The Inconvenient Muslim

What does 'free speech' mean for Muslims and the misconception of Islam?

Walking down the bustling Holborn High street, I noticed that it was the epitome of London night life. Bright lights, buskers, the different aromas of food coming out of delis and restaurants on the street. Making my way to Red Lion Street, I wondered what the evening would hold. Turning right onto Conway Hall, I was astounded by the floods of people gathered outside, bustling around, chatting and laughing, and may I add, there were several non-Muslims which surprised me.

The Conway Hall Ethical Society is thought to be the oldest surviving free-thinking organisation in the world and can be traced back to the eighteenth century. A fitting venue, then for tonight’s topic: free speech and Islam.

I took a seat and soaked in my surroundings. Almost immediately my eyes were drawn to the wide stage, decorated with plump blue armchairs and decorative pillows. There was a slogan projected onto the back of the stage: TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE.

Julia Farrington, an activist at Index on Censorhsip, took to the stage to talk about Index as an organisation that fights for free speech and free expression. Her speech also served as an introduction to the evening and the topics to be addressed, including censorship of the play, Homegrown – its production was pulled almost as soon as contracts had been signed.

Expert panellists included Hassan Mahamdallie, who is a playwright and the director of the Muslim Institute, Tom Slater, deputy editor of Spiked online, and Clara Glynn, a television and radio writer. The conversation was started with formal introductions, with each member of the panel introduced by the chair (Mahamdallie).

It was a fascinating evening to say the least. A brief discussion ensued amongst the panellists, considering the importance of free speech and the effects of censorship in the news. They discussed Homegrown, a play created by Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy to creative narratives of Muslims BY Muslims, something that seems to be lacking in the media and in society.

“Muslims are only ever the object in an endless national conversation
around Islam, rarely invited to define their own narratives. Homegrown
probed, pushed back, and hoped to move representations of Muslims beyond
simple caricatures and crude Orientalist fantasies. For trying to do
that we feel we were censored.”

– Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy (artistic team Homegrown)

Right now, who is creating the narratives? Who is dominating the voices? Why and how are these voices separating or uniting the voices? Who are the ‘good’ Muslims and who are the ‘bad’ Muslims? Who decides who belongs where?

These questions were some of the many that the playwrights sought to explore with the National Youth Theatre in the summer of 2015. They wanted to explore the differences and effectiveness of government programmes like the Prevent strategy. Do these programmes help authorities to stop radicalization and prevent those who are vulnerable to being drawn to violence? Or do they contribute to creating an environment that isolates an entire community?

The panelists invited members of the audience to speak about their opinions on blocking free speech and the effects of the withdrawal of the play, and this is where it got interesting. It was a rather nerve wracking experience to say the least, with some audience members standing up and seeming to confirm the usual stereotypes. From shouts of how Muslim women are ‘oppressed’ to blaming the religion for female genital mutilation (which is a heinous cultural practice to say the least, and not religious), to people yelling about burkas and suicide bombing, I was absolutely appalled by the brazen expression of such ignorance. I lost track of how many times I raised my eyebrows or rolled my eyes! I observed the mannerisms and voice of each audience member, and certainly had my own responses prepared… mentally!

Looking back on it nowI appreciate the whole evening. It showed me that the narratives for actual Muslim people were muted, and that the views and opinions of outsiders, those who aren’t even aware of something as simple as the five pillars of Islam, are rampant in the media and throughout society. Yes, people have voices and I am pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed seeing and hearing people who were not afraid to speak up. It helped me to recognise the deep divisions within our own society as they really are.

But who is protected by the principle of free speech? Why do some people stand behind it and use it as a defense to say some truly abhorrent things? Why is it difficult for those with privilege to acknowledge it?  Why are some praised, yet others silenced? Why do some relish free expression while others feel threatened, staying silent for fear of humiliation? Will free speech ever be fair?