The Bradford Literature Festival in the UK is more than just your average literary event. Since it started five years ago, the event has grown from attracting fewer than 1,000 attendees to annual crowds of up to 70,000. Set in one of Britain's most vibrant and diverse cities, it is the jewel in Bradford's calendar – a unique cultural space that includes and supports the multiplicity in the city and, indeed, the country as a whole.
That was one of the reasons I agreed to take part in the event and why I will be on stage on Saturday to talk about faith, religion and public life. Some of my cohorts, however, will not be making an appearance after the festival sparked controversy when it transpired organisers had accepted funds from the UK government that were earmarked for counter-extremism. Several writers pulled out after it emerged the event was part-sponsored by the Home Office’s Building a Stronger Britain Together scheme. The fallout raised significant questions, not just about the purpose of the festival but about how under the rubric of counter-extremism, far too much is often justified.
Counter-extremism should be limited to doing just that – countering extremism, the fanatical and sometimes violent expression of political or religious views. Yet in much discussion around extremism, it is defined in much broader terms. The understanding of extremism has morphed into something that might not be extreme at all and merely conflicts with a widely held set of values and perspectives. Indeed, the so-called extremist might simply be extremely conservative.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US and the 7/7 bombings in the UK, extremism took on a much wider meaning than it had held previously. The Home Office and the wider society became far more concerned with pursuing not only would be violent terrorists, but also attacking what was considered to be extremist ideology. Known as Contest, the official government strategy has four themes at its heart: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare.
As the deputy convenor of the UK government’s taskforce on tackling extremism after the 7/7 bombings, I saw clearly the temptation, both inside and outside government circles, to target certain groups in society – and it was the Muslim community that bore the brunt of that laser focus.
In the past decade, the treatment of Muslims by the UK government – and, arguably, by society – has been shaped primarily through the prism of security. The Muslim community has been expected to define itself in relation to extremism; often, it is either framed as a community prone to extremism or as featuring individuals who are fighting extremism. In either case, the community is inextricably linked to extremism or terrorism in any discussion.
It is against this backdrop that the controversy in Bradford emerged. The festival’s activities that were funded by the government contribution had nothing to do with extremism. Indeed, according to festival director Syima Aslam, they involved a pre-festival educational project focusing on literacy levels. And therein lies the root of the issue: why have the government’s efforts towards counter-extremism come to this point? Why are communities being targeted in this fashion, to the extent that even positive cultural activities are supported by funds with such negative connotations?
It isn’t that festivals and activities like the Bradford festival should not be supported through public funds. On the contrary, they absolutely should. These are valuable endeavours.
When I was invited to launch the book I co-authored at the festival, I was pleased to accept the invitation. After the controversy emerged, I had several conversations with the organisers and decided while the festival does not warrant unconditional support, it is an important institution in Bradford and there was not sufficient reason not to participate. Indeed, there will be several opportunities for me to voice my concerns around the securitisation of Muslim communities in the UK.
I do, however, feel strongly that when public funds are spent on arts and culture, they should not be pledged via the prism of countering extremism or terrorism. Our taxes should not be used to support the targeting of the Muslim community, even if it is inadvertently through funding projects a long way from the arena of counter-extremism. The work the festival and many of those in the artistic and cultural space are doing is important and deserves direct patronage. Societal cohesion and building up local communities are commendable aims in and of themselves. They are of legitimate public benefit and should be supported as such.
As the fallout demonstrates, when such public events are securitised, it actually damages the counter-extremism effort. The two aims must be separated and their purpose kept pure. When they are needlessly intertwined like this, it only creates friction, tension and worse.
There was no need for such a controversy. Had the government fund been explicitly earmarked for social cohesion or support for building capacity in local communities around the UK, outside the counter-extremism arena, it would have fulfilled all the requirements it needs to. The Bradford festival has stated it has no plans to take that money in the future. But what would be more powerful is if the government's idea of "building a stronger Britain together" did not have counter-extremism as its raison d’etre but rather, had community support at its heart. That would send a strong message that Britain is built on knitting societies together, not dividing them.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council and the co-author of A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Sages of Makka, which will be launched at the Bradford Literature Festival on Saturday