Islamophobia is alive and well in Britain’s art scene. This could not have been made clearer than in Can we talk about this?, the recent performance by DV8, one of London’s most prestigious dance theatre companies.
The performance, which ran for almost three weeks at London’s prestigious National Theatre, received widespread applause from audiences and critics alike. Under the guise of free speech, Can we talk about this? presents a simplistic view of Islam and Muslims that only increases commonly held misconceptions and stereotypes in the west.
DV8’s Australian director Lloyd Newson aimed to undertake a “risky”, “brave”, “urgent”, “challenging”, “courageous” and “bold” show about Islamic extremism. In order to do this, the show highlights the death threats, fatwas and protests against Indian-British author Salman Rushdie, violence against Muslim women, and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
These are awful crimes deserving condemnation. So sure, let’s talk about this. Only “we” weren’t talking about this or anything at all. Instead, we were being talked at. We were being presented with an incomplete and simplistic history lesson by a talented group of dancers. Dancers who didn’t stop moving throughout the performance; presumably so as to not let the audience focus too closely on their dull and offensive form of didacticism presented as theatre.
The show opens with a lone performer asking the question, “who here thinks they are morally superior to the Taliban?” It’s a question that makes the audience think, but not for long before the performer lambasts British society for its hesitation in saying that it might be morally superior to such a group.
The Taliban is, of course, a reprehensible organization, and it may not be hard for many people to feel “morally superior.” They have attacked civilians and greatly restricted rights, especially for women, in areas under their control.
Yet certainly worth adding to this ‘discussion’ are the group’s origins. Their formation and eventual takeover of Afghanistan is rooted in the Cold War and the west’s support for Afghan mujahideen (Islamist fighters) in its war against the Soviets. The then US President Ronald Reagan famously said, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the 1980s, the mujahideen were the west’s “freedom fighters”, but when Afghanistan stopped being a strategic battleground after the end of the Cold War, the country was ignored leaving those fighters for “freedom” to rise to power.
It’s a similar attitude of moral superiority in the west that has allowed western governments to support the rise of brutal autocrats and perpetuate bloody civil wars not only in the Muslim world, but also in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Rather than supporting the people in these regions and the leaders they choose, or, what’s known as “democracy”, western governments have backed groups and individuals most willing to do their bidding regardless of the brutality they employ against their respective populations. It’s a model that is unsustainable as we saw in the Arab world recently with uprisings against mostly western backed despots.
By limiting the frame in the way it does, the performance also portrays violence in the west and elsewhere as if Muslims are the only ones committing it. A ridiculous idea, but apparently not for critics like Mark Shenton who wrote in The Stage that, “I’m surprised that there has been no additional security detail employed at the National.” Imagine, as Shenton fails to, that an event critical of Islam could happen in London without a violent incident.
There is actually one near-violent incident in the show, but it’s from a performer pretending to be an angry Muslim in the audience who throws fake faeces on stage and shouts: “This is shit! Islamaphobic shit!” Even Guardiancritic Michael Billington thought it was a real audience member. “I was later told that the intervention was a staged performance. If so, it was exceptionally convincing.” Because a Muslim man carrying faeces with him to the National Theatre is completely reasonable for Billington?