The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam, writes Peter Whittle
The arts establishment in Britain makes much of its role as a keeper of the flame of free speech and creative expression. So at a time when, in the country as a whole, it seems that the penny might finally be dropping as to the extent of the threat we face from Islamist radicalism, what have the arts got to say about what is, without question, the most important issue facing us?
The answer is - virtually nothing. The creative intelligentsia has plenty to say about the evils of Bush, America and the Iraq war; there is a veritable explosion of new 'protest' art, and Brian De Palma's new film, Redacted, which is heavily critical of the US military, has just won the Silver Bear award at the Venice Film Festival. Artists, playwrights and directors continue, predictably, to fetishize these issues, while either quietly hoping that the problem posed by Islamist extremism will go away, or, increasingly, actively censoring itself, at the very time when it should be doing what it prides itself on: speaking out.
In June, London's Royal Court Theatre, ironically the home of the original Angry Young Men, cancelled a planned reading of Aristophanes 'sex strike' play, Lysistrata. This new adaptation was set in Muslim heaven - and had to be written under a pseudonym.
Originally a ticketed event, the reading was first scaled down to a private one. And then, in what was obviously an act of self-censorship, it was scrapped altogether. Our supposedly 'fearless, provocative and challenging' theatre has been reduced to this.
Fears over security are of course understandable - the Royal Court is just a five minute walk from the Danish Embassy, which witnessed protesters chanting death threats during the controversy over the cartoons of Mohammed.
But more importantly, the signal given out on such occasions is that when there is the possibility that there really will be consequences to what is written, performed or painted, the arts will cave in.
Unfortunately the creative community has real form here. The crisis which followed the publication of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses back in 1989 was a high water-mark in the assault on freedom of expression - years before Iraq, or 9/11, or 7/7.
Then, the reaction of much of the establishment to scenes of demonstrations and book-burning was utterly craven. Lord Dacre, the historian, went so far to say that he 'would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Mr. Rushdie's manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.'
Extremists realized that our will to defend our values on these matters was weak, and so could be pushed further and further, which is exactly what has happened, both here and in Europe.
Five years ago the Dutch maverick filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was beheaded in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street by a Muslim extremist, who had taken exception to Submission, a 12-minute film the director had made which was critical of the treatment of women in Islam.
There were no significant expressions of outrage from Britain's creative figures and institutions. Instead, they gushed over George Clooney and his 'brave' and utterly risk-free stands on Bush and the supposed evils of big business.
Submission has barely been seen since outside the internet. To European eyes, used to an artistic tradition of ridicule and self-criticism especially when it comes to religion, it is mild stuff.
But its potency is such that when we at The New Culture Forum were considering screening the film to a private audience last year, we had to think long and hard. In the end we went ahead, but did not publicise it beforehand and employed some tough security on the night.
There were no incidents, but our caution could be excused when you take into account the serious confusion there is now about what can and cannot be said, even in the broadest terms, about Islam.
For far too long, the response of the cultural establishment to this question has been to duck it. When the Mohammed cartoons were not reproduced in the British media, Channel 4 debated whether or not freedom of speech was threatened, concluded it was not, and then with spectacular absurdity refrained from showing the cartoons for fear of causing offence.
Before this, London's Barbican Centre cut pieces out of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims. Last year, threats were made to the Berlin Opera over a depiction of Mohammed in its production of Idomeneo. Filming of Monica Ali's bestseller Brick Lane was moved from London's East End after the film company gave in to protests from activists.
The BBC drama Spooks drew criticism from some Muslim groups in its first series for portraying radicalisation in a Mosque. It subsequently went out of its way to depict terrorist threats coming from any quarter other than Islam. And only last month, a plot-line in the hospital series Casualty, which involved an attack by Muslim extremists, was changed and animal rights activists were substituted.
Speaking to me some months ago, Ramin Gray, the Associate Director at the Royal Court said that it was important for the arts not to be provocative for the sake of it, nor commit an act of self-censorship. But what if a play came to the theatre which in some ways was very critical of Islam, or depicted Mohammed? Would it be put on? It's a debate which he said the theatre was actively having.
'You would think twice, if you were honest,' he said. 'You'd have to take the play on its individual merits, but given the time we're in, it's very hard, because you'd worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy. It does make you tread carefully.' It would seem that that is what the theatre has decided to do this time.
And what of the playwrights themselves? Did they feel inhibited? 'They do, I can say that,' he said. 'There is a group of writers, not a large group, but a group who've said to me that they feel they can't write openly about what they feel is maybe the most important topic facing our society at the moment, and we've talked about strategies for getting round that.'
Sensitivity on the issue extends to all imagery now. Gray was the co-director of Alastair Beaton's recent satirical play, King of Hearts, which featured an heir to the British throne falling in love with a Muslim. 'We had a pretty complex discussion about the poster image,' he says, 'where I felt people were being overly sensitive and cautious about possibly giving offence to the Muslim community, which I found quite shocking actually.'
The point is often made that a show like Jerry Springer: The Opera is acceptable because it was written by people from within the Christian culture.
And Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, has proclaimed that he would not put on a play attacking Islam unless it was by a Muslim. This is a position which, while being the logical conclusion of identity politics, is certainly not, in practise, a giant stand for artistic freedom of speech.
Nor does it guarantee freedom from threats: Salman Rushdie was, after all, a Muslim. Besides which, the bar of what is offensive can be set very low indeed.
The playwright Richard Bean agreed to have part of his play, Up on Roof, re-written in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons protests. 'I wasn't saying anything contentious about Mohammed,' he says. 'A character was Muslim and so inevitably the name Mohammed came up.' Both the Hull Truck Theatre and the actors were jittery, so three uses of the word where taken out, and the character was made a Rastafarian instead.
The days when the Lord Chamberlaine's office could censor you now seem rather quaint, he says; what we face today is both self-censorship and the threat of violence. Also there is, according to Bean, a natural selection process which goes on in the theatre, with the old guard of the Left refusing to see this as an issue at all. For them, Muslims are an oppressed people.
'There's only one enemy in the world for them,' he says,' and that is powerful white people, i.e., America and Britain, and everything that's wrong with the world is the fault of imperialism. And you see this in their plays.'
Whether it is misplaced cultural sensitivity, political agendas or a simple fear of reprisal which is leading to artistic self-censorship, it can said with some certainty that a critique of Islam is unlikely to be coming to a theatre, cinema or gallery near you any time soon. And we can also be sure that, so far as Islamists are concerned, there will never not be a 'sensitive time.'