This article was written by Naz, Creative Arts Director at Quilliam
Ironically the Quilliam event is called Winning the War on Words, reflecting how we use words for entertainment, communication, messaging and of course peddling hate. It’s an evening of exploring faith, race, radicalisation and more importantly the story of us. However, we didn’t even need to get as far as the event to experience the expert wordsmiths of Twitter and Facebook. Who knew there were so many? Peddling hate is easily disguised as public activism. It’s salacious, self-righteous nature grabs an audience and name-calling becomes in the interest of the public.
‘Quilliam is out of touch with Muslims.’ ‘Quilliam is Islamaphobic.’ Yes, those old chestnuts are still doing the rounds, always a keyboard tap away to be levied at us at any given moment. Of course in the meantime the numbers of Muslims working for Quilliam has steadily been rising and now outnumbers non-Muslim employees. Or do we not count as Muslims? Are we not the right brand? Evidently not. What happened to the basic Shahada? The belief in one God and Muhammed (pbuh) was his prophet as the declaration that defines someone as a Muslim.
Among our number is the Azhari Imam at the Egyptian Cultural Bureau, where he leads Friday prayers and offers pastoral support. A non-drinking, pious family man, sounds like a real baddie right? Another is a female theologian who recently gave a lecture at the Vatican and presented the Pope with a paper on inter-faith. What? Quilliam supporting a female theologian?! Oh why did we mention she was female? Quilliam are so sexist. The expert wordsmiths come crawling. Because most scholars in this field are male, came the rather obvious and dull reply, as are female comedians.
The work of Quilliam isn’t salacious enough to set Twitter and Facebook alight. Among our number are those that pray on public transport to those, that rarely pray and rack up brownie points by staying up on that one night during Ramadan (Laylatul Qadr) because it’s worth more than a thousand months of prayers. Then there are those that do nothing but wrinkle their nose in disgust at the sight of a bacon sarnie. According to the Shahada their ‘Muslimness’ is no more my business than it is yours. Oh there’s an ex-Muslim too and someone thinking about converting or ‘reverting,’ if you prefer, so we’ve cancelled them out against each other.
It is a fair snapshot of Muslims in this country. Different. Individual. We disagree. We debate. We discuss.
So going back to wordsmiths and using the right words, Quilliam commissioned a female, Muslim comedian for Winning the War on Words. The event is on the 4th of May and unfortunately the comedian pulled out a couple of days before. The explanation was the ‘unwarranted hate’ she received in agreeing to work with Quilliam and that she was being aligned with being an advocate for Quilliam. Okay, shoot us down for jumping to the conclusion that ‘unwarranted hate’ is a type of bullying. Call it something else then. Either way a young artist being subject to hate and withdrawing as a result is not a good thing. I think we can agree on that. Or are we going to get shot down for that statement too for speaking on her behalf? For weeks now there was a genuine excitement on both sides of her taking part. So clearly there has been a marked change. What could our intention be? I mean it’s hardly a moneymaker the ticket is only £7. Those Quilliam ballers! Artists are not advocates. They’re artists. The arts are governed by their own set of rules. The brief reads and I am quoting directly: ‘The evening is entertainment driven and not about politics. We want different voices to be heard.’
An artist performing at Free Word, the international centre for literature, literacy and free expression is more than likely to be at liberty to voice their own opinion. (The clue is in the name). As the commissioning body we felt a sense of responsibility in the hate she received. ‘Unwarranted hate’ were her words. Why wouldn’t we feel bad? She was forewarned she might get bullied (exact word used) and we received a flippant reply that she had already had one incident of bullying but she could handle it. And as for the lads that wouldn’t give her an arranged marriage, you know where you can stick your chai and rishtas.
So in the turn of events we publically showed our support and apologised for the thing we won’t, or can’t, call bullying or intimidation tactics that led her to change of mind. Of course artists are at liberty to change their minds. It would be absurd to think otherwise, but suddenly we are being vilified for being the bullies for using the word bullying. Baffled? Winning the War on Words. It’s like saying sorry for saying sorry.
Whereas the actual initial peddlers of the unwarranted hate seem to have gotten off scot-free and the detractors of Quilliam have championed her pulling out as a victory. And we’re the ones with the agenda? It’s easier to make us the bad guys.
It’s a shame. We really just wanted a mixture of artists. We have another Muslim comedian on board, but all this talk of Muslims not connecting with Quilliam is tiresome, where the arts are concerned we are all on the same side. There is no agenda or profit motive except that Muslims are underrepresented in comedy, radio and television. Many of us from Quilliam have gone to the HaLol Comedy nights. They are great. I encourage it. Like I said the arts are governed by their own set of rules.
As an organisation we have grown. Perhaps, it’s time our detractors grew up a little too.