Much has been made in the mainstream media of the alleged threat to freedom of expression posed by “Muslim extremism”. But the real threat to artistic freedom is coming not from Muslims, but from the government’s repressive anti-terror legislation.
On Thursday of last week anti-terrorist police detained and interrogated two actors, Riz Ahmed and Farhad Harun, at Luton airport. Riz says the officers denied him access to legal advice and quizzed him about his views on the Iraq war.
The actors were returning from the Berlin Film Festival after the premiere of The Road to Guantanamo, a film directed by Michael Winterbottom that tells the story of three young British Asians who were incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay by the US.
Shafiq Rasul and Rhuhel Ahmed, two of the former detainees portrayed in the film, were also stopped and held for questioning under anti?terror legislation. None of the white members of Winterbottom’s party were stopped.
It isn’t only actors who have reason to be concerned by the government’s anti-terror legislation. Manifest Destiny, an opera by composer Keith Burstein and lyricist Dic Edwards, has been accused in the press of glorifying terrorism.
Such “glorification” may now be illegal, thanks to legislation pushed through parliament by the government last week after a Labour backbench rebellion imploded.
The opera, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last year, involves a Palestinian woman who is drawn to suicide bombing in the aftermath of 9/11, but later renounces violence.
Despite the opera’s clear pacifist message, the London Evening Standard denounced the opera as “anti-American” and a “grevious insult”.
Islamophobic websites such as “Jihad Watch” joined in the attack, specifically accusing the opera of “glorifying” suicide bombing.
Keith Burstein spoke to Socialist Worker about the anti-terror laws. “An atmosphere has been created where even to approach the subject matter of terrorism is risky,” he said.
“It’s not so much about whether the laws are used or not – the more sinister aspect is the creeping sense that these issues should not be freely discussed.”
Burstein describes the interrogation of the Guantanamo film actors as “deeply shocking”. “It’s as if legal and moral permission has been granted that it’s okay to treat people like this if they transgress some kind of invisible line,” he said.
“Anyone who thinks of themselves as an artist should feel it’s their duty to challenge this climate. The whole establishment and much of the media has lost all sense of what truth is.”