The Cosmopolitan Possibility
Gina Khan would like to introduce Paul Sikander, the author of this article. A lawyer who grew up in London and the West Midlands, he has also observed the rise of Islamism in Birmingham at close quarters over the last twenty years.
As British Muslim women, we struggle from within to raise our voices and to be heard, we are looking through bullet-proof glass windows as we watch the MCB and other bodies manipulate the media or the government; we never get consulted. It is encouraging to find another voice who breaks his silence today on Islamists and the hypocrisy, control and Islamism that Muslim women and children can be subjected to in Britain. I hope every governing body in our schools, every teacher, headmaster, secularist, parent, artist, dancer, reads this…
Akram Khan is arguably the most original and significant British dancer and choreographer of his generation. Born to working class Bangladeshi immigrants in 1974, he was awarded an MBE for services to Dance in 2005. His work is in many ways an expression of his diverse cultural roots, influenced both by contemporary Western dance and his training in the classical Indian form of Kathak. He has collaborated with some of the most notable dancers, artists, sculptors, writers and musicians of our time and won numerous international awards for his artistry, and he is sought out by Dance Companies from around the world.
Given the originality of his art, rooted in his many cultural influences, it almost seems vulgar to make a subject of the religious tradition that he was born into. At a time in which individuals and groups are being reduced to stereotype, in which assumptions based on religious identity disable many people’s minds and their perceptions of others, it may perhaps violate the spirit of his art, as well as offend his own conscience, to even briefly place him in this narrow context. But on a simple level, as an example of what a British man born of working-class Muslim immigrants can achieve, reflecting through his always innovative and restless art the cosmopolitan reality of his experience, Akram Khan is exemplary.
It therefore disturbs the mind greatly to learn that if the Muslim Council of Britain were to have their way Muslim schoolchildren with an aptitude and enthusiasm for dance and other art forms would have their talents and dreams aborted at birth. It further horrifies that the MCB, a body that claims to represent the Muslims of the UK, and wields considerable influence in the media and has the ear of the government and influential academics and politicians, believes that its duty encompasses the dictating to the state of what Muslim children can participate in at school in terms of artistic and intellectual expression. That they would snuff out at the earliest point possible to them the hopes and dreams of any young Muslim boys or girls who have a talent in art, drama or dance. That they would ask the state to conspire in the prevention of future Akram Khans emerging from amidst young Britons of Muslim background, and that they would do this whilst using the rhetoric of ‘social inclusiveness’, and even claiming their oppressiveness and separatism to be ‘an agenda for integration’.
This attempt to smuggle a subtle sharia code into the fabric of British schooling can be read in a report that contains some common-sense and legitimate advice to schools regarding aspects of Muslim practice. It was published in February 2007 by the MCB in a paper called Towards Greater Understanding – meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools, Information & Guidance for Schools. But rather than being an agenda for integration, the report reflects the divisive, authoritarian nature of the MCB, and shows how it is attempting to entrench a particular kind of Islamist thinking into the very structure of the British educational system under the banner of ‘good practice’, and does so within the stream of a wider abuse and mangling by the MCB of the very rhetoric and idea of ‘multiculturalism’. In part 7 of the document, they say:
Dance is one of the activity areas of the national curriculum for physical education. Muslims consider that most dance activities, as practised in the curriculum, are not consistent with the Islamic requirements for modesty as they may involve sexual connotations and messages when performed within mixed-gender groups or if performed in front of mixed audiences. Most primary and secondary schools hold dance in mixed-gender classes and may include popular dance styles, in which movements of the body are seen as sexually expressive and seductive in nature….
….However, most Muslim parents will find little or no educational merit or value in dance or dancing after early childhood and may even find it objectionable on moral and religious grounds once children have become sexually mature (puberty). Some parents may consider it to be acceptable within a single-sex context provided the dance movements have no sexual connotations. As dancing is not a normal activity for most Muslim families, Muslim pupils are likely to exhibit reluctance to taking part in it, particularly in mixed-gender sessions. By the same token, dance performances before a mixed gender audience may also be objectionable.
This puritanical, narrow and restrictive interpretation of Islam and what is suitable for Muslim children to participate in at school is reflected elsewhere in the report when the MCB extends its gaze to other areas of the British school system. In section 12, the report says:
Art: In Islam the creation of three dimensional figurative imagery of humans is generally regarded as unacceptable because of the risk of idolatrous practices and some pupils and parents may raise objections to this. The school should avoid encouraging Muslim pupils from producing three dimensional imagery of humans and focus on other forms of art, calligraphy, textile art, ceramic glass, metal/woodwork, landscape drawing, paintings, architectural representations, geometric figures, photography and mosaic art.
Dramas: plays and artistic works for Muslim pupils are encouraged for educational purposes. However, parents may have reservations regarding participation in theatrical plays or acting that involves physical contact between males and females, the encouragement of gender role-reversal (girls dressing as boys and vice-versa) or performing in a manner that may encourage sexual feelings. Physical contact with someone of the opposite sex, to whom one could be legally married, is to be avoided as this is not considered acceptable according to Islamic social norms. Schools should avoid placing Muslim pupils in situations where they may feel uncomfortable and believe they are having to compromise their religious moral norms. Muslim pupils should not be expected to participate in drama or musical presentations associated with celebrating aspects of other religions, such as nativity plays or Diwali, as some of these are likely to involve playing roles which are considered to be inconsistent with Islamic beliefs and teachings.
For an organization that clothes in the rhetoric of integration and social cohesion a set of puritanical ‘suggestions’ for the state’s compliance in the oppression and closing down of artistic , social and intellectual possibilities of British Muslim children, and elsewhere in the report talks about the need to spend public money to educate the British public on their concerns about representations of Islam, it is striking that they should be so hostile to the engagement of Muslim children with aspects of other religious traditions. In their example, the Christian nativity and the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali. In the eyes of the MCB, ‘integration’ it seems is a one-way street, in which non Muslims must be educated on Islam, whilst Muslim children are to be protected from the contamination of non Muslim religious traditions. So much for multiculturalism.
The MCB offers us a vision of a world in which a Muslim boy or girl who wishes to paint a human face will be denied that wish because the men of the MCB have said it is forbidden in Islam, and have attempted to entrench this religiosity by injunction into the British state education system. A world in which Twelfth Night cannot be performed as a school play because the men of the MCB object to drama featuring ‘gender role reversal’. A world in which an atmosphere of extreme puritanism prevails, in which boys and girls are segregated to a neurotic degree, in which Muslim girls at primary school are forbidden to take part in fun and nourishing dance classes that their White, Black and Indian classmates participate in joyously. Where the whole of British society is painted as a den of ‘Islamophobia’ requiring mass corrective action through education and public expenditure, but Muslims are to be absolved of any requirement or impulse to understand other faiths and cultures, and are to be prevented from fully participating in the full range of educational subjects and experiences.
It is no wonder, then, that many British Muslims, especially women, are horrified by the attention and resources that the MCB command, and are horrified at their continual sugar-coating of a reactionary vision of society and human possibility by using and abusing the words of cultural understanding, harmony and integration. When employed by followers of the extreme Islamist writer and ideologue Maulana Mawdudi, the ideological ‘Godfather’ of the leadership of the MCB, multi-cultural rhetoric becomes an inverted, degraded and sometimes sinister kind of Orwellian double-speak, in which separatist special pleading, religious and political Puritanism, oppressive attempts at religious social-engineering, and a particular impulse towards Islamist mono-culturalism are presented in the guise of ‘integration’ and ‘social cohesion’.
The MCB is attempting to pressure Muslims as a whole to concede to their own Islamist-inspired vision of religion and society. When Muslim women and moderates see that the MCB has the ear of the media and government they despair and feel horrified and hopeless. A well-oiled lobbying machine, born out of the campaign against Salman Rushdie, the MCB is very savvy in networking and exploiting the disastrous and unfair impulse amongst politicians and the media to seek out a singular interlocutor from the Muslim community. They are very conscious of how to cynically use the rhetoric and ethos of ‘multiculturalism’ to advance their mono-cultural and reactionary agenda in the mask of social cohesion and integration.
They know which buttons to press, and how to scare off critics and Muslim dissenters with blunt and paranoid rhetorical weapons by claiming that Muslim critics of them are ‘Uncle Toms’, and non Muslim critics of the Islamist agenda are bigots suffering from a malaise called ‘Islamophobia’. To a large extent their success in this has been through conflating their politics and agenda with the whole of the Islamic religion and the entirety of the needs of the Muslim community in the UK. Their vision is bleak not just because it seeks to deny Muslim children the aspiration of art, dance and music, and to deny them the happiness of full participation in British society in all its exciting, cosmopolitan glory; but because it also actively attempts to bully out all difference, plurality, and variety of belief, conscience, and practice from within the Muslim community in Britain. Following the agenda of Mawdudi, it campaigns to entrench their vision of life and possibility in the very structures of British institutions and Muslim society, and most shockingly, it has done so for the last few years through the funding of public money.
The cosmopolitan possibility that many Muslim individuals in Britain aspire to and represent, from Akram Khan to the average hard working Muslim man and woman, is betrayed and violated when we allow those with an Islamist ideology to present their agenda as the path to social cohesion and integration. The double-speak and mendacity of the MCB and other Islamist organizations cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged: for the sake of British society, but most of all, for the sake of present and future generations of Muslims whom they seek to oppress, bully and coerce out of mainstream British life, into mental ghettoes patrolled by reactionary disciples of Mawdudi who spit in the well of multiculturalism and then call it pure, healthy and drinkable water for all.