think she was right on that too.

I think it, rather than know it, because I can never see her play. But if it is not an incitement to violence against Christians, Jews, women, gays and the other targets of radical Islam, then all of us who defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s freedom of speech must defend Nadia Latif’s too. For if we do not we will be as big a hypocrite as she is.