Rod’s Blog 22.04.14
As part of our research for two new plays about extremism in modern Britain, Avaes Mohammad, the playwright we have commissioned, and I have been looking under the stone that is extreme right politics. We obviously expected to find some unpleasant stuff crawling about under there, but what has been shocking is how widespread so-called ‘extreme’ views are amongst what might be seen as ‘moderate’ thinking people.
Avaes is originally from Blackburn in Lancashire. He trained as a chemist and has a doctorate in chemical sciences. However, in the summer of 2001 when race riots hit the north, when the BNP were attacking Asian communities in towns like Oldham and Burnley, and finally when the twin towers collapsed in the September, Avaes started to write. His writing was mostly poetry but he also began to write plays – his writing was his escape. Creative writing became an antidote to the pressures and unpleasant focus that he, as a young British Asian with Pakistani parents, was getting from the white population – many of them friends who had suddenly changed and were increasingly hostile. Pulling him in the other direction were articulate, well trained members of Hizb Ut Tahrir, young Muslim extremists who were actively recruiting on his college campus by holding ‘study circles’ on the grass outside the college buildings. 2001 rocked the world and put brakes on the anti-globalisation strides that had been taken in 1999 at the battle of Seattle. The twin towers collapsed and George Bush called on all Americans to go shopping – drawing the lines of battle: Al Qaida versus consumerism.
Avaes approached me and said that he wanted to purge the last 13 years of anxiety and insecurity by writing a play about what it is to be a Muslim in Britain today. I got quite excited when he said he want to trace the journey from 2001 through to the bombs in London in 2005 to the present day. Then Lee Rigby was murdered in broad daylight in Woolwich and a wave of Islamophobia swept across Britain. I went back to Avaes and asked him to write me two plays: one about Muslim Extremism and one about the white working class extremist response – the EDL, the SDL, the British Movement… the parallel force of anger and frustration hitting our streets again so redolent of Cable Street in the 30’s and the National Front in the 70’s.
Our research has been interesting on one level but also very worrying. We stood in the street outside the mosque in Luton talking to members of the proscribed group Al Muhajiroun – which they told us is actually illegal under the Terrorism Act, as even just talking to them is an act of terrorism. They described the, so called, war on terror as a war on Islam – and it is hard not to see their point of view when you count the millions of innocent civilians who have been killed by American and Western forces across the Middle East in predominantly Islamic States. Their view on the suicide bombers in 2005 and the murder of Lee Rigby was clear – revenge is sweet for these angry young men. I wasn’t shocked, I was saddened that these young British citizens feel so alienated from their birthplace that they feel like the entire society is their enemy. Their passion and fanaticism is articulate and their knowledge of the history of the Islamic world is deep. Their understanding about the birth of the state of Israel and the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people in order to take their land from under their feet, is sophisticated. Sadly – it has led them to tar all Jewish people with the same brush and their anti-semitism was virulent. In their view all Jewish people are Zionist supporters of the oppression of Palestine. They would welcome another Nazi holocaust.
Suddenly, we both felt shivers down our spines. These young men, whose anger towards capitalist imperialism is justifiable, had developed an ideology that was in many ways identical to the racist and angry young men that we had met that very morning on the other side of Luton.
The word ‘extremist’ is unhelpful. These are young, intelligent people who, at the click of a mouse, can connect to like-minded and equally angry peers right across the globe. In the same way that USi strives to connect workers in struggle across the world through a website, Facebook and Twitter – the internet is the ultimate recruitment tool for young, politically articulate radicals whose main ideology is built around hatred.
Across the other side of Luton we met founding members of the English Defence League. Their argument is that they are not racist, they are defending everything that is English from the danger that is Islam – a danger they feel has to be met with violence. Again, on the surface, their arguments, while simplistic, were understandable. Just like the young Asians they oppose on the other side of town, it was when we pushed them to explain their deeper ideology that things began to be horribly similar. Like their counterparts they were all unemployed or in soul-destroying call centre jobs. Like their counterparts they felt betrayed by the older generation and angry at the ConDem government for not hearing their voices or even acknowledging their existence – except as benefit scroungers or worse, ‘chavs’. In exactly the same way they felt disconnected from their society – as society which they want to ‘defend’ but which they feel is letting them down time and time again.
When we asked the EDL if they had any contact with even further right wing groups, the answer was chilling. They talked of attending talks in pubs given by individuals claiming that they were part of the British wing of the Klu Klux Klan. All the individuals we spoke to were familiar with far right codes such as 88 standing for Heil Hitler and the significance of the number 14 referring to the key 14 words in Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ – the core message of the need to fight to defend ‘our’ people and the purity of ‘our’ race. It was becoming plain that the common view of the EDL being just football hooligans looking for a street fight was to underestimate the organization. Alarm bells really rang for me when the youngest interviewee, ( a 23 year old who told us the first time he had voted he had voted for the BNP) told us that he had been invited to Greece to meet members of Golden Dawn who were looking for European allies in their fight against communism.
There is no doubt that austerity measures being taken by neo-liberal governments across the world are creating significant tensions and that this seems to be deliberate – the simple and effective policy of divide and rule. As the great Tony Benn said, ‘…there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all, frighten people. Secondly, demoralise them’. Fear and demoralisation lead to fascism – we saw it in the 1930’s and it is plain we are seeing it again 75 years later. The internet is the strongest weapon for countering this – education against indoctrination.
Our two plays, ‘Hurling Rubble at the Sun’ and ‘Hurling Rubble at the Moon’ will open at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park in March 2015 and each performance will be followed by panel discussions and debates where the audience will be invited to openly discuss the rise of extremism across the world. There is hope if we agitate through theatre, educate through debate, and organise through websites like USi.
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.