‘Physical theatre’ group DV8’s latest production Can We Talk About This? is currently being performed at London’s National Theatre. Sunder Katwala applauds its corporeal flair but finds a lack of serious engagement with its subject matter of multiculturalism.
“Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?”. The actor, channeling Martin Amis, wants a show of hands.
Slowly, a few hands go up, including mine. “Only about a fifth of you.” That captures the reticence of London’s theatergoers – expecting a monologue, not an audience participation exercise – rather than any scientific sample of opinion on the question.
The moment gives Can We Talk About This? at the National Theatre the start that it wants. An 80 minute sledge-hammer polemic highlighting the dangers that Islam and multiculturalism present to free speech follows. The play is imaginatively staged and quite brilliantly performed by the physical theatre company DV8 in a production which celebrates their 25th anniversary. Their tick-tock head movements animating talking head debates culled from broadcast debates; their contorted limbs embodying the liberal dilemmas of tolerance.
What is missing is any serious interrogation of the play’s central themes of Islam and multiculturalism.
The prosecution indictment is now familiar: liberalism has lapsed into relativism, so that accusations of racism and Islamophobia prevent challenges to honour killings or forced marriages. It is vigorously prosecuted and rarely contested seriously on the stage. More often than not, the challenge to it comes from an extreme Islamism, to reinforce the core narrative about brave liberals taking on intolerance. Anjem Choudhury of the banned Al-Muhaijiroun group and its various reincarnations and his allies are, depressingly, among the most prominent Muslim voices. Except for feminist challenges to both fundamentalism and, for some, Islam itself, nobody speaks for millions of Muslims who can and do combine a sincere faith with their belief in the rule of law in liberal democracies.
Many (rather different) voices are conflated together into a broad front of the good guys and girls. Those offered a highly sympathetic, mostly entirely uncritical, hearing include author Martin Amis; Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford; Labour MP Ann Cryer; “One Law for all” anti-Sharia campaigner Maryam Namazie; Gita Saghal of Women Against Fundamentalism; David Henshaw, the producer of the Dispatches undercover investigation into extremism in Mosques; Javinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, the Asian women’s centre which acts against honour-based abuse; Flemming Rose, whose newspaper published of the Danish cartoons, and the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders are all presented as brave liberal truth-tellers.
Much can be said for many (if not all) of these voices, most especially the feminist campaigners. There is at least something to be said to challenge the arguments of some of them too. Habitually, they are asked “and were you racist?”, and get to explain this was precisely the question with which their critics tried to silence them.
It is surprising to see such a naively uncritical portrayal of the far right populist Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the National Theatre stage. Wilders features simply as a victim of censorship, wanting to show his film Fitna at the House of Lords, and being prevented by a Muslim politician, threatening a disruptive mob. In a play covering Wilders, free speech and censorship, why omit his call for the Koran to be banned? Or his proposal of a 1000 euro headscarf licence, a punitive tax on religious expression, to provide a provocative and polarising election talking point.
During a cogent, powerful account of forced marriage and honour killings, an angry actor throws rocks from the stalls, shouting “this is Islamaphobic shit”. The timing and the nature of that intervention immediately delegitimise the point. So the play contains no substantive discussion of racism, except its use as a device to shut down legitimate scrutiny. Islamaphobia is described as exaggerated special pleading. The powerful critique of the media’s coverage of Islam, put by centre-right commentator Peter Oborne, is ignored. In a play suffused in multi-media, we are never shown a newspaper headline.
If a play about defending fundamental freedoms opens with Amis, it seems curious for it to ignore the significant controversy about his infamous (later regretted) remarks about the instinct to strip all Muslims of civil rights.
“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? ‘Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”
The play offers moving testimony of the victims of Islamist violence. It lacks any interest in unpacking different types of backlash over the last decade: sometimes to Islamism as an ideology, sometimes to Islam as a faith, and sometimes to Muslims as a group.
In 2012, the play’s politics simply seem very dated. This is a “political correctness gone mad” tract.
A liberal challenge to multi-culturalism may have been an iconoclastic challenge in 1999. The play is offering us what has now been the dominant, orthodox narrative in the long-running British and European debate since 2005, surveyed recently by Alli Rattansi  here in oD’s OurKingdom. So we are played a clip of the Prime Minister endorsing the central critique of multiculturalism, in a Munich speech which contained little new to anybody paying attention to the speeches of prime ministers and home secretaries since the riots of the summer of 2001 and Trevor Phillips’ influential obituary of multiculturalism in 2004.
Having lived in our post 9/11 world for a decade, could anybody seriously still claim that there are “a lack of voices speaking up” if that means being critical of Islam or multiculturalism, as director Lloyd Newsom writes in the programme. This conflates the genuine threat of murderous violence from extremists with a mischaracterization of a public debate dominated by obituaries for multiculturalism. These issues were debated, with more depth, on the National Theatre stage in David Edgar’s Playing With Fire, at the National in 2005.
Too much is left out. We catch just one tiny glimpse of the football hooligans of the EDL, loudly chanting “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah” for a few seconds on a screen. That these populist, extreme attacks on Islam are missing from the play prevents it discussing the central importance of the symbiotic relationship between Islamist and populist far right extremism, each giving its purported enemy the recruiting poster slogans to demonstrate the conspiracy that they must fight, furthering their mutually beneficial mission of polarizing the public debate into a foundational clash of civilizations.
The central flaw of Can We Talk About This? is that demonstrates almost no interest in either Islam or multiculturalism, except as a destructive threat to the liberal enlightenment.
It defines multiculturalism as a doctrine which excuses wife-beating on the grounds of faith. I have personally been a critic, rather than an advocate, of multiculturalism before it was fashionable, having commissioned and published Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s critique back in 2000. I was frustrated by the play’s refusal to give any significant voice to any plausible advocate of a democratic liberal multiculturalism, as advocated by thinkers like Bhikhu Parekh, whose major 2000 report was clear about the fundamental place of human rights, or Tariq Modood, who has long advocated a stronger account of shared national identity and citizenship within a multiculturalist framework. Strangely, the National Theatre’s programme captures some of this debate. It is missing from the stage.
Having raised my hand to Amis’ questions, the play should have been able to persuade me of its case. I take a straightforwardly liberal view of the Rushdie affair, and agree with Christopher Hitchens, shown challenging Shirley Williams on this point, that the author of Midnight’s Children certainly merits a knighthood. The play lost my support by stripping out all complexity.
Multiculturalism is not short of obituarists. It matters which critiques of it are in play. This play made no attempt to differentiate liberal from illiberal critiques of multiculturalism; those which are a legitimate and important part of democratic discourse and those which would tear it up.
There are worlds of difference between the critiques of multiculturalism developed by Kenan Malik, within an anti-racist framework while remaining in favour of large-scale immigration, various critiques adopted by mainstream politicians such as pro-integration arguments of Jack Straw, liberal Conservatism of David Cameron, and harder versions. Nicolas Sarkozy, now putting halal meat at the centre of his flailing re-election campaign, takes the mainstream right closer to the hardline, populist polemics of Theo Van Gogh and Geert Wilders. Falling off the extreme fringe, beyond even the French NF and the English Defence League, you would find the online manifesto which Norweigan extremist Anders Breivik believed legitimized his killing spree of young Labour Party activists.
The problem is not simply that Breivik’s killing spree, in the name of anti-multiculturalism, doesn’t rate a mention. The truly uncomfortable thought is that one would have to scour the script with a fine toothcomb before finding much, if anything, in its sledgehammer critique that Breivik could object to.
Can We Talk About This? could be received as something of a companion piece to Nick Cohen’s new book You Can’t Read This Book. Cohen’s book is also, characteristically, a polemic, with a similar core thesis, challenging self-censorship, “the racism of the anti-racists” and a “squishy liberal version of apartheid”. But Cohen avoids falling into the same trap because, though he worries a good deal about the use and abuse of an “Islamaphobia” charge to limit legitimate free speech, he adds a crucial rider, writing that “the accusation was not always fatuous. As the millennium arrived, racists and nativist conservatives … could develop the most unlikely interest in human rights. If liberalism gave them a new means of attack, they were prepared to feign an interest in it”.
Lloyd Newsom’s play never acknowledges that. As a result, it struck me it is a very continental play, located primarily in the Dutch crisis of identity and post-multiculturalism since the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Van Gogh. Here, there is almost nothing to be said about multiculturalism, except to describe it is a mad advocacy of apartheid.
The play is similarly incurious about Islam. There is certainly a case for its instinct of presenting Hirsi Ali as a heroine. It would be a less two-dimensional portrayal had the director gone beyond her undoubted personal courage, and the power of her critique of religious voices who look away from violence against women, to explore her core argument: that this is a problem with Islam itself, not with “extremist” interpretations of it.
One scene, towards the end, goes into a trance-like stance, repeating “intepretation, interpretation, interpretation” over and over. In this most talkative of scripts, it struck me as showing a lack of interest in what the content of this debate between Muslims about the content of Islam is about. The play freezes the debate about the nature of British Islam over two decades ago, in 1989, between those marching to ban (or burn) the Rushdie book, and the brave feminists who marched in his support. We never get taken inside a mosque. The viewer would be most surprised to hear about, say, the chasing out of extremists from Finsbury Park Mosque, or the polling evidence that British Muslims demonstrate a higher level of attachment to British identity and British political institutions of any social group.
The play ends with the briefest of soundbites from a New York debate  including Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam Foundation, an ex-Islamist extremist now doing good counter-extremism work. Nawaz has been heard earlier in a brief Newsnight debate with Anjem Choudhury, which descends into a playground squabble, to Jeremy Paxman’s evident amusement. Here, he is up against Ayaan Hirsi Ali who, on the night, persuaded the New York audience to reject the motion that Islam is a religion of peace.
We see only a few seconds on stage. Nawaz trying to say that extremist Islamist violence does not represent Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people. As Hirsi Ali talks over him, his microphone is cut off and carried away.
Enough talk. The play is over.
That moment of silencing, for me, symbolised something else: the argument that the play never put.
Can we talk about that?
Another time, perhaps.
This article was first published on the Open Democracy website.