Statement of explanation for withdrawal from Bradford Literature Festival 2019 – Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan – published online 17.06.2019.
I regret to announce my withdrawal from participation in the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF) this year due to becoming aware of funding and support given to BLF by the Home Office’s ‘Building a Stronger Britain Together’ fund that is part of the Counter Extremism Strategy (a list of other recipients can be found on the government’s website). I apologise to anyone who was hoping to see my work at the festival but I have come to this decision through deliberation and much thought, my intent is not to burn bridges with BLF but to take a stance against working with or legitimising the Counter Extremism strategy.
I think BLF do a valuable service to the local and wider community; the team create a space that has been critical for many people and that sparks exciting conversations, art, and ideas. I was looking forward to speak about my co-authored book, perform my solo-show and spoken-word poetry at the festival (especially with it being the town of my birth!) however, I have made the decision to withdraw (and my co-authors have withdrawn in solidarity) for the following reasons:
The decision to not participate in BLF this year started with seeing the festival on the list of groups supported by ‘Building a Stronger Britain Together’ (BSBT). BSBT is a Home Office-led fund and support service that is part of the government’s Counter-Extremism strategy. On its webpage it defines itself as ‘funding and support for groups involved in counter-extremism projects in their communities’. This is expanded upon as organisations working to ‘create more resilient communities, stand up to extremism in all its forms and offer vulnerable individuals a positive alternative’. The support includes in-kind support as well as targeted funding ‘for specific projects with demonstrable outcomes which provide a positive alternative to extremist voices’. I was alarmed to see BLF on the list of BSBT recipients as it implied that the festival had a Counter Extremism angle to it which to my mind would undermine its aim and inclusivity since it would be legitimising the government’s approach to Muslims. The government’s Counter Extremism strategy relies on the premise that Muslims are predisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance, rather than that the material and systemic conditions of economic, racial and Islamophobic violence need addressing as causes of individual perpetration of violence. If BLF were connected to BSBT then there was a suggestion that access to literature/something like a literature festival can ‘reduce the risk of radicalisation’, which in turn reinforces the logic that the onus for ending disenfranchisement and political violence lies with individuals, not the state or institutions that create the conditions and context of that violence (austerity, foreign policy, structural racism, surveillance). I therefore contacted the BLF organisers to understand further.
After a helpful conversation with the organisers it was clear that the intentions of BLF were not those of the Counter Extremism (CE) strategy but this was a source of funding for community projects in the lead up to the festival. However, whilst intentions are important, I believe that taking CE money in any circumstance legitimises the strategy of the state which approaches Muslims as criminal. Taking CE funding gives CE credibility even if there is hope to use the funding in other/unanticipated ways – especially when taken by Muslim organisations/Muslim-led organisations. Therefore even if unintentional or well-intentioned by taking such support the narrative that Muslims need to be monitored and put ‘on the right path’ because they’re otherwise on a trajectory to violence, is reinforced.
Moreover, whilst I sympathise with BLF that funding pots for doing work with marginalised Muslim groups in a context of austerity are not hugely available, I believe this is a part of the apparatus of tools used by the government to legitimise CE. With one hand wider funding is removed, and with the other, CE funding is made available. This means the ways we are able to work with our own communities become dependent on the very project which sees us as criminal by default. I feel that taking funding/support such as BSBT also provides CE access to groups it could not access without us, and with strings attached – e.g. the requirement to give demonstrable outcomes that relate to extremism – this consolidates the framing of Muslims as universally prone to violence unless deterred. Whilst I therefore sympathise with funding scarcity, I do not believe it can justify us legitimising the state’s strategy that criminalises us.
On a personal note my withdrawal is also necessary because the work I was going to present at BLF (book, solo-show and poetry) directly criticises the government’s CE agenda for the way it criminalises Muslims. Much of my writing protests CE and its Islamophobia and explores the experience of being seen always through a framework of needing to prove our ‘goodness’. Although I have been assured that the main festival is not receiving BSBT funding, the connection to BSBT still makes me feel that to present my work at BLF would be endorsing the approach I repeatedly criticise and may even frame my work as countering extremism which it is absolutely not. Moreover, as far as I understand, the BSBT funding has not gone towards the main festival but prior engagement events, especially with Muslim women. By these events being funded by BSBT I fear this specifically perpetuates other narratives I directly oppose in my work: the way Muslim women are only ever seen as mothers of problematic households and reproducers of problematic families. Such ideas are constantly projected onto me and if they were part of the BSBT logic that enabled the funding of the programmes, again, I cannot both critique and endorse such CE narratives.
Ultimately I hope my withdrawal is not self-indulgent or unfair. I do not have a huge platform so perhaps there are more impactful ways I could have made this statement and perhaps there are people who benefitted in very valuable ways from the BLF programmes done through the BSBT fund – but the ultimate problem for me is not the intent, or individuals who benefited, it is the source of the money and what taking it legitimises. I cannot endorse collaboration with the Counter Extremism project under any circumstances and I want to show others that we don’t have to accept that either. To work with the CE project or take their support/funding legitimises the entire apparatus which relies on bad science, bad faith and structural racism (as many academics and practitioners have repeatedly written about). For me to work with BLF whilst BLF has taken this funding for projects directly supported by BSBT would be to suggest I don’t think there should be any repercussions for working with CE.
I pray that in coming years BLF’s inclusivity isn’t compromised by having to rely on funding that comes from pots that criminalise the same communities they hope to engage. I apologise sincerely for the administrative burden my withdrawal and that of my co-authors will cause, as well as for any wrong or harm in my decision. I appreciate the time of the organisers and especially Syima in talking to me and retaining an open dialogue. I do not intend to burn any bridges between BLF and myself, only to take a stance against working with BSBT, the Counter Extremism strategy and the Home Office with all its violent arms (border violence, structural racism and Islamophobia, the detention and deportation systems, etc).
I apologise to anyone who was hoping to engage with me or my work at BLF but am confident that if you follow my work then my decision to withdraw is a logical one to you. I hope my withdrawal may also inspire others out of the scarcity mindset – as artists, writers, creatives or activists we sometimes act as if any chance to share our work is the last chance, but the choice of where and when and who we perform for is just as important as the content itself. And Allah knows best.
After I published this on twitter over 11 other artists withdrew including: Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindira, Malia Bouattia, Sahar al-Faifi, Hussein Kesvani, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Paula Akpan, Madiha Raza, Lauren Booth, Lowkey, Siana Bangura and more who did so privately.
I took part in this debate about it:
And wrote this piece in the guardian about it: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/24/bradford-literary-festival-counter-extremism-funding-boycott
And alongside other activists organised this event in response: https://www.facebook.com/events/2248082352188732/2253653694964931
This is just the beginning of our collective resistance to the insidious normalisation of Counter Extremism logics throughout civil society and our public and private institutions.