Words and Deeds: Incitement, hate speech and the right to free expression

This collection was prepared for the EU NGO Forum that took place on 8-9 December 2005 and revised in 2006.

At the end of the Maastricht summit in l992, the Council of Ministers reported on what they saw as a paradox of history: that racism had increased as democracy had spread through the post-communist world. Not such a paradox really. As Hans Magnus Enzensburger once said:‘With democracy, all the dirt comes out.’

Index believes that free expression is the freedom on which all others are based. Ronald Dworkin famously said in its pages that free speech is what makes people feel human, makes them feel their lives matter. But we also need to be clear about our fierce defence of free expression – that there are prices to be paid for it – and we need to be clear about the cost, and who is paying it.

Hate speech – abusive, dehumanising, inciting discrimination and violence – is an integral part of the ‘dirt’ that goes with democracy, often directed at ethnic minorities, gays or women. It is certainly the most troubling matter for people who believe in free speech, and there has been fierce debate over the years about that difficult borderline between free speech and the demand for equality of respect – not least in the pages of Index on Censorship over its 33 years of existence.

But then, on 11 September 2001, the world changed, and hate speech acquired another, newer relevance. The ‘war on terrorism’ (a war that may never end, according to US Vice President Dick Cheney) put civil liberties under threat worldwide. And since then the right to free expression has too often become a fragile filling, sandwiched between the imperatives of security and fears about acts of terrorism. In these dangerous times, hate speech is centre stage, and the ways in which we respond to it are crucial to our future.

The importance of free expression is as great as ever, as is the need to debate openly difficult issues – ones which may cause pain, offence, anger. Nobody ever said free expression was easy. Index’s purpose is to do its small part in creating a world in which the right to speak for oneself becomes the condition for allowing those who speak antagonistic moral languages to hear each other. We hope Words & Deeds will play its part.

Ursula Owen
former Editor in Chief, Index on Censorship
December 2005

With essays and contributions by:

RONALD DWORKIN A new map of censorship
TOM STOPPARD Is there ever a time & place for censorship?
ARYEH NEIER Clear & present danger
VALERIU NICOLAE Words that kill
REMZI LANI Hate speech & hate silence
OLEG PANFILOV The rebirth of nationalism
HANEEN ZOUBI Follow the tune, relay the message
JONATHAN FREEDLAND Where the lines are drawn
MARTIN ROWSON A classic Stripsearch cartoon from Index on Censorship
SARFRAZ MANZOOR Thou shalt not give offence
KENAN MALIK Are Muslims hated in Britain?
AGNÈS CALLAMARD Striking the right balance
ANTHONY HUDSON Free speech & bad laws – what can be done?
AMIR BUTLER Warning from Australia: don’t legislate against hate
MARY KENNY When speech became treason
PAUL OPPENHEIMER In the name of democracy
DD GUTTENPLAN Should freedom of speech extend to Holocaust denial?
AIDAN WHITE Journalism & intolerance: setting standards for media action
RONALD KOVEN Put your own house in order first
RICHARD SAMBROOK Think what you say
KENAN MALIK Say what you think

Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?

Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik and art historian and educator Nada Shabout  on one of the art world’s most contentious debates

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Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Dear Nada,

I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.

The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offendreligious and cultural sensibilities.

For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. Perhaps the key argument made in defence of the idea of censorship to protect cultural and religious sensibilities is that speech must necessarily be less free in a plural society. In such a society, so the argument runs, we need to police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs both to minimise friction and to protect the dignity of individuals, particularly from minority communities. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “if people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism”.

I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such societies it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And they should be openly resolved, rather than suppressed in the name of “respect” or “tolerance”.

But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, but also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply-held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. The notion that it is wrong to offend cultural or religious sensibilities suggests that certain beliefs are so important that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society, and the basis of promoting justice and liberties in such societies. Once we give up such a right we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

The question we should ask ourselves, therefore, is not “should religious and cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?” It is, rather, “should we ever allow religious and cultural sensibilities to limit our ability to challenge power and authority?”

Best wishes,


Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Mark Boardman/www.mark-boardman.com

Dear Kenan,

I too regard free speech as a fundamental good and as necessary. On the surface, thus, the simple and direct answer to the question of whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO! However, the reality is that the question itself is problematic. While free expression, and let’s think of art in this specific case, will always push the limits and “reveal the hidden”, consideration and sensitivity, including religious and cultural sensibility, should not be inherently in opposition. By positioning it as such, the answer can only be reactive. I thus disagree with your argument.

A quick note on “censorship”. Yes, we all hate the word and find it very offensive. It is a word loaded with oppression, but the reality is that censorship in some form exists in every facet of life, personal and public. It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance, as much as possible — not tolerance; I personally abhor the word tolerance and find that it generally masks hatred and disdain. No belief is above criticism and nothing should limit our ability to challenge power and authority.

I suppose one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute? And if it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?

For example, and I will use art again, there is a problem when art/the artist is privileged as “genius”, with rights above other citizens — except not really, since the artist is subject to other limitations that may not be religious or cultural, like those of the tradition of expression, funding, law and so on. This is not to say that a religion should dictate expression. We should remember, though, that the marvel of what we call Islamic art was achieved within full respect of Islamic religious sensibilities, but also pushed the limits and critiqued simplicity in interpreting these sensibilities.

Perhaps my view here is less idealistic and more practical, but I see many unnecessary attacks on all sides that do not accomplish anything other than insult and inflame. All I’m saying is that expression is always achieved through negotiations, including limitations.

All the best,


Dear Nada,

I’m afraid that I was no clearer at the end of your letter than I was at the beginning about your actual stance on free speech. You say you ‘regard free speech as a fundamental good’ and that the answer to “whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO!”  You then, however, go on seemingly to qualify that unequivocal stance but without actually specifying what it is that you wish to qualify. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to the issue of what is and is not legitimate free speech? Who should draw that line? And on what basis? These are the critical questions that need answering. You write: “It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance”. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but what does it actually mean in practice? Should Salman Rushdie not have written The Satanic Verses so that he could find “a peaceful way of coexisting with respect and acceptance”? Was the Birmingham Rep right to drop Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti after protests from Sikhs? Should Jerry Springer: The Opera ever have been staged (or broadcast)?

You suggest that “one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute?” Again, I am unclear as to the point you’re making here. Are you suggesting here that speech is only legitimate if it has “a specific message or reason”? If so,who decides whether it does? During the controversy over The Satanic Verses, the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar distinguished between “sound historical criticism” and “scurrilously imaginative writing”, and insisted that Rushdie’s novel fell on the wrong side of the line. Do you agree with him? If not, why not? You ask: “If it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?”  This seems to me a meaningless question. A “sensibility” is not a “right”, still less a “right to expression”. If your point is that all people, whatever their religious or cultural beliefs, should have the right to express those beliefs, then I agree with you. That is the core of my argument. What they do not have is the “right” to prevent anybody expressing their views because those views might offend their “sensibilities”.

A final point: to defend the right of X to speak as he or she wishes is not the same as defending the wisdom of X using speech in a particular fashion, still less the same as defending the content of his or her speech. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the risibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made. But I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it. There is a distinction to be drawn, in other words, between the right to something and the wisdom of exercising that right in particular ways. It is a distinction that critics of free speech too often fail to understand.



Dear Kenan,

Nicely said! I believe we are ultimately saying the same thing. It is that “distinction” that you outline in your last paragraph that I call a negotiation between all sides, cultures, etc. My answer is not clear because the issue is not simple! I am saying that it is not a black and white binary divide nor can one “draw a line”. And yes, “who should draw that line? and on what basis?” is critical and essential. I believe that should be reached through negotiation. The “wisdom” of something to exist is as important as its right to exist. But there is also the question of responsibility. Free speech cannot be “inherently good” or bad. The person who utters that speech must claim responsibility for its use and effects. The examples you cite above are not all equal. Yes, they all have the right to exist. But let’s think a bit about the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed as another example. Were they not an attack aimed to inflame Muslim communities? Was it not part of Islamophobia?

Was the aim not to ridicule and play off people’s fears and prejudices? How were they a critique of Islam? What was the point? It is not that “it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures” as you once said, but the how and why are just as important as the right to cause that offence. I agree with you that the fear of consequences has become a limitation, but that isperhaps because free speech has been abused.

Perhaps I am looking at this from a different point of view. As an educator, I often face the situation, equally here in the US and in the Middle East, of how to argue a point that has become of specific cultural/religious/political sensitivity to my students. If I offend them here, they will stop listening; in the Middle East, I will not be allowed to continue. What would I gain by doing that? By negotiation I test the limits and push gently. At least in academia, I think we are at a point where we have to teach our students to not get offended by an opposing opinion and to be able to accept various opinions and to be able to accept criticism. I don’t think I can achieve that through shock alone!

Best, Nada

Dear Nada

You write that your “answer is not clear because the issue is not simple”. Perhaps. But surely, if the answer is not simple, that only places a greater imperative to make one’s answers as clear as possible?

You believe that we are “ultimately saying the same thing”. I am not so sure that we are. So, let us try to work out where we do agree and where we don’t.

There are two questions we are debating. The first is about the legal limits to free speech. My view is that the law should not in any way protect cultural or religious sensibilities. All speech should be legal except where it directly incites violence. I assume that is your position, though you have never actually stated it as such. Do we agree on that?

The second question is about how we can define speech that is legally acceptable but morally distasteful. You say that where we draw the moral line “should be reached through negotiation”. But negotiation with whom? And on what basis?

You raise a series of questions about the Danish cartoons, and imply that the cartoons were not legitimate speech but created merely to provoke, and hence should not have been published. You don’t, however, actually say that. So, to clarify, is that your view?

Exactly the same questions were, as I pointed out in an earlier letter, asked about The Satanic Verses, and many came to the same conclusions about Rushdie’s novel: that it was Islamophobic, designed to provoke and inflame Muslim communities, that it ridiculed Islam and played off people’s fears, and so on. The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar described it as an “inferior piece of hate literature”. The liberal Ziauddin Sardar wrote that reading the novel felt like being “raped”. The novelist Rana Kabani insisted that it played upon ancient Islamophobic stereotypes.

In the case of both The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons, the majority of Muslims, certainly initially, stayed indifferent to the issue. A vocal minority transformed both into global controversies. So, what does “negotiation” mean in this context? Muslim objection to The Satanic Verses was as deep and as broad as that to the Danish cartoons. Yet, you seem to think that it was right to publish the novel but not the cartoons. Why? And please don’t say “My answer can’t be clear because the issue is not simple”.

In any case, the questions that you raise — Is it Islamophobic? Is the aim merely to ridicule? etc — are different from the question that we are actually addressing: “Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?”. There is, in my view, a moral imperative on free speech advocates to challenge racist and other bigoted speech. I certainly do not that think that about speech that offends cultural or religious sensibilities. On the contrary, the moral imperative is often to transgress such boundaries. It is the conflation of racism and bigotry, on the one hand, and of cultural and religious sensibilities, on the other, that is the problem. Opponents of free speech often conflate these two issues in an attempt to establish a spurious legitimacy for their arguments against the giving of offence.

Best wishes,

Kenan Malik is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book is From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy (Atlantic Books)

Nada Shabout is associate professor of art education and art history at the University of North Texas and director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute

magazine March 2013-Fallout

This article appears in Fallout: free speech and the economic crisis. Click here for subscription options and more.

Arts for whose sake?

Today Index on Censorship launches Beyond Belief — a case study examining theatre, freedom of expression and public order. Kenan Malik explains why it is that the most censorious voices hold the greatest sway

To understand the issues around the production of Behud in the light of the Behzti controversy, we need to understand how two recent trends have combined to transform not only the way in which the role of theatre has changed in recent years, but the very character of censorship in the arts.

The first trend is a shift in the social meaning of theatre — and in the arts more generally — and in the perception of the role of the audience. The second is a change in our understanding of diversity and of how it should be managed. The consequence has been the remaking of censorship which, as Svetlana Mintcheva and Robert Atkins observe in the introduction to their book Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression(The New Press, 2006), has become “invisible”, operating increasingly as a moral imperative, or as the inevitable result of the impartial logic of the market, rather than as a legal imposition.

Over the past 20 years there has been a growing tendency to view the arts in terms of its social impact. There is nothing new, of course, in the idea that the arts should have a social function. What has changed, however, has been the development of an increasingly instrumental view of culture and the enthroning of the audience as the gauge of artistic value. These ideas have become embodied in two seemingly very different political philosophies: the Thatcherite free market ideology of the 1980s and the idea of social inclusion promoted by New Labour at the end of the following decade.

In the 1980s, the Conservative administration rowed back on state subsidies and opened up the arts to the market. This process of marketisation undermined “elite” forms of art and encouraged more populist programming. It also led to a new emphasis on the audience as the arbiter of artistic (and social) worth. “We are coming to value the consumer’s judgment as highly as that of the official or the expert,” wrote the Arts Council England (ACE) chairman William Rees-Mogg in his 1988 annual report. “The voice of the public must… be given due weight.” “The way in which the public discriminates,” he added, “is through its willingness to pay for its pleasures.” The meaning of “the public” had subtly changed here, referring not so much to the body politic of democracy as to the collective weight of individual consumers.

When New Labour came to power in 1997, these trends became intensified. At the heart of the new administration’s cultural policy was a belief that the arts had a crucial role in promoting economic growth, urban regeneration and, in particular, “social inclusion”. Cultural organisations had to think about how their work could support government targets for health, social inclusion, crime, education and community cohesion. In the words of one Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) study, “Culture on Demand” (2007), the wider social benefits of cultural involvement included “the reduction of social exclusion, community development, improvements in individual self-esteem, educational attainment or health status”. The Arts Council insisted that only works that sought “to provide positive benefits for communities, such as bringing different groups of people together, reaching people who experience particular disadvantage or deprivation” would receive funding.

“Consultation” became a centrepiece of arts policy. “Cultural planning,” as Graeme Evans and Jo Foord explained in Cultural Mapping and Sustainable Communities: planning for the arts revisited (2008), “is a process of inclusive community consultation and decision-making that helps local government identify cultural resources and think strategically about how these resources can help a community to achieve its civic goals”. It needed to be “a consultative and participatory process involving all interested groups within the local and artistic community”.

It was not enough to expect the audience to come to the theatre or visit a gallery or museum. The cultural institutions themselves had to develop their audiences by meeting the needs of diverse groups. All “ages, religions, cultures, sexualities, disabilities and socio-economic backgrounds… should be given the chance… to find their voice and to contribute to the culture, diversity and creativity of this country,” as Sir Brian McMaster, in his landmark report for the government on excellence in the arts, put it (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, January 2008).

And this leads us to the second important change over the past 20 years: the remaking of our understanding of diversity and of how it should be managed. In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, set up by the Runnymede Trust under the chairmanship of political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, published its report. Britain, the Parekh report concluded, was “both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society”. Since citizens had “differing needs”, equal treatment required “full account to be taken of their differences”. Equality, the report insisted, “must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner”.

The two arguments at the heart of the Parekh report — that Britain is a “community of communities” and that equality must be defined “in a culturally sensitive way” — have come to be seen as defining the essence of multiculturalism. These ideas first emerged in the 1980s as both local and national authorities attempted to respond to the anger of minority communities at the entrenched racism that they faced, an anger that exploded into the inner-city riots of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The riots led to the recognition that minority communities had to be given a stake in the system, a recognition out of which developed the policies of multiculturalism. The Greater London Council in particular pioneered a strategy of organising consultation with minority communities, drawing up equal opportunities policies, establishing race relations units and providing funding for minority organisations. At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Different peoples should have the right to express their specific identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.

At the same time, as an instrumental view of culture encouraged arts institutions to view their work primarily through the lens of social inclusion and the commodification of culture placed a premium on audience development, the emergence of multicultural policies helped define both social inclusion and audience development in terms of the empowerment of communities. Central to empowering the community was ensuring that its culture and beliefs were not traduced.

For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument ran, public discourse had to be policed both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs and to protect the dignity of the individuals embedded in those cultures. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” as the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism”.

It was in the wake of the campaign against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) that this argument began to influence mainstream cultural policy. The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar became the spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques at the height of the Rushdie affair. “Self-censorship,” he insisted, “is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.” In other words, in a plural society each community should have the right to decide what can be written or said about any matter that it regards as being of crucial cultural or religious importance.

Rushdie’s critics lost the battle – they failed to prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. But they won the war. Policy makers and arts administrators have come broadly to accept the argument that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures, and that every community possesses a right to be consulted over how it may be depicted. It was an argument that brought together a moral claim, a social aspiration and a commercial imperative. Communities had a moral right not to be traduced. Social inclusion required arts institutions to give communities a voice and allow them to depict themselves. And the market established the audience as a key arbiter of both the artistic value and the moral worth of a work. All three of these strands were woven into the Behzti controversy.

How do we define a community? That question has been all too rarely asked in the debate about cultural diversity and community empowerment. In fact, much cultural policy as it has developed over the past two decades has come to embody a highly peculiar view of both diversity and community. There has been an unstated assumption that while Britain is a diverse society, that diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Behzti to Sikhs, or indeed that Jerry Springer: The Opera is offensive to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, or a Sikh community or a Christian community, all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community.

All such supposed communities are viewed as uniform, conflict-free and defined primarily by ethnicity, culture and faith. As a Birmingham Council report acknowledged about the council’s own multicultural policies, ‘the perceived notion of homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs or views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.’

The city’s policies, in other words, did not simply respond to the needs of communities, but also to a large degree created those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts and differences. They empowered not individuals within minority communities, but so-called 5 “community leaders” who owed their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state.

Shabbir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the outraged protesters outside the Birmingham Rep. In both cases, the conflict was not between a community and the wider society, but was one within that community itself. In fact, in almost every case, what is often called “offence to a community” is actually a dialogue or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists — not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti but also Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin and countless others.

Thanks, however, to the perverse notion of diversity that has become entrenched, Shabbir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Behzti protesters as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernised, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and simultaneously helps reinforce that stereotype. And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political, International and Policy Studies at the University of Surrey. With research by Bogdan Dragos.

We should talk about this

Cross posted from http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/

Actually, I seem to have been talking about this for much of the past two decades; ‘this’ being free speech, multiculturalism, Islam, Islamism, the issues at the heart of DV8’s extraordinary new show Can We Talk About This? now playing at London’s National Theatre. Lloyd Newsom’s company has, for more than quarter of a century, blurred the lines between dance and theatre as a way of, in the company’s own words, ‘reinvesting dance with meaning, particularly where this has been lost through formalised techniques’. It has always tackled controversial and difficult subjects, but the latest is likely to be the most challenging yet.

I was one of a host of people whom Lloyd Newsom interviewed in preparation for the show. I finally got to see the finished product on Friday. It was a strange experience having my words spoken back to me from the stage. The whole show is stitched together through other people’s voices, voices taken from those various interviews, and from interviews and debates on TV and on stage, including a spat between Shirley Williams and Christopher Hitchens on BBC’s Question Time and Jeremy Paxman mediating between Anjem Choudhury and Maajid Nawaz onNewsnight. You experience it in the audience as a tapestry of ideas, always moving and whirling like a dancer’s ribbon, but which builds up thread by thread, layer by layer, into a tightly woven, almost inescapable, argument. The voices are not recordings; every word comes out of the mouths of the dancers, which adds to the sense of perpetual motion. Their ability to dance and talk at the same time still leaves me breathless and bewildered.

The show opens, as most of those in the audience must have known, with a cast member demanding of the spectators ‘Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?’  It’s a nod to Martin Amis who asked that same question to a hostile audience in a notorious debate at London’s ICA, back in 2007. It is hardly the most sophisticated of questions. Yet its very unsophistication reveals so starkly the spectre haunting the liberal moral swamp. Had the audience been asked ‘Do you feel morally superior to the BNP?’, or even ‘Do you feel morally superior to David Cameron?’, I have no doubt that a forest of hands would have been raised. As it happened only a handful were willing to admit that their values might have been a mite more elevated that those of the Taliban. This has nothing to do with English reticence – the show has already played in Australia and in Europe, and the question elicits the same response (or non-response) everywhere. Everywhere it creates the same moral discomfort. As one Australian critic put it, after the opening night last year in Sydney, ‘It’s as if a quiet little bomb had been thrown into the audience to disturb its equilibrium from the start’.

It is that sense of moral reticence – even of guilt – at the thought of passing judgment upon other cultures, revealed by the reluctance to think that one could be morally superior to the Taliban, that lies at the heart of Can We Talk about This?   The show begins with the infamous Ray Honeyford row in Bradford in 1985, and moves through the Rushdie affair, the murder in 2004 of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, the Danish cartoons controversy the following year, and the banning in 2009 of Dutch MP Geert Wilders from this country because of his anti-Islamic film Fitna, all interwoven with discussions of forced marriage, honour killings, jihadism.  The emotion that courses through every scene is a pulsating anger at the way that liberal cowardice has interwoven with multicultural naivety to allow Islamist extremist to silence critics and to betray both principles and people.

The choreography is sublime, the movement spellbinding. Dancers contort themselves and crawl and slide and slither in a mesmerizing metaphor for liberal agonies. Yet while the interaction of the dancers with each other, and with the physical space, is exhilarating, the interplay of movement and word is less so. There are times when the two fuse seamlessly. The scene in which two women, including Javinder Sanghera of the Asian women’s centre Karma Nirvana, explain ‘honour’ violence while fluidly making and remaking themselves is quite stunning. In other scenes, however, too great a gap opens up between what is being said and what is being done. There was quite a bit of tittering during the show, because many in the audience seemed to read the dancing more as a reworking of John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks than as an accompaniment to a political polemic.

And it is as a polemic that the show is at its weakest.  I have been a critic of multiculturalism from long before it was fashionable to be one, and I am a fundamentalist in defence of free speech. And yet Can We Talk about This? left me feeling somewhat queasy. Why? Because, as Sunder Katwala observes, there is a naivety gnawing away at the heart of the show, a naivety that emerges out of the broader debate about multiculturalism

Discussions about multiculturalism often conflate two issues: the idea of diversity as lived experience and that of multiculturalism as a set of policies through which to manage such diversity. The experience of living in a society transformed by mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism has come to mean something very different.  It has come to describe a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

This conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.

DV8 is clearly presenting a critique of multiculturalism in the second sense, that is as a set of political policies aimed at institutionalising cultural differences, while defending the idea of a diverse society. This is the progressive critique of multiculturalism, a case for open borders and open minds. Yet, many of those whose voices the show uses to make its argument have a very different starting point. Their critique is not of multicultural policies, but of immigration, Islam and diversity.  In the opening scene, the Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford is presented as a nice, moderate, if conservative, figure, only looking out for the children in his care. To describe Honeyford as ‘conservative’ is a bit like describing Enoch Powell as ‘conservative’.  It is not untrue, but it misses so much about their views. Honeyford, in fact, held Powellite views on race, immigration and diversity.  In 1984, while headmaster of  Bradford’s Drummond Middle School, he wrote an essay on ‘Education and Race: An Alternative View’ in The Salisbury Review (which, too, was not a ‘conservative’ but a reactionary magazine), to which his critics took umbrage and which eventually led to his forced resignation. The essay certainly pointed up the disastrous consequences of many educational practices introduced in the name of diversity.  But Honeyford’s critique was as much of what he called ‘multi-racialism’ as of what is now called multiculturalism. He was hostile to immigration, contemptuous of non-British cultures and possessed of a little-Englander view. His comments on Caribbean culture give a flavour of his attitudes:

“‘Cultural enrichment’ is the approved term for the West Indian’s right to create an ear-splitting cacophony for most of the night to the detriment of his neighbour’s sanity, or for the Notting Hill Festival whose success or failure is judged by the level of street crime which accompanies it.”

Elsewhere in the essay Honeyford talks of the ‘hysterical political temperament of the Indian subcontinent’, lambasts a ‘half-educated and volatile Sikh [who] usurped the privileges of the chair’ at a meeting, describes Pakistan as ‘a country which cannot cope with democracy’, and pins the blame for the educational failure of minority children on ‘An influential group of black intellectuals of aggressive disposition, who know little of the British traditions of understatement, civilised discourse and respect for reason’.

Honeyford’s critics were wrong to try to silence him. But in calling  them to account it is important not to present Honeyford himself as a hero or a moderate or to whitewash his views and his record.

Similarly with Geert Wilders. Can We Talk About This? presents the Dutch politician as a doughty defender of free speech, banned from this country by a Home Office too cowardly to stand up to Muslim activists outraged by his film Fitna. The second part is true. The first part is not. Wilders is a reactionary populist who poses a bigger threat to liberties than most of his critics. He has campaigned in Holland to ban the Qur’an as ‘hate speech’, called for a ‘spring-cleaning of streets’ to sweep away Muslims, proposed a ‘Head Rag Tax’ on Muslim women wearing the hijab, and threatened the mass deportation of  Muslims. The fact that Wilders is an odious reactionary does not mean that he should be banned from this country or that his film (which is also odious and reactionary) should be censored. But neither does the fact that he and his film were (temporarily) banned mean that we should treat him as a free speech hero.

Criticism of reactionaries, such as Honeyford or Wilders, and of illiberal actions against Islamists, such as the six-year prison sentences handed down to London protestors against the Danish cartoons, is conveyed in Can We Talk About This? largely through the voices of Islamist extremists. There are virtually no secular voices, radical or liberal, or Muslim mainstream ones, confronting the likes of Honeyford or Wilders, or challenging the suppression of Islamic dissent. This inevitably serves to marginalise such criticism, to make it appear as irrational and as unacceptable as Islamism itself, and to give legitimacy to the reactionary assaults of multiculturalism and to the illiberal actions of the state. This, in turn, warps the critique of multiculturalism, and allows the reactionary voices to hijack it. There can be no progressive challenge to multiculturalism, nor defence of free speech, without also a challenge to the rightwing, populist, often racist, critiques that now increasingly populate the landscape, and a willingness to defend the right of all people to express their beliefs, however odious those beliefs may seem.

Perhaps such criticism is unfair. After all, Can We Talk About This? is physical theatre not a roundtable discussion. Yet the show needs, indeed demands, such criticism, ironically, because of the depth of research that has gone into the production and the very intelligence of the argument, because it sets itself up, from that very first question to the audience, as an engaged polemic, as a challenge to the accepted narrative on free speech, multiculturalism and Islam.  The ambition of the show, and its willingness to stomp all over the debate, is its great strength; its unwillingness to be more nuanced about whose boots are stomping where is its great weakness.

Can We Talk About This? is, like all DV8 works, both thought provoking and gut-wrenching, food for mind and heart. It is the kind of bold, polemical spectacle that the theatre so badly needs, a world away from the insipid offerings that all too often litter the West End stage. Yet both as a critique of multiculturalism and as a defence of free speech it is to be found wanting. Go see it – it is, as I said, unmissable theatre. And then do talk about this.