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In critical condition: allow the distasteful

Written by: on February 2, 2010

In January we saw the opening of Jihad! The Musical in London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, an event which was met, as it was upon its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2007, with calls for it to be boycotted and censored.

The controversial show follows the exploits of Sayid, an innocent Jalalabad boy who seeks escape to the West, only to become entangled in a radical but hopelessly incompetent terrorist cell once in Britain. Including such ditties as ‘Building a Bomb Today’ and ‘I Wanna be like Osama’ (the latter having over 350,000 views on YouTube), the show has been branded derogatory by portions of the Muslim community and insensitive by those claiming that it is disrespectful to the many victims of Islamic terrorism. When it originally appeared in Edinburgh, Scottish Parliamentarian Ted Brocklebank labelled it “appalling”. I have not personally seen it, and even if I had I would hardly claim to be any kind of theatre critic. It may indeed be none or all of these things, but this is to miss the point; it must not be censored.

It is an imperative of any functioning democracy that a plurality of ideas and perspectives are allowed to surface for critical reception. The deliberative element of our politics is central to any success we might seek to claim for it; imagine the passing of the War in Iraq without the persistent vibrant critique or the dissemination of information for mass adjudication. If we are to claim the presence of any higher ideals in our politics at all, the claim must be grounded in the capacity to remain critical and to mobilise opposition without fear of reproach or hitting against a wall of intolerance. It is this crucial difference which sets us apart from many of the political regimes which tend to harbour extremist terror groups.

Our critical capacities are only sharpened through enlightened public deliberation. This is a wide-ranging and fluid process, one which extends well beyond government statements and News at Ten. It manifests itself in newspaper column inches, chatrooms, university classes (who knows, maybe even university newspapers?), coffeehouses, street protests, radio phone-ins and weeklong sit-ins. It roots out space, both formal and informal, in which we can exercise those rights enshrined by our very citizenship. This is not fanciful, utopian fluff; this is the vital means by which we make good on that gut feeling that we possess the right to a say, the right to make judgement, and the right to express ourselves on matters of salience.

It is thus important to realise that Jihad! The Musical offers an alternative view on a practice which, whether we like it or not, has major presence in our society and is not likely to simply fade into oblivion. This theatrical take offers up one means of fostering deliberation. It is one of many possible avenues. We do not have to agree with what some critics label the ‘trivialisation’ of a deeply serious issue. We do not have to agree that there is entertainment in depictions of would-be murderers. But we must surely agree that we are infinitely better-off for living in a society where we are not silenced for saying and doing silly things (within the law). Is Jihad! The Musical distasteful? Perhaps it is, but no-one has banned Prince Philip.

Thus the automatic cry for censorship is not the reasoned answer to the burning political questions which frame our lives as we move into the new decade. We collectively fear an unknown quantity, an enemy which moves among us, blurring traditional distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’. The battleground need not be some far-flung corner of a world not readily identifiable to us. It could be the bus you take daily. The physical hurt suffered at the hands of this enemy comes in bursts, swift, shocking and acutely painful, but the psychological hurt remains and spreads in myriad ways, permeating our everyday lives and even more so damaging our trust. Openness, receptivity, and critical thinking space are naturally liable to be closed down when we suffer the type of collective shock terrorist action can bring. Nevertheless, we must keep the means for critical analysis open to the best of our ability. Censorship and closure are objectives of terrorism; psychological disruption is a goal equally, if not more desirable than the initial physical ruptures. If these goals are to be countered with any decency left intact then we must honour not enforced closures triggered by terrorist ills, but our deep convictions that the avenues to pluralism, critical expression and, dare we say it in our serious, knowing times, good old-fashioned humour are kept open. This might just set us apart from those ills.

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