Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan: I’m boycotting the festival because of its counter-extremism funding
Three days ago I shared a public statement explaining my withdrawal from the Bradford literature festival 2019. By the morning of 24 June, 11 others scheduled to speak had also withdrawn (Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindira, Malia Bouattia, Sahar Al-Faifi, Dilly Hussain, Hussein Kesvani, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Paula Akpan, Lauren Booth and Madiha Raza). We did not do so because we oppose the festival itself. I have previously performed poetry there and believe the BLF has done invaluable work for the local community through years of grassroots engagement centred on BME people. However, I chose not to participate this year when I found out the festival was a beneficiary of a fund called Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT). This fund comes from the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy (CES) and it is this strategy, this fund, and this connection that I and others oppose.
The government’s website describes BSBT as “funding and support for groups involved in counter-extremism projects in their communities”, and it was used to fund some of BLF’s pre-festival programmes engaging local Muslim women on their aspirations and literacy. While I am sure the programmes were beneficial to participants, it is highly problematic to suggest that the people the projects engage are at risk of becoming extremists due solely to their identity. It is rooted in the counter-radicalisation thesis that suggests that since any Muslim could become violent, all Muslims require monitoring. It reduces Muslims to subjects requiring de-radicalisation.
Bradford’s predominantly Pakistani, Muslim population has long been looked at through a lens of criminality. Not only does BSBT look at the community through that same lens but it also entails a level of information collection, because it requires reporting on outcomes. There is no guarantee how that information is used or stored.
BSBT requires recipients to show “demonstrable outcomes which provide a positive alternative to extremist voices”, thus framing the festival as less of a community-centred space of art and discussion and more as a deliberate, targeted strategy – one that insinuates that Muslim women’s educational and literacy levels correlate to extremism. Counter-extremism should work largely to displace the material conditions that disenfranchise people, which may lead them to express grievances violently – including austerity, poverty, structural racism, Islamophobia and more. A government could seek to change these rather than funnelling money into an apparatus that approaches Muslims as a suspect community living in a vacuum.
This is particularly pernicious in the austerity context, where government has pulled money from arts and culture and cut local council budgets so that spaces such as libraries and community centres are on the decline. It means counter-extremism becomes one of very few pots of funding that groups such as BLF feel they can draw on to create those missing spaces. This makes organisations dependent on counter-extremism funding. We refuse to give credibility to the idea there is demand for such funds. Some have argued that we should express this opinion at the festival, but this counter-extremism strategy would only gain more credibility if it could be said dissenting voices were given space to speak under its banner. I refuse to normalise it as an acceptable way to work with marginalised Muslim communities.
With others who have withdrawn, I want to expose the pernicious way counter-extremism works. We don’t want BLF to stop running, we want it to continue, but in such a way that the local community’s trust is not breached, art is not securitised, our concerns are properly met and acknowledged, and the government’s agenda is resisted so that funds relating to arts and culture, not policing and counter-extremism, are what prop up an important festival like this.
• Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is an author, spoken-word poet and educator
Saima Mir: Boycotting the festival is like withholding bread while we wait for cake
When I was young, I believed the good fight was fought bare-knuckled. With time I’ve learned to pick my battles, and to see beyond the black and white.
I will be at the Bradford literature festival next weekend because I believe in it and what it hopes to accomplish. I grew up in Bradford and I know the founder, Syima Aslam, well. As a cub reporter at the local paper, I spent many an evening at her restaurant in the heart of the city. We knew the city’s faults, we also knew its great strengths, and what it could be given the chance. I left. But Aslam stayed, and has built something amazing. Brick by brick, she has laid a foundation under the castles she once built in the air. It is important work.
Bradford’s children need role models. They need authority figures who look like them, and they need to see artists, writers, creatives, from similar faiths and skin tones, discussing issues that they and their parents face.
This is a city with segregated schools and high unemployment, with countless kids who aspire to a life of crime. This is a city that has to fight to be seen, for outside interest and investment. Festivals get funded every day. But organising this kind of event in Bradford is an extraordinary feat.
I have been the only Muslim journalist in a newsroom. I have faced Islamaphobia and racism. I understand the concerns raised. But I also understand poverty, lack of opportunity, racism, being misunderstood by one’s own, and by the outside world, all of which the good people of Bradford face daily. I understand this because I worked in the heart of these people. I understand this because these are my people. I also know the need to stand by one’s principles. But having principles is a privilege not everyone can afford. Boycotting the Bradford literature festival is akin to withholding bread as we wait for cake. It takes great clout for a boycott to bring change. Clout that we do not yet possess. Clout that the rich mix of this particular festival, a festival that welcomes debate and is led by British Muslim women of south Asian heritage, wants to help us build.
If you really want to bring change, and empower people, then do the event. Take to the stage. Speak your truth to an audience who wants to hear you. And give your fee to charity. Making a public declaration of withdrawal helps no one but one’s ego.
• Saima Mir is a freelance journalist and writer