Communities that feel excluded from the mainstream can find a powerful, nuanced and persuasive voice through the arts.
By Raheel Mohammed
The windows were darkened to keep the world out, black material taped into the corners so that light couldn’t get in. As we set up the camera, someone said, ‘they’re gonna think it’s Isis in here.’ There were a few nervous laughs and glances; an acknowledgement that ‘they’ are always thinking it might be Isis. A borderless Muslim identity was suddenly felt in a small room in Mile End, east London.
This shoot in a darkened room was part of Maslaha’s exploration of why there are a disproportionate number of young Muslim men in the criminal justice system: it was an attempt to challenge, through art, how these young men are seen. A group of young Muslim men, some of whom had experienced the criminal justice system or knew family or friends who had, set out to recreate an 18th-century painting by Joseph Wright of Derby called The Experiment. (Our version can be seen at www.allweare.org.uk)
Joseph Wright’s painting shows a group of people at night, lit by a single candle, watching a scientific demonstration using a live bird that may live or die. The young men had chosen the painting on a visit to the National Gallery, relating to the idea of being part of an experiment and to the conflict between science and religion.
In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode distinguishes between simple fictions and complex, nuanced fictions of the kind that reveal truths. Complex fictions, he says, not only ‘console but make discoveries of the hard truth here and now […] we do not feel they are doing this if we cannot see the shadow of the gable, or hear the discoveries of dissonance, the word set against the word’.
Simple fictions create pat narratives that pit ‘us’ against ‘them’. They exclude people: those who don’t control the narratives are absent. As in paintings that celebrated Britain’s colonial past, the ‘others’ are just out of frame. Their stories become trite and one-dimensional. While these fictions may be at ease with exploring an aspect of another person’s identity, the whole is too much trouble to understand.
Recreating The Experiment enabled us to work with an image and use a vocabulary that avoided the simple assertions so often made about Muslim communities. These young men were using the language of the elite (elite because commandeered and exclusive, not because too difficult for them) to tell their story on their own terms. The great thing about art is that it is comfortable with ambiguity.
Similarly, our Muslim Girls Fence project (www.muslimgirlsfence.org) mixes fencing with explorations of identity, including through photography and film. My colleague Latifa Akay, who works on the project, notes that Muslim women are perceived very narrowly: ‘Relentless stereotyping and the silencing of Muslim women have generated a world that can only be described as oppressive; that reduces a hugely diverse group of people to a submissive woman in constant need of liberation’.
The pupils working with us on that project echo this when they reflect on their identity: ‘The media portrays Muslims in general as terrorists and dangerous people. They make people think that Islam is dangerous and a threat. They then say that Islam oppresses women, when they’re the ones who are oppressing them.’ Both of these projects attempt to undercut the soundbites. They are locally rooted and full of complexity – yet it is a testament to their strength and resonance that Muslim Girls Fence has now been picked up across a number of different countries, including the US, Canada, Turkey, Tunisia, France, Malaysia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia and India.
Iain Sinclair wrote that the city is a ‘fiction that anyone can lay claim to’ – which is why the arts in London are more important now than ever. If you feel stigmatised and under siege – as Muslim communities do – it is through artistic fictions and explorations that you can take charge of your own narrative. The arts allow groups who don’t normally have a public voice to counter what I call the ‘Elgin Marbles’ process. This is where stories are stripped from communities, sometimes by well-meaning individuals, and used out of context and without due regard to the rage, fear or hope they may be borne of. The result is a story that is often oppressive and unimaginative.
James Baldwin put it succinctly: ‘We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. What you were describing was not me, what you were afraid of was not me […] you invented it, so it had to be something you were afraid of […] I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me.’
The right to control our own story is a powerful one, and the story of Muslim communities needs new writers, new storytellers. We don’t need simple fictions, soundbites. We need the challenge of the arts.