DV8, islamophobia and propaganda as art

Can we really talk about this?

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What is problematic [...] thus is not their criticism of Islam, but the unquestionable assumption that it is only Muslims who bring religion, intolerance and inequality to the table -Europe, like whiteness, is a forever unexplored norm, Christianity remains invisible behind a secular cloak- until, that is, it is challenged by a growing presence of non-Christians. (El- Tayeb (2011): 116)

In December 2011, the show "Can We Talk About This?" by DV8 [1] was presented, for 4 consecutive days, at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens, Greece. DV8 is a dance company from the UK, and some of us have followed their work for quite some time, mainly through the videos that accompany their shows. We were fascinated by their work [2], because their discourse was "really" tangible and performative and within this work, many of our theoretical references and immediate experiences were translated in the aesthetic experience of art. We also greatly appreciated how, using dance as a medium, the group could comment on gender, sexuality, identities, ableism, difference, exclusion and social stigma in an extremely original and insightful way. Their last performance, which we saw live in the UK, was titled "To Be Straight With You" (2007) and it was mainly concerned with homophobia. Again, in a way that encouraged freedom of expression and the creative deconstruction of taboos, DV8 criticized the cruelty of normality and mapped out a freer horizon.

Why are we writing all this? Because we want to convince you of two things: a. that our relationship with DV8 didn't begin this December and b. that we were 100% positively biased when we went to watch "Can We Talk About This?". Even if we were a bit put off by the glamorousness of the Onassis Cultural Center, we overlooked it because we were mainly interested in the content, not the package. We also overlooked the extensive advertising campaign that preceded the show (lots of posters in the metro = lots of euros). Naively maybe, but we weren't concerned with the fact that this would be the first time that DV8 would be coming to Greece [3]. Thus, we arrived at the front entrance of the Onassis Cultural Center, walked up the stairs, sat comfortably in our seats and the lights went out. What we then watched for two hours, speechless, was a performance that constructed without any reservations whatsoever a racist, islamophobic discourse, with its basic premise being based on the ideological rubric "(white) West is superior to the (colored) 'savages'". Honestly, the shock of our disappointment was great - not only because we had "other" expectations from the performance, but mainly because we found ourselves in the heart of a fanatical propaganda which, contrary to its declarations, never questioned or explored its position - it was simply accusing. The stake of defeat we felt in our chests was driven deeper with the prolonged applause in the end of the performance - but like every defeat, it can be a starting point to see things differently. So this is our attempt to work on our feelings of defeat, to understand what we saw (and why we saw it now, in this historical context), what could it mean, and what could we learn from it. Moreover, it is our intention to spread this criticism as widely as we can, since DV8 will be on tour with this show during spring, in several european as well as in some other countries.

 

Can we talk about this? The central argument of the performance

The performance begins with a dancer asking the audience: "How many of you here feel morally superior to the Taliban? Please raise your hand". Some people raise their hands, but from our seats we can't see but very few. The dancer goes on: "Very few, as I can see. The trouble with us in the West is that we have become, we have succumbed to a pious paralysis, where we can't even say that we are superior to the Taliban while we should. Because the Taliban have forbidden women from working and they destroyed the healthcare of their country when they assumed positions of power". We can't believe what we're hearing. And no, we're not shocked by the lack of 'political correctness' to which we're used to by the western european cultural production. We're shocked because we can't figure out of what use exactly could such a simplistic and dangerous dichotomy be. We expect that this introduction will be followed by its subversion. What else could this moral 'contest' symbolize? What is this "West" invoked by the dancer and to which everyone inside the theater "belongs"? In what context is the West contrasted with the Taliban? Which subjects are included in the category of "Taliban"? As the performance goes on, we realize that DV8 are not in the least preoccupied with such questions, that their goal is certainly not to explore the conditions that produce such simplistic juxtapositions ('us' and 'them') and that what shocked us in the first sentences of the first act isn't something that's going to be subverted - on the contrary, it will only be reinforced as the performance goes on.

The show is a dance performance that heavily borrows documentary elements, including the extensive use of footage from interviews and TV archives. These are used as a backdrop while the dancers talk, comment, present the arguments of the performance and at the same time dance. The greatest part of the texts is based on interviews or published articles, on biographies or interviews given to DV8 themselves. On many occasions, the dancers-actors 'impersonate' certain people (e.g. the publisher of the danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, or Hirsi Ali, the somali script writer of the film Submission) - or someone characteristic of the multicultural western society (e.g. the white british citizen, the second-generation muslim living in Britain etc.) The goal of the performance is to show -through research that has been made, numbers, evidence and analysis of the incidents presented- that every criticism directed towards Islamic culture is denounced as islamophobic and puts lives in danger, as the fanatical islamists murder and/or threaten everyone who utters such criticism.

In the following pages we contend that DV8 reproduce a certain discourse that (especially after the events of 9/11) is particularly popular, and has at its core the notion of the "clash of civilizations". According to the 'western', dominant narrative, the main contemporary world war is the one waged between "the western values of democracy and enlightenment" and "the backwardness and obscurantism of Islam" - that is, a war between Good and Evil. This narrative is explanatory of and organically connected with the famous "war on terror", as it ideologically supports the wars waged non-stop against Iraq and Afghanistan from the past decade until today.

The truth is that in this narrative there's a very obvious asymmetry, that is, it isn't Christianity contrasted with Islam, neither the West with the East, but Islam with the West. Between those ham-fisted categories and pairs of 'opposites': West - Islam, Progressivism - Obscurantism, Freedom - Tyranny, Culture of Dialogue - Culture of War, what is actually being constructed is a new way of expression for 21 st century racism and colonialism, of the age 'after the Enlightenment'. There is an argument produced in the political societies of the western world, which considers the characteristics of secularism, religious tolerance and humanism as elementary in the 'West', or in western culture. According to this discourse, the western society is 'superior', it is a society at the top of the evolutionary chain of civilizations. The christian roots of this society are buried in the past, and have no role to play whatsoever in its formation, as far as it concerns the contemporary, imaginary, western 'Us'. However, as El-Tayeb argues, " Secularism [...] is a concept that is necessarily linked to Christian heritage and would better be described as "secularized Christianity" (2011: 88), because "'secular' European societies depend on largely monoreligious and monoracial populations" (id: 91). In other words, a dominant discourse appropriates the tradition of radical criticism and questioning of the institutional power of the christian church [4], so as to construct an image according which western society is 'free' from religion, and to build a 'secular' racist narrative according which the 'West', unburdened by the superstition of the past, now speaks the language of atheism, or at least that of religious tolerance and, therefore, is superior. As El-Tayeb indicates, through this pairing of Islam with the West, " Europe stands for the universal, while Muslims represent the particular and thus inferior (El-Tayeb 2011: 82).

"Can we talk about this?" speaks exactly this kind of language - it places 'West' on one side, where many subjects are carelessly included: far-right whites, racist priests, immigrant women who are oppressed by their patriarchal families, non-whites that have espoused the 'values' of the enlightenment, feminist and lgbt movements and subjects, along with notions such as human rights, welfare, tolerance, respect towards the different. This 'West' stands for freedom (of speech). On the other side it places 'Islam' which includes, with the same carelessness: muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom, (mainly male) islamists, extremists, groups of fanatics, islamic nations, secular nations with a muslim majority, religious autocracies and notions such as censorship, holy war, fanaticism. This 'Islam', according to DV8, stands for oppression.

The performance, with this construction as its starting point, develops the following argument: today, in the 'free countries of the West' we have reached a point where our basic right to freedom of speech is threatened, as 'we' are no longer 'allowed' to criticize Islam and islamic culture. Why? Because through some subversion of western values, this kind of criticism is accused as islamophobic (as if it were not...) and because, at the same time, the life and physical integrity of any such critic is threatened by the fanatic islamists. Now we (DV8) break this 'taboo of silence' that has been established (by whom?) around the negative aspects of 'Islam', about which nobody talks or many think about but are afraid to comment on. What are all these people afraid of? They are afraid of every muslim, who is (represented as) a potential terrorist.

DV8 are not in the least original: the above claims and the representation/construction of the muslim as a "terrorist, extremist, fanatic and regressive bigot, thirsty for blood" is an integral part of the latter-decade rhetoric about the "clash of civilizations" and the "war on terror". It is the same language spoken by the british state and its army - and this makes us wonder why DV8 have to ask whether they can talk about this.

 

Can we talk about this? Some examples

In order to make their point clear, DV8 use as examples various incidents that have ignited heated discussions and reactions in northwestern Europe and the rest of the world. Such an example is the murder of Dutch director Theo Van Gogh, in 2004 -by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Moroccan-Dutch islamist (and second-generation immigrant with dual nationality)- after the upheaval caused by Van Gogh's film Submission . The film was based on a script written by the Somali Ayaan Hirsi Ali and, centered around lines from the Qur'an, it explored the place of women in Islam, supposedly proving that " the violence experienced by Muslim women as a direct and necessary outcome of Islam's teachings" . (El-Tayeb 2011: 117). During the performance, Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are presented as defenders of the western values of freedom of speech and expression, and as critics of the misogynism of Islam. Through their politics, though, Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali aim at a certain religion as the cause of discrimination against women, at the same time freeing other religions and ideologies from the burden of their own misogynism. We don't dispute the fact that the islamist murderer of Theo Van Gogh acted with the punishment of the 'infidels' that subvert Islam as his motive but, in the course of the performance, every single reaction to the film is somehow linked to the murderous attack on Van Gogh, reinforcing the representation of the faithful muslim as a terrorist.

The performance not only comments on the murder of Van Gogh and the film Submission , but also focuses on the personal story of Hirsi Ali. A substantial amount of time is dedicated to the life of Hirsi Ali, narrated by a dancer who, while talking, is drawing with coal or a marker black lines on her body. Such an emphasis isn't given, of course, to the stories of other women with a muslim background, so the experience of Hirsi Ali assumes the status of an experience that describes the life of "every muslim woman". This choice isn't accidental, of course, because during the last decade the voice of Hirsi Ali "has been made authoritative and representing for the ' truth' of women and Islam through media machinery " (Bracke 2011: 39). The centrality of Hirsi Ali's discourse is overshadowing the voices of women and feminist collectives that work inside muslim communities and try to change them, voices that highlight the interweaving issues of gender, race, class and religion. It is a political challenge to highlight the narratives that are overshadowed by other narratives; by choosing the story of Hirsi Ali, DV8 render it as representative of 'women in Islam' and consciously silence other voices and experiences.

Another example the performance uses comes from Denmark - the famous case of the "Mohammed drawings" that were published in the danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and ignited strong reactions from faithful muslims [5]. Again, all the reactions from muslims that felt insulted by the drawing are presented in the performance as potential life threats against the publishers and, at the same time, the intentions of the newspaper are presented as simply indicative of how people living in a free society can exercise their right in criticism. However, two years earlier, in 2003, the same newspaper had denied publishing drawings of Jesus so as not to offend christian readers. According to the statement of the publishers "Our readers won't enjoy these drawings. In fact, I think they will incite strong reactions. This is why we won't publish them" [6]. This double standard held by the newspaper can throw some light to what El-Tayeb calls secularized Christianity. Respect towards the religious feelings of christians goes hand in hand with cosmopolitanism and respect towards the different, while respect towards the religious feelings of muslims shakes the grounds of cosmopolitanism and threatens the respect towards the different.

 

West? Which West of all?

These incidents, and many more, are used by the performance to reinforce the position that when you criticize Islam you're in danger, as the islamic culture is blood-thirsty and intolerant. They are also used as the mortar on which History will be built by a white Europe. Europe is presented as the land where the values of freedom of expression and speech, of respect towards women, of anti-homophobia and respect towards the different reign, in other words as the paradise (sic) of the Enlightenment and the secular, progressive society. This celebrated "respect towards the different", according to the new racist narrative against multiculturalism [7] that is uttered for some years now, has come full circle and now threatens the virtues of the 'multicultural' western metropolises, it makes life intolerable for those who really belong to them: the white, all the way back to their grand-grandfathers natives. As DV8 say, "they came in OUR countries" . This new racist narrative says: they (the immigrants) came in OUR countries, that is, they don't really belong here. They're here as guests, we can't shape things together, they can't be accepted as equivalent interlocutors, they can't truly have the identity of the citizen, so it follows that they should learn to live with our political, cultural and religious values, that is, the western ones.

Through this discourse, the borders are drawn as lines separating those who have, and have the right to have their own discourse and those who don't have the right to their own discourse and can only comply. Those borders also separate citizens in two distinct and hierarchical groups. The superiority of western values and subjects was strongly asserted in the age of colonialism -it has apparently been questioned later- but it is evident that, today, through this new racist narrative, Europe never stopped being a society that feeds many different kinds of racism. A reminder from the starting exhortation of the performance: citizens of the 'West' should feel superior to the Taliban and are, wrongly, far too tolerant.

In this narrative, the 'West' is in no way connected with the medieval Holy Inquisition, with the Crusades, with mass genocide, it doesn't have anything to do with the culture of colonialism that established a system of worldwide racism, it isn't the 'West' of the Enlightenment, the one that praises and founded liberal capitalism with its hierarchical class structure and its castes of privilege, it isn't the land where Auschwitz was built with bricks of 'reason', where 'sodomy' was forbidden by law and where so many bright examples of civilization took place. It isn't the 'West' of today the one that propagates respect towards human rights, building at the same time prisons like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and endorsing the practice of torture [8] (which of course is miles away from any notion of human rights). It isn't the 'West' that, through the liberal program of salvation from the capitalist crisis promotes the abolition of every worker's right, and transforms the access to basic commodities (healthcare, for example) in a privilege belonging to those very few. This transformation of the 'West' in a pure power of freedom and equality, one that has deleted from its memory all its past, this transformation is expressed also through this racist, islamophobic rhetoric of our times, the times of the "clash of civilizations". Unfortunately, DV8's performance is a characteristic example of this fantasy shared by the 'West' and the western whites about who they are, it is a major highlight of propaganda and, in the end, it is a moment where everything dark hiding in the heart of the 'civilized West' is exorcised through art.

We should note that the goal of the feminist deconstructive criticism that we attempt here, isn't to re-introduce the dichotomy 'Islam-West', by attributing responsibilities to the 'West'. Conflicts and contrasts reside in every category, and our desire is to sharpen these contrasts while deactivating the grand narratives that construct a supposed moral 'incompatibility' between Islam and the West. In other words, the 'West', like 'Islam', certainly isn't one single thing.

 

Feminist and lgbt politics and the clash of civilizations

The role that feminist and lgbt movements of the western world are called to play is of particular interest, regarding the way the narrative about the clash of civilizations is constituted. Those movements often appear today as components of the political culture of the western civilization. In other words, the hegemonic, imaginary western 'Us' apparently appropriates the results of the fights of these movements in order to 'prove' the western 'superiority'. Put simply: "the West is superior because (among other reasons) it respects gay and women's rights". Thus " gender and sexuality figure notably as a terrain to construct a linear time of emancipation that distributes emancipation unequally, and in a binary way, between an emancipated 'us' and non-emancipated (sexist, homophobic) 'them'" (Bracke 2011: 34). In one simple move, this 'western' emancipated 'Us' equates everyone who fought in the lgbt and feminist movement with their 'enemies': the homophobic, sexist, white colonialists. At the same time, those movements are considered as having only to fight the patriarchy and homophobia of those muslim communities that are 'imported' to Europe. Or that they should only be concerned with the repression of women and lgbt subjects in 'islamic countries'.

Of course, DV8 play this card too. For example, at some point during the performance it is argued that the supporting structures for domestic violence victims in the UK are addressed almost exclusively towards women in immigrant communities and not towards white Englishwomen. White women aren't oppressed by patriarchy any more, the performance seems to imply. So british structures of support are there to save immigrant women from their husbands, like Spivak argued (1988) when she wrote that, according to colonialist rhetoric, "white men save brown women from brown men". The invasion of NATO into Afghanistan (2002) was invested with the same mindset, in which "democratic" western powers (including Greece, also known as 'the birthplace of western civilization') propagated that they went there to save Afghani women from the Taliban.

DV8 address the issue of homophobia in the exact same way: homophobic attitudes are not a threat anymore to the western culture - the West is free of all this now, when even gay and lesbian people can get married in the 'civilized' world. But other cultures face serious problems. For example... (guess which one?) Islam! The exchange between two dancers/actors, one as a (western) white and the other as a muslim, is a very characteristic example. From what we can recall, it went like this:

-White: I have the right to criticize the culture of Islam.
-Muslim: That's my culture, and you have to respect it.
-White: My culture respects homosexuality. Maybe you should respect that too.

This brief exchange very accurately condenses the rhetoric strategy behind the construction of two supposed opposites: a rhetoric that tries to convince us that in one hand, criticizing Islam is forbidden, as Islam belongs to those intolerant cultural idioms, and that on the other hand, white, western Europe, in the very same moment when it demands 'respect towards its culture', is however presented as the culture that respects the different par excellence . Anti-homophobia in this scene becomes a synonym of the western culture, a 'product' that is produced exclusively in the 'west' and its 'free' countries. But how exactly would DV8 explain lgbtq movements in muslim countries, or muslim lgbtq subjects who fight for visibility in their communities? That remains a mystery. Should we note here that homophobia certainly hasn't been 'abolished' in the 'West', and that its contemporary universality is co-dependent to the colonialist strategy of the western countries during those previous centuries (see George Klauda 2008)? It seems we should. On the other hand, DV8 doesn't, for example, put transphobia on the list with the discriminations that have been 'abolished' in the 'West', probably because that would be a transparent lie. In their minds, of course, that doesn't seem to weaken the argument that freedom of speech is a conquered and undisputable commodity of western culture.

In addition, such an exchange can easily lead to racist feelings, as (muslim) immigrants are represented as the bearers of dangerous, regressive beliefs. As Judith Halberstam argues, the problem of such a position is that:

"Anti-immigrant gay politics arises out of clumsy characterizations of Islam as deeply homophobic and assumes a relationship between gay tolerance and liberal democracy. As Scholars Joseph Massad, Fatima El-Tayeb and Jasbir Puar have shown, these characterizations of Islam misread the sexual economies of Islamic countries on the one hand and join gay and lesbian respectability to neoliberalism on the other. They also allow for strange political coupling of right-wing populism and gay rights." (Halberstam 2011: 161).

Closing this chapter, we should note that parts of the women's and lgbt movement in western countries have participated in the construction of this narrative; in fact, they have enriched the schematic representation of colonialism (according to Spivak) with the notion that: 'white women save brown women from brown men'. We saw this in 2002, with the war against Afghanistan and the extensive conversation inside the women's movement about the demand to 'save the women in Afghanistan' (not from the NATO bombs, of course, but from the Taliban), a paternalistic position that didn't truly speak with Afghani women but spoke in their names, as it knew 'what was good for them'. Another related example of this kind of perception from the lgbt movement is the worldwide campaign against the hanging of two young men in Iran, in 2005, who, according to the western mass media, had been charged for homosexuality. Iran was then presented as hell for every homosexual (always in contrast to the 'West', the paradise of every homosexual). Of course, there were movements that called for sanctions in an economic or diplomatic level, in order to seal this discrimination. For example " OutRage, a queer political organization in the UK, even went as far as calling for the European Union to institute trade sanctions against Iran for its on-going assault against sexual and gender minorities " (Alam 2005).

 

Islamophobia and the greek situation

Before we finish, we wonder what's really happening and what is being signaled when this performance comes to Athens, in a certain timeframe characterized by the economic crisis, the increasing racism, the ascent of the far-right, the unshakeable homophobia and the deeply rooted sexism. Let's remember that Greece is politically connected with the dogma of orthodox christianity, that in Athens (the capital) there isn't a single official place of worship for muslim citizens, and that unofficial places of worship often face incendiary attacks by far-right groups. Let's remember the cops that burned the Qur'an for revenge, for show off and for 'fun', and the recent murderous pogrom against immigrants and refugees in the alleys around Victoria square. Let's remember that greek law discriminates against gay, bi, lesbian and trans subjects and that greek hospitals perform surgeries on intersex children at a very small age so as to 'correct' their ambiguous or pluralistic biology. Let's remember the sexism, the homophobia and the racism of everyday life. Those don't belong to any distant, "out there" religious community. Let's remember all these (although we couldn't forget them even if we wanted) and let's also remember published articles like the ones of Soti Triantafillou, who writes "The ones who maintain that the plurality of beliefs, however fanatic, 'enriches' our society, are complete idiots. There exists a point beyond which pluralism can not and should not move on: the criterion is reciprocity; a relationship in which the newcomer -the immigrant- makes a compromise towards the one who receives him". Triantafillou reproduces the same discourse as DV8. The immigrants coming to Greece should compromise a little!

We refer to Triantafillou's article because we believe it causes the same emotional/political reactions to someone (greek) as when watching DV8's performance. This discourse tries to convince you that, here in greece, there is a secular nation that welcomes immigrants, that its societal freedoms are violated by those subjects coming from other cultures, by those people that cross the minefields of the borders. DV8 said: "Let's talk about the free countries: USA, UK and the Netherlands". Greece wasn't on the DV8 list of the free countries. So we wonder, what does it mean when someone applauds this performance in Athens, today? Does it mean that they are fantasizing that Greece is one of the 'free' countries, or that they are waiting for Enlightenment to liberate greece from its 'third-world' orthodoxy?

 

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1. More about DV8 here: http://www.dv8.co.uk/about_dv8

2. "Never Again" (TV film, 1989), "Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men" (1988), "Enter Achilles" (1995), "The Cost of Living" (2003).

3. Of course it isn't a coincidence, we think, that DV8 came (were brought) to Greece for the first time with this show and not with, say, their previous one. The performance "To Be Straight With You" was about homophobia and its place in the morality of many and different religious traditions - for obvious reasons this is much less interesting here in Greece.

4. Of course, this kind of criticism was uttered by radical social and political movements of past centuries. Those movements, usually through brutal wars, tried to contain the repressive and disciplinary political role of the christian church.

5. The reactions were equally about the fact that muslims consider any depiction of Mohammed blasphemous, as much as about the fact that some drawings were ridiculing Mohammed and depicting him as a terrorist.

6. http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,399653,00.html

7. An indicative statement by Angela Merkel: multiculturalism has failed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNoUgRwggbQ .

8. Those, of course, are the famous "Enhanced interrogation techniques", a term used by the government of G. Bush after the attack on the twin towers, in September 2001, to describe the torture directed towards prisoners of war and other detainees. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_interrogation_techniques

 

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Bibliography:

Alam Faisal, 2005, " Gay media's failure to accurately report stories adds to growing islamophobia and hatred towards islamic world ", http://groups.yahoo.com/group/al-fatiha-news/message/1036.
Translated to greek by qv http://qvzine.net/deytero%20teyxos/Islamophobia.html

Bracke Sarah, 2011, "Subjects of debate: Secular and sexual exceptionalism and Muslim women in the Netherlands", Feminist Review, 98 (Islam in Europe), p. 28-46.

El-Tayeb Fatima, 2011 , European others: Queering ethnicity in postnational Europe , University of Minnesota Press.

Halberstam Judith, 2011, The queer art of failure , Duke University Press .

Klauda Georg, 2008, " Globalizing homophobia", in Die Vertreibung aus dem Serail: Europa und die heteronormalisierung der islamischen Welt , Mannerschwarm-Verlag. Translated to greek by Terminal 119, http://www.terminal119.gr/show.php?id=529

Spivak Gayatri , 1988, "Can the subaltern speak?", in Marxism and the interpretation of culture , University of Illinois Press.

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