Why a literature festival upset extremists

25th June 2019

This is a cross post from The Groundswell Project. Follow them at @GroundswellPro3

One huge threat to extremists’ existence is the coming together of people who promote unity and challenge hate. I know this because I was an ex member of Hizbut Tahrir (HuT, the liberation party) over a decade ago and some of my best friends are ex-Far Right activists. It is not possible for extremists to gain listening ears when a community is knit tightly; bridge building appears to be their kryptonite. When I and others with whom I work left our various forms of extremism, we worked to challenge extremist groups by joining organisations that promoted understanding and togetherness because we wanted to stop people making the same mistakes as we did.

Extremists will do everything in their power to ensure the continued spread of their disinformation. So it makes sense for the extremist group CAGE to attack the Bradford Literature Festival that is due to take place from the 28th of June to the 7th of July. The organiser Syima Aslam, who is a Muslim women, explained that one of the festival’s aims was to focus, “on raising aspirations and literacy levels”. It has nothing to do with, “monitoring and surveillance”, or demonising Muslim communities. These are the age old, and now frankly boring, arguments which CAGE, HuT, and 5 Pillars keep on pushing. It is unfortunate that some intelligent Muslims are buying into these arguments. Such extremist groups think they own the Islamaphobia discourse and are doing what they can to assert their narrative on this issue and focus attention on their agenda. Points made by those who have decided to boycott the literature festival are totally valid, but it is important to make sure the likes of Cage aren’t the default guys they turn to. There needs to be an alternative moderate voice where honest discussions can be had without interference from those with a darker agenda. If there’d been a positive, prominent alternative voice when I needed answers I may not have fallen into the HuT trap. It is for this reason I started Groundswell Project which looks to shining a light on the moderate voices that many do not see. These collective voices weaken extremists and cut off their oxygen.

Earlier this year 5 Pillars and a hard line Jewish organisation opposed a community event called “Love thy neighbour”. This was an event organised by Jewish and Muslim community organisations intended to highlight the help which Albanian Muslims gave to Jewish people during the Holocaust. Somewhat predictably, 5 Pillars moaned about it being pro-Israel and the Jewish group called it Holocaust revisionism, both objected vehemently to the event. Why? Because extremist groups don’t want you to be friends with your neighbours. These divisive groups can’t handle people opposing their dark and hateful perception of the world. On this occasion the organisers of the Love thy Neighbour event had the strength to ignore the threats and continue with their event; they stuck together and worked hard to create understanding and respect.

Recently the Home Office’s Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT) program has come under fire from CAGE. The program has been specifically designed to help community organisations build better relationships and challenge hate crime, discrimination, and extremism in all its ugly forms. BSBT has helped charities challenge FGM and honour-based violence. They have funded and supported events related to the Holocaust and genocide; groups that advocate for the rights of LGBT people; groups that challenge discrimination against people with disabilities; and those that work against Islamaphobia. All of this activity is a threat to extremists, because it promotes the fact we have more in common – negative rhetoric is becoming tiresome. Some fantastic work is being done to knit communities together and it is simply too painful for extremist groups to stand by and watch this happen quietly. Ultimately, they feed off fear and suspicion so they can control the narrative and if people are pushing back it is bad for business. Extremists do a lot with a little, impressively using social media to spread hate in an effective manner and this is a whole other problem we need to deal with.

Many of us, from all walks of life, religions, cultures and races have had enough. All the positive voices are still being drowned out by the barking of extreme ones. In part this is because extremist rhetoric makes for better news and is reported widely in the press whereas moderate voices and positive activities appear to receive less coverage. This makes it seem as if extreme ideas among different communities are the predominant voices and that moderates barely exist.

It is sad that extremists still appear to hold traction and manage to fool people into believing that a literature festival or Holocaust exhibition is a threat to an entire religious community. It is time to collectively raise the voices of reason and respect, otherwise we will leave the next generation to inherit a society where hate, fear, and discrimination is the norm.