Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).
It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.
As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)
Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.
The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.
In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.
As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.
A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.
Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.
Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.
Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.
And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.
As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.