Art and activism of the ‘war on terror’ generation: British Muslim youth and the politics of refusal

Bogumila Hall, Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way.

James Baldwin

In the shadow of the war on terror, British Muslims, and in particular Muslim youth, have become the prime targets of the UK’s government anti-terrorism legislation and its de-radicalization agenda. Perceived as being apart from the nation—here but not of here—Muslims have been called upon to show their commitment to ‘British values’ and to denounce extremism. A poem by a young Muslim slam poet, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, captures brilliantly what it is like to be on the receiving end of governance that aims to delineate the acceptable parameters of “Muslimness”. Written in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack in June 2017, her “This is not a humanizing poem” is an intimate account of how British Muslims are forced to find ways to display their ‘conditional’ humanity:

write something upbeat for a change, crack a smile, tell them how you also cry at the end of Toy Story 3 and you’re just as capable of bantering about the weather in the post office queue like everyone, you have no idea how to make the perfect amount of pasta, still[1]

However the poem, which boasted millions of views on social media, is not a mere interrogation of the state-crafted dehumanization of Muslims. It is also a radical statement of resistance to the modes of subjectification that construe Muslims as threatening and alienated, and demand that they prove themselves otherwise.  If some Muslim representative bodies and organizations, responding to the pressure, have been eager to condemn terrorism, prove Muslims’ contribution to British society, and challenge negative perceptions of Islam, the young poet refuses to consent to the binary identities (moderate vs. radical Islamist) imposed on Muslims by the state:

Instead, love us when we’re lazy, love us when we’re poor, in our back-to-backs, council estates, depressed, unwashed and weeping. Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy-riding, time-wasting, failing at school. Love us filthy, without the right colour passports, without the right sounding English (…) When we’re wretched, suicidal, naked and contributing nothing.[2]

Her refusal to be constituted from the outside, or to be reduced to the narrow modalities of being, brings to mind the work of writers and activists of the black radical tradition. But it also speaks to the changing landscape and idioms of Muslim collective political expression, situated at the intersections of art and activism. In this short piece, I shed light on a larger milieu of which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is a part: a young generation of British Muslim art collectives and grassroots activists, zine makers, spoken word poets, writers and curators, who disavow politics of respectability.  This article addresses the social life of the art practices, their epistemic production, and their political meaning. My focus on the vernacular, the popular and the mundane aims to shed light on sites of struggle that are too often eclipsed in the accounts that privilege the ‘governed religion’[3] and mainstream engagements with the state by Muslim representative bodies.  The initiatives and aspirations I look into are not tied together by a narrow identitarian logic, but by a shared insistence on Muslim self-affirmation and self-definition, against the required self-erasure (Morsi 2018). Instead of relying on the state’s validation and proving their worthiness, as they are urged to do, young creative Muslims carve out their ‘free spaces’ where they can exist and speak on their own terms, and not in a mere reaction to dominant discourses.  By doing so, they prefigure radical alternatives, and turn their back on the state projects of co-optation, while also rejecting neoliberal consumerism and individualism.

From politics of recognition to the politics of refusal

It has been argued that neoliberalism and Islamophobia killed the UK’s radical anti-racist youth movements of the 1970s and 1980s and working-class racial solidarity (Ramamurthy 2013). Recent research on Muslim political participation in the UK has described how faith-based activism, the Islamic revival, and mobilization for ‘Muslim causes’ have gradually replaced the anti-racist politics of previous decades (see for example Elshayyal 2018 ). Others have focused on the changing repertoires of action among Muslim youth, pointing to the engagements that oscillate around everyday politics, horizontal networks and new technologies (O’Toole, Gale 2013). Broadly speaking, different strands of literature tend to understand Muslims’ civil and political engagements in terms of ‘politics of recognition’, whereby those who have their identities demeaned and distorted challenge the demonization of Islam, claim their ‘right to difference’, and demand inclusion and representation. Indeed, since the 1990’s many Muslim organizations have sought equality through the state and managed to secure some gains, such as protection from discrimination, government funding for Muslim schools, and formal recognition as a faith group (Elshayyal 2018). But these are also forms of engagement that derive from, and are constrained by, the terms of the governing doctrines (Hurd 2015).

While recognition is often construed as a remedy to historical injustice, my reading of the milieu of creative young Muslims draws attention to another other logic of action, which is not driven by the desire of acknowledgment by the “white man” (Fanon 2008). My analysis is informed by perspectives from indigenous and decolonial scholarship, black feminism, and in particular Audra Simpson’s (2014) rendition of ‘politics of refusal’. Writing in the context of Mohawks’ struggles within the settler colonial state, Simpson theorizes refusal as an alternative to recognition politics. Rather than seeking the state’s validation, refusal is about disengaging from state projects, disavowing cooperation and questioning the legitimacy of those with the power to recognize. Refusal is also different from outward acts of resistance that articulate claims and presuppose audiences. Refusal is not merely a ‘reaction to’—it is a turn inward, rooted in oppressed communities’ vernacular and embodied knowledges. Carol McGranahan (2016) calling upon Simpson, emphasizes that the act of refusal is generative, social and affiliative, hopeful, and willful—bypassing the state, it introduces new political spaces and builds new collectivities.

Understood this way, the notion of refusal provides a useful lens through which to consider a wide range of artistic practices that reclaim unrepresented narratives and undermine the state’s presumed authority to flatten Muslim lives and fold them into an official narrative of threat and alienation.   They manifest, as articulated by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Muslims’ refusal to negotiate their identities, to justify who they are and prove what they are not. This stance could be discerned in the words of Madani Younis, artistic director of the London Bush Theater, when at an event organized by Khidr Collective, a group of Muslim art practitioners, he declared:

I don’t want to live a life where someone else thinks they have a moral authority over me… the government has this arrogance to think they have a moral authority over the Muslim men and women who live in this country. And I am done with it (…) I am done with accepting the idea that somehow I have to barter for my equality.[4]

DIY (do-it-yourself) cultures, Muslim art collectives and zine[5] communities

While Muslims in Europe are often posited as ‘outside of modernity’, determined by their allegedly archaic and rigid culture, to which scripts they conform, rather than which they actively produce (Mamdani 2002), grassroots articulations of Muslim youth culture forcefully question these assumptions.  Over the last years, a vibrant scene has emerged in the UK of Muslim art collectives, spoken word poets, writers, curators and activists, who assert their voice as political subjects, affirm Muslim creative expression and racial consciousness, and offer new languages and avenues to address British Muslim condition. Self-published zines by Muslim arts collectives, such as Khidr Collective or all-female OOMK, have become one of the platforms for the young members of the community to express themselves and interrogate issues of Islamic faith, traditions, spirituality, art, and activism.  In a context where Muslim identities and politics are policed and reified, and where Muslims’ Britishness is constantly tested, these zines are also a testimony to what is usually obscured: the lived experiences of Muslims in all their complexity, the connections between the colonial past and present, and a myriad of forces that shape Muslims’ life trajectories, from poor quality council housing and austerity, to everyday racism and government counter-terrorism policies such as Prevent.[6]  In what follows, I highlight how young Muslims turn to each other to reclaim, celebrate and archive what is drowned out in dominant narratives, and how they articulate and enact their visions of community and justice.  

Decoloniality and self-affirmation

The new generation of Muslim artists refuse to speak in language, and on terms, dictated by the outside. Although their artwork disrupts dominant narratives, they do not necessarily aim to produce a counter-narrative to the mainstream Islamophobia. Rather, deeply aware that inclusion and diversity are not an end itself, they seek to create spaces of living, self-affirmation, and care, where Muslims can tell their own marginalized stories, and nurture themselves and their faith. This shift inwards prioritizes creativity over outward protest[7], and aims at generating conversations within the community.  As Sofia Niazi, speaking of her own OOMK collective, explains: “OOMK is more about creating space for people to exist within, as opposed to a space for people to be outwards; instead of trying to communicate to the world, it’s about having internal conversations.”[8] In a similar vein, a young woman present at the launch of the Khidr Collective’s zine called it, “a space for the community just to exist, not to have to fight or defend it.”[9]

Self-exploration and efforts to reclaim their own languages, narratives, and subjugated knowledges are central to the young Muslims’ cultural production.  For example, the second issue of the Khidr Zine focuses on healing and restoration (shifaa’) in a way that moves away from the commodified understanding of wellness, to think about care in Islam, healing through art and resistance, but also to address mental health as tied to the larger power structures that make Muslims disproportionately at risk of vulnerability and living in harm’s way.

These artists also work against forgetfulness, archiving what would otherwise be lost or ignored. They record stories of ‘insignificant’ individuals; recall the names of young black men killed by the police; celebrate Islamic figures and movements from the past; and document the quiet histories of immigrant communities in the UK, as exemplified by the work of the Numbi Arts collective, which unearths historical presence and heritage of British Somalis in the East End of London. By excavating what is buried in silence, these initiatives contribute to a re-writing of historical narratives from below, in ways that re-center marginal (often female) voices, cultures and faith, and which articulate an alternative vision of nationhood and belonging.

Prefiguration and new networks of solidarity

The ethos of DIY, zine culture, independent publishing, and autonomy is central to young British Muslims’ art practices, standing in opposition to mass-produced and commodified forms of cultural production. Whereas the DIY scene in the UK, stemming from the anarchist, feminist and punk movements, has been traditionally predominantly white and secular, in recent years there has been a growing number of initiatives organized by, and giving a central place to, communities of faith and color. These events, such as small print workshops, festivals and zine fairs, offer material spaces for collective experimentation, exchanges, and personal encounters, emphasizing the collaborative aspects of art production and consumption. With a scant online presence, they also act as free spaces where discussions are held away from the gaze of the state, which, through policies such as Prevent, aims to contain Muslim civil dissent. For example, the annual DIY Cultures Festival[10]–alcohol free and including a praying space—brings art and grassroots activism together to interrogate power structures in creative ways and to build solidarities that extend beyond the timeframe of the festival. But the festival also enacts utopian alternatives in the present, as it defies the logic of neoliberal capitalism and its celebration of professionalization, consumption and individual success. With talks given by the unemployed and introverts, and discussing issues such as disability and mental health, the DIY Cultures Festival praises knowledge from the margins. In this vein, the festival does not invite solely Muslim audiences, but racialized communities and other subaltern voices more broadly. As the co-founder Hamja Ahsan explains, zine fairs like this are driven by the “demand for friendship, things that are not based on competition but cooperation, things that are not profitable…”[11], and as such signal the world their participants want to live in.

Conclusion

If the politics of multiculturalism and Islamophobia have encouraged narrowly understood identity politics, and to a large extent stabilized boundaries between groups emphasizing their distinctiveness (Ramamurthy 2013: 184), British Muslims involved in the DIY art scene teach us about modes of solidarity and community formation, which do not have to be framed in narrow religious terms.  Articulating class, race and religion together, these artists and activists recognize broad commonalties among those at the bottom of the system, those whose voices and histories have been erased, and whose skills and knowledges are deemed of little value and disposable.  The communities they envision thus are not distinct, unified or bounded, but based on cooperation, exchange, and common experiences of marginalization.

Although not necessarily making demands on the state, these young British Muslims scrutinize oppressive power structures, create inclusive platforms for building collectivities, and through their creative expression, recast the meanings of ‘Britishness’. Thereby, they invite us to expand our understanding of the margins, not as mere markers of Islamophobia, racism and dispossession, but also as sites of creativity, resilience and faith.

Bibliography:

Elshayyal, Khadijah. 2018. Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, Activism and Equality in Britain. London: I.B. Tauris.

Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Hurd, Elisabeth. 2015. Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. Princeton University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2002. “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism.” American Anthropologist, 104(3), 766-775.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.’ Cultural Anthropology.  31(3), 319-325.

Morsi, Yassir. 2018. “The ‘free speech’ of the (un)free.” Continuum. 32 (4), 474-486.

O’Toole, Therese and Richard Gale. 2013. Political Engagement Amongst Ethnic Minority Young People: Making a Difference. Hampshire Palgrave Macmillan.

Ramamurthy, Anandi. 2013. Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements. Pluto Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

[1] Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, This is not a humanising poem, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9Sz2BQdMF8 (23 June 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] In Hurd’s rendition ‘governed religion’ is a manifestation of religion authorised and defined by those in power. While this brings into being, and circumscribes, new political actors- representatives and spokespersons for recognized faith communities, it also marginalizes “nonestablished, unorthodox, nonconforming ways of being religious”, or what Hurd frames as ‘lived religion’ (2015:112).

[4] Opening talk at the Khidr Collective zine launch, Bush Theatre, London, 15 January 2018.

[5] Zines are cheap self-published and small-circulation magazines.

[6] First created in 2003, and statuary since 2015, Prevent policy – as one strand of the UK counter-terrorism strategy – charges public sector workers with the responsibility to monitor and report ‘signs of radicalization’, expanding surveillance to spaces of state schools, universities, and healthcare.

[7] This does not preclude however their contribution to more organized forms of resistance i.e. campaigns against Islamophobia and the war on terror led by grassroots organizations such as CAGE and the Islamic Commission for Human Rights (IHRC), or student campaigns against Prevent and for the decolonization of the university.

[8] Author interview, 11 January 2018, London.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcUmlPzbDqs&t=91s&frags=pl%2Cwn

[10] DIY Cultures Festival has been held every year since 2013, with a break in 2018.  It is a one- day festival composed of exhibitions, talks, workshops and zine fairs, co-organized by Sofia Niazi, Helena Wee and Hamja Ahsan.

[11] Author interview, 10 January 2018, London.