In a stand of unity, six authors have pulled out of the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF), after discovering the event received funding from a government counter-extremism scheme.
Bradford-born poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, who was the first to withdraw from the festival, says she does not want “to provide credibility or legitimacy to the counter-extremism project”.
The six writers, many of them activists, withdrew from their planned appearances at BLF after learning that the 10-day event, which begins on 28th June, has accepted money provided as part of the Home Office’s counter-extremism strategy for the first time.
The Home Office programme – Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT), sates that it provides funding and support for groups involved in counter-extremism projects in their communities, and is part of the 2015 counter-extremism strategy which now funds 233 groups across Britain. It is separate to the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent Strategy, which has been strongly condemned by numerous Muslim figureheads for many years.
BLF was founded in 2014, and is delivered by director Syima Aslam and her team through her company Culture Squared. Festival organisers said they “regretted” the withdrawals, but have defended their funding.
Much of Suhaiymah’s work, includes ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’, which went viral on YouTube in 2017, and criticises the government’s counter-extremism agenda and Islamophobia.
She says that she was “alarmed” to learn of the funding source, saying it undermined the festival’s aims of inclusivity.
“The government’s counter-extremism strategy relies on the premise that Muslims are predisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance,” she said.
Also boycotting the festival are Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindira, Malia Bouattia, Sahar al-Faifi and Hussein Kesvani.
In a statement BLF said: “Our work in Bradford spans all communities particularly those which are the most disadvantaged.
“The BSBT programme is a broad initiative, working with communities across the board.
“For us, in the context of this festival, the focus of the BSBT work has been on promoting the value of education and the importance of literacy, which is central to the ethos of this festival.”
However, Suhaiymah has stated that literary festivals should not be framed as encouraging Muslims “to work on themselves” as part of a government programme.
Supporting Suhaiymah, activist and author Malia Bouattia, said: “I have written to the organisers asking them to consider rescinding their decision and returning these funds.
“I also made clear that failing this I will not be participating in the event.”
Malia had been invited to discuss a chapter she had contributed to the anthology ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’, which explicitly discusses the “destructive effect” of counter-extremism funding on Muslim political spaces.
She explained that her boycott was much due to the fact that she’s “a committed campaigner against the normalisation of so-called Counter Extremism programs used to undermine civil liberties as well as stigmatise and discriminate against an entire community”.
Writer Sahar al-Faifi has said she could not endorse a strategy that had demonised Muslim communities.
Meanwhile a Home Office spokesperson has said: “It is disappointing that some individuals are seeking to undermine and misrepresent the incredibly valuable work done in communities by our Building a Stronger Britain Together partners.
“The BSBT programme was set up in 2015 to stand up to extremism in all its forms, and promote fundamental British values,” they added.