Foreword from Artistic Director, Lloyd Newson 

March 2012

Can We Talk About This? is a verbatim theatre work investigating the interrelated issues of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam as manifest in Western democracies.

In looking at Islam and freedom of speech, particularly in light of landmark incidents in the West – Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Theo van Gogh’s murder and the Mohammed cartoons – inevitably the topic of multiculturalism arises. The term multiculturalism within the context of this work and as used by most of our interviewees does not refer to the positive day-to-day experience of living in a multi-ethnic society, which I certainly endorse, but those local and governmental policies that actively ‘promote, retain and sustain’ minority cultural and religious values.

Understandably multicultural policies were initially introduced to combat racism, discrimination, promote cross-cultural understanding and encourage a sense of shared citizenship. However, these same policies have also enabled over 80 Sharia Councils to operate within Britain. These Councils, or courts, do not offer Muslim women the same rights as Muslim men. Why does Britain sanction a parallel quasi-legal system that doesn’t offer Muslim women the same rights it confers on non-Muslim women? Issues like forced marriage, ‘honour-abuse’ and first-cousin marriages within Muslim communities, as  ex MP Ann Cryer explained in an interview, were constantly ignored by politicians for fear of upsetting ‘cultural sensitivities’. Have well-intended multicultural policies inadvertently ended up betraying the very minorities and freedoms Britain ought to be protecting?

In 2009, Gallup, a respected polling organisation, together with the Centre for Muslim Studies surveyed 500 British Muslims about their attitudes towards homosexuality. Of the 500, zero per cent said homosexuality was ‘acceptable’. How does multiculturalism then work for gay Muslims?

If I mentioned these issues or others associated with Islam, be it in conversation with academics, or friends at dinner parties – people who generally share my left-leaning politics – many either avoided the subject, doubted my motives for raising such topics or denied the evidence completely. Yet these same people would have no hesitation in discussing and questioning practices within Catholicism and Judaism if they believed them to be inimical to human rights.

Due to our desire to be tolerant, and perhaps because of post-colonial guilt and a fear of being labelled racist or Islamophobic, I feel there is a liberal blind spot, a lack of voices speaking up for some of our most basic freedoms, particularly when it comes to discussing Islam and multiculturalism. Criticising aspects of Islam isn’t a blanket condemnation of a whole religion, nor a denial of the right to practise a faith; neither should any religion be conflated with race.

How does the West support progressive Muslim voices that want a modern and moderate version of Islam which offers equality to women, homosexuals and tolerance towards other faiths? If we don’t, won’t or can’t discuss aspects of religions that are oppressive, as we do in debate over secular matters, how does a society, or community, develop? 

In addition to archival material, we interviewed a broad cross-section of prominent people who had first-hand experience of the interwoven themes of multiculturalism, free speech and Islam. One of the many questions we asked our interviewees, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was whether they felt censored living in the West. Why shouldn’t Muslims be allowed to protest against the Mohammed cartoons, lobby for Sharia law, denounce homosexuality or demonstrate during homecoming parades of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan without fear of arrest? Similarly should non-Muslims be allowed to criticise, without fear, aspects of Islam they find offensive, as they have done with other religions?

But who defines what is offensive and on what grounds? As one of our interviewees succinctly noted: “Nothing of importance will not offend somebody, somewhere.” 

Lloyd Newson

Artistic Director, DV8 Physical Theatre

March 2012