Homegrown: NYT scrapped play over ‘extremist agenda’

A play exploring the radicalisation of young Muslims was scrapped by the National Youth Theatre over concerns about its “extremist agenda”, according to a newly-released email. The NYT’s artistic director Paul Roseby argued that Homegrown contained “no in-depth analysis, balance or debate around extremism. Instead [it] seems to be exploring where to place the hatred and blame”. The email was released via a freedom of information request.

Written by Omar El-Khairy and directed by Nadia Latif, Homegrown was inspired by the story of three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in east London, who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State in February. It was due to be staged at a school in Swiss Cottage last month but was cancelled with 10 days notice, prompting outrage from the play’s creative team, who said “voices have been silenced without explanation”.

The theatre industry also expressed anger, with playwright Sir David Hare and actor Simon Callow among those demanding an explanation, in an open letter to the National Youth Theatre. The signatories said they were “deeply concerned” by claims the theatre may have been put under pressure to cancel the performance.

The play, which had a cast of 112 young people, mainly from ethnic minorities, was supposed to explore the motives of radicalised teenagers and attitudes to Islam in the UK. But in his email to the Arts Council, Roseby said the production was: “Clearly very one-dimensional in tone and opinion, without, as of yet, any intelligent character arcs justifying the content”.

Roseby also mentioned the use of “insensitive” and “inappropriate” language in the rehearsal rooms, and said that two parents had expressed “grave concern over the direction of the piece”. The complaints, he added, had led him to believe that the NYT had “to make a swift decision to prevent any damage or risk to NYT’s reputation and membership”. Latif said the email confirmed her suspicions about the reasons for cancelling the production.

Je Suis Charlie film-makers: ‘We have to put focus back on the dead’

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in January of this year left 12 dead and 11 more injured, a massacre carried out by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, brothers who were linked to Al-Qaida in Yemen. A movement gathered, bringing four million French people to the streets in the days following the attack. Donations of at least $18m, in what Vanity Fair called “tragedy money,” have flowed in from supporters since.

These events are covered in a new documentary, Je Suis Charlie, which premiered at the Toronto film festival this week. Directed by father-and-son team Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte, the film reuses clips from Daniel’s previous documentary, It’s Hard Being Loved By Jerks, to introduce a wider audience to the Charlie staff – including prominent cartoonists Charb, Cabu and Tignous – who were killed. Footage of the dead – working, arguing, singing karaoke in their downtime – is cut together with eyewitness accounts from the survivors of the attack.

“It was the first time I heard a gunshot,” says cartoonist Corinne Rey (known as “Coco”), who survived after being forced at gunpoint to let the masked attackers into the packed conference room. “It’s a really shitty noise. Nothing at all like the movies. Just ‘tak-tak’.”

Emmanuel Leconte says he and his father were keen to bring the attention back to the staff of the magazine. He believes the fundamental point – that no one deserves to die for exercising their right to free speech – has been lost in the debate since. “We have to put the focus back on them,” he says. “Everybody’s asking: ‘Is it politically correct to say this? Can we show the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo? What are they doing with the money?’

“What are you guys talking about? It’s a distraction. Everybody dived into that because they couldn’t cope with what happened.”

The Charlie Hebdo attack was followed the next day by the killing of police officer Clarissa Jean-Philippe in the Montrouge suburb of Paris by Amedy Coulibaly, an accomplice of the Kouachi brothers. A day later Coulibaly would kill a further four people at a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. The Leconte’s film pays tribute to these victims also. Emmanuel believes the combination of targets was symbolic.

“It was obviously part of a plan,” he says. “You attack a whole nation by attacking an element of culture – something that’s emblematic of an open society – such as Charlie Hebdo; attacking the police force – an institution; and attacking the Jews.”

Charlie Hebdo’s staff have not let the attack dilute the power – or, depending on your view, the offensiveness – of their work. In their latest issue, they include a selection of “the covers you were spared”. Among them two pictures that play on the image of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, to mock Europe’s adoption of the photos of his body as a totem for the migrant crisis. One shows Kurdi, face down in the san next to the billboard for McDonald’s– a Banksy-esque comment on the selling of consumerism to the poor. The other, published under the headline “The Proof That Europe is Christian” showed Jesus walking on water next to a drowning boy. The caption reads: “Christians walk on water, Muslim children sink.”

There has been outrage, especially in Britain and the US. But French journalists claimed the target of the cartoons’ satire had slipped in translation and the magazine’s artists protested that the joke had been misunderstood. “Buy yourself a brain,” Charlie illustrator Coco said to Society of Black Lawyers chair Peter Herbert after he called the magazine “a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication”. In truth, no amount of explanation from the Hebdo staff is going to quell the outcry over the use of that image in their work, even if the outrage strengthens their point.

Emmanuel believes this kind of reaction is why many people who became part of the Je Suis Charlie movement have found themselves conflicted over whether they “are Charlie” any more. “People rallied around emotion with Charlie Hebdo,” he says. “Charlie Hebdo loves to take the piss out of emotion as well. I think people are going realize: ‘I supported them and now they’re making fun out of this?’”

The magazine has always ridiculed the sacred, he says. “You can’t make a deal with freedom of speech saying: ‘Listen guys. I support you as long as you say this, this and this.’ That’s the wrong newspaper to do that with. They’re taking the piss out of everything. It’s just that the targets they are taking the piss out of have become more and more violent and out of hand.”

Daniel’s previous film, It’s Hard Being Liked by Jerks, quizzed the late Charlie Hebdo illustrators about the court case brought against them by the Muslim World League and the Union of French Islamic Organisations, which claimed the publication was racist. The magazine’s then editor, Philippe Val, was acquitted after the court ruled the magazine was ridiculing terrorists, not Islam.

It’s Hard Being Liked by Jerks was an intellectual exercise, says Daniel. Je Suis Charlie is very much an emotional one. “Killing cartoonists is killing France,” he says. “It’s like people felt like the fundamental values of the country were going to be strong forever. The shootings made them feel they weren’t.”

It is this that brought the millions into the streets, he says. “Four million people on the streets was the most important demonstration since the liberation of Paris. But it’s going to play a big role in the reaction against fundamentalism. [The killers] touched on something very deep in the French culture and the French identity.”

At Je Suis Charlie’s Toronto premiere, there are two special guests: the current managing editor, Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, and Eric Portheault, the magazine’s finance manager. Both saw their colleagues killed, but survived the attacks. In the film, Portheault talks about how his dog came and lay across his face to protect him.

Before they take to the stage at the Bloor Street Hot Docs cinema, armed police are stationed in the lobby and at the back of the screening room. Riss addresses the crowd. “It’s always been hard to make Charlie Hebdo,” he says. “The events of January put our backs to the wall. We were wondering, could we continue? It became a real political struggle. But we want to continue to erase what the terrorists tried to do.”

Media fear of Islam ‘ obsessional’: France’s Houellebec

The fear-tinged portrayal of Islam in literature and the media has become “obsessional,” controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq said in an interview published on Sunday by British newspaper The Guardian.

Houellebecq’s latest work, Submission – a fiercely-debated novel which imagines a France in 2022 where Islamic law is enforced and French women are ordered to be veiled – appears this week in English translation. The stream of books and magazine covers playing on fear of Islam “has effectively become obsessional,” Houellebecq, 59, told the British daily. Asked whether his book was part of that, Houellebecq replied, “Certainly, certainly.”

“But I don’t feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100 percent,” he said.

Propelled to fame in France and then abroad for a string of ironic, misanthropic novels, Houellebecq was accused of inciting racial hatred in 2002 after he said Islam was “the stupidest religion.” He was acquitted of all charges and later said he had changed his mind upon reading the Koran and now felt Islam could be negotiated with.

Submission caused a storm when it was released in January, with some intellectuals saying Houellebecq’s provocation was irresponsible and had played into the hands of extremists and xenophobes. Its publication coincided with two jihadist attacks in Paris, one on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The Guardian said Houellebeq was now under a round-the-clock police escort.

Asked whether he was islamophobic, Houellebecq said, “Probably, yes, but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred.” The fear was of terrorism, he said, “that it all goes wrong in the West; you could say that it’s already going wrong.” Even if terrorists were only a tiny number of people, “maybe very few people can have a strong effect. It’s often the most resolute minorities that make history,” said Houellebecq.

Muslim Drag Queens, Channel 4, review: ‘a commendable film’

The cross-dressing Asif was one of three courageous characters who agreed to be filmed for this First Cut documentary Muslim Drag Queens (Channel 4). Courageous, because homosexuality remains a taboo in Islam and Asif has received death threats. The “Gaysian” club scene in London is clandestine, populated by young men who fear coming out not just to their families but to the wider Muslim community. In his Bhutto headscarf, Asif was on his way to a rally in memory of Nazim Mahmood, a doctor who committed suicide after telling his parents he was in a gay relationship. Muslim supporters were notable by their absence.

It could have been bleak, but this accomplished debut from first-time director Marcus Plowright, narrated by Ian McKellen, was everything a good documentary should be: powerful, often moving and expertly injecting the subject matter with a hefty dose of humour.

Asif was not afraid of controversy. In a deliberately provocative move, he dressed his alias, Asifa Lahore, in a burka and disrobed as part of his drag act. Yet it was a quieter moment that best illustrated his conflicted identity, when he was unable to hide his disapproval at fellow drag queen Ibrahim kneeling to pray in a pub.

There was one happy ending – Asif’s mother turned up to see him win an award for his LGBT campaigning, to tears all around. Too many documentaries are of the point and sneer variety – Channel 4 being one of the worst offenders with shows such as Benefits Street. This commendable film did the opposite, and it sparkled.

New book on Dutch Islam: Islam in transformation

A new book in Dutch was published recently on Islam in the Netherlands called: “Islam in transformation: Piety and pleasure amongst Muslims within and outside of the Netherlands,” edited by the prominent Dutch scholars on Islam Joas Wagemakers and Martijn de Koning (Radboud University).New Book

This is a translation of the pamphlet of the book:

The Islamic State, headscarves, questions regarding integration, and opinions in Dutch politics: Islam is continuously in the headlines. Is Islam inextricably connected to violence as the IS wants to assert? Or does Islam stand for peace, as many Muslims in the Netherlands tend to stress?

Often the impression arises that “the” Islam is dominated by ages old texts that determine the behavior of Muslims today. Based on personal research, specialists show that Islam is dynamic and that Muslims experience and apply their faith in various ways. Thus there are large differences in the experience of celebrations, cultural expressions, interpretations of the Qur’an, and multifarious approaches to relationships with  people of different persuasion.

Part 2 in the Series Islam in Transformation treads a broad band of subjects and makes accessible complex themes for those who wish to contribute to the public debate. An earlier publication in this series was “Salafism: Utopian ideals in an unruly reality” (see the item on Euro-Islam: http://www.euro-islam.info/2014/11/18/book-review-salafisme/)

Read the first chapter here (in Dutch):


Gisele Bundchen accused of mocking Islam with burqa disguise in France

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen is taking heat for reportedly disguising herself in a burqa so she could sneak in and out of a French plastic surgery clinic undetected.

Mrs. Bundchen, wife of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and her younger sister wore the traditional Muslim clothing in Paris during the holy month of Ramadan, irking devout Muslims and people who support the country’s burqa ban, the New York Post repo

Gisele Bundchen dons a burqa in Paris. Photo: CHP/FAMEFLYNET PICTURES
Gisele Bundchen dons a burqa in Paris.


“In the street it is illegal to wear the burqa! It therefore violated French law,” wrote a commentator on the French-language gossip site Public. “A cap and a scarf would have been less conspicuous.”

“She’s not doing it for Islam. This is very bad,” Imam Muhammad Abdullah Kamal Al-Azhari of the Astoria Islamic Center in Queens told the Post. “She’s wearing a holy thing for a bad purpose.”

A clerk at Islam Fashion in Astoria called the stunt “disrespectful to Islam.”

“This is a religious garment. It’s not so you can hide when you’re going for a doctor’s appointment,” Shazia ­Raheel told the Post.

French youths criticize anti-jihad push: ‘We thought it was a joke’

Six months after France launched an online campaign to tackle jihadist recruitment, FRANCE 24’s Observers decided to take stock of the government’s controversial initiative. Mourad Benchellali,  an ex-Guantanamo Bay inmate who helps young people integrate themselves into society, took his mobile phone and went to sound out the unfiltered opinions of five young men for FRANCE 24’s ‘Pas 2 Quartier’ series.

The ‘Stop jihadism’ website was launched by the government’s communication service in the aftermath of January’s deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo. The drive to deter potential jihadists centers around a short video that tries to counter arguments used by recruiters. As well as listing the supposed early warning signs of radicalization, the site also provides a free phone number for those worried that one of their friends or relatives could succumb to extremism.

The campaign’s stated aim is to spread public awareness in order to steer young people away from heading to war-torn Syria, the top destination for France’s aspiring jihadists.

Benchellali is deeply involved in the struggle to deter would-be extremists. Drawing on his personal experience as an ex-prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, he works as a counsellor, helping young people integrate themselves into society. Hailing from the Minguettes, a troubled housing estate to the south of Lyon, he regularly holds meetings in deprived urban areas to tell his own story.

It was over the course of these regular get-togethers that Mourad noticed that the anti-jihadist campaign wasn’t getting its message across to its intended audience. He decided to ask young people’s opinions on the initiative for ‘Pas 2 Quartier’.

“I didn’t really choose the people who I interviewed. It was rather they who chose me, by accepting to speak to me. Overall, the five young men with whom I spoke with are fairly representative of the audience targeted by the government’s campaign.

What struck me at first was that most of them weren’t even aware of the site or the video. And once they had watched it, no one said it was any good. Yet the government claims that its initiative has been a success.” [Editor’s note: The video has been watched more than two million times, and the site has gotten over 1.2 million visits].

“I’m a practicing Muslim (…) They say that to wage jihad is the same as being a terrorist. That they go to kill. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how someone who’s 16 or 17 years old can have that in their head. They go because they think they’ll live the dream life. There’s a lot of propaganda. So if someone is naïve, they’ll jump at the opportunity to leave. Personally, instead of waging jihad abroad, I think it’s more important to wage jihad within oneself.

Benchellali comments:

“It’s obvious that many young people are vulnerable to jihadist propaganda, but the root cause of their distress is the socio-economic situation in which they find themselves. The lack of opportunities often leads to a lack of a sense of belonging. That’s what provides fertile ground for radicalisation to take root nowadays, that’s when they start feeling rejected by the ‘system’.”

Former Guantanamo detainee now steering youths away from jihad

He learned warfare in an al-Qaida training camp, did time at Guantánamo and more time in a French prison. With such a resumé, Mourad Benchellali may seem an unlikely youth counselor – but he is telling his story to young Europeans, warning them against the lure of jihad.

Associated Press
Associated Press

The 33-year-old Frenchman is one of a small number of Europeans presenting their jihadi past as an example for others not to follow. Many see men like him as a powerful tool to deter youth from heading to Syria – while Western governments are wary of them.

Benchellali meets with young audiences at least once a week in France, Belgium and Switzerland to persuade them of the folly of flying off to join the Islamic State or other groups waging holy war in Syria and Iraq.

“There are kids who are tempted, who’ve been approached,” Benchellali told The Associated Press. “They come to listen, they are curious and the fact that I’m a former Guantánamo (prisoner), that speaks to them. … I give them tools to understand.”

A practicing Muslim, Benchellali above all strives to take the glamour out of jihad. As a 19-year-old, he viewed the voyage to al-Qaida’s training camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a romantic adventure. The reality, he tells youths, was a shock: grinding physical exercises in blazing heat, weapons training and propaganda videos in the evening, along with mind-numbing organization rigorously enforced – and a compulsory 60-day minimum stay.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks, followed by U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and mass flight from Kandahar. He escaped through the mountains to Pakistan, only to be arrested and turned over to American forces – and sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for 21/2 years. He filed a lawsuit against the United States for torture and isolation.

In his meetings with youth, Benchellali does not preach against jihad, saying that would discredit him with his young audience. He claims he was not a real jihadi because he never took up arms in a conflict.

European officials are creating parental hotlines and other tools to stem the flow of hundreds of youth to Syria, but lack the know-how to contain the exodus. Yet they remain suspicious of men like Benchellali, fearing returnees may have a secret mission to pull youths into extremism rather than steer them away.

Hamid Benichou, a Belgian police officer in contact with a group of mothers whose children went to Syria, worries that former jihadis may “carry within them the germ of Islamization.” And Lassouri Ben Hamouda, whose 15-year-old son went briefly to Syria, claimed that Benchellali is just trying “to buy himself back” into society.

But many analysts say these men – dubbed “formers” – are just what is needed to counter the attraction of jihad. Returnees have street credibility that officials and mainstream counsellors cannot offer.

Benchellali clearly had the ear of some Muslim youths at a recent meeting in the immigrant-heavy Paris suburb of Gennevilliers. “You are loaded into a machine, a very organized system,” he told his rapt audience. “You are thrown into another dimension.”

After the meeting, one 18-year-old said he had thought last year about going to Syria with a friend, after being contacted on Facebook, and hadn’t fully buried the idea. He said he paid heed to Benchellali’s message because he “has lived it” and “is advising against it.” The young man spoke on condition he not be identified by name because he did not want authorities to know he had toyed with the idea of jihad.

Britain has small projects using “formers,” including an online global network, Against Violent Extremism, open to former radical extremists, survivors of terrorist attacks and anyone else who wishes to join. The network grew out of the 2011 Summit Against Violent Extremism launched by Google Ideas.

Despite concerns about returnees, there is general agreement that an alternate narrative to the Islamic State siren calls is needed to keep kids at home. “Right now it’s only Islamic State who is telling a story, and I think to have a counter-story being told by a former fighter itself would be potentially very powerful,” Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at London’s King’s College, told The Associated Press.

Benchellali is perhaps the only returnee in France now offering a reality check to those tempted by jihad, a stark story of misguided youth that may mirror the naive impulses of those setting off for Syria today.

More than 1,200 French have traveled or are planning to travel to Syria to wage jihad, the largest group among Western nations. But in the eyes of French officialdom, Benchellali says, a checkered past makes the former militant more of a threat than a resource.

Benchellali’s parents and two brothers were convicted in 2006 on terrorism-linked charges, suspects in an alleged plot to attack Russian interests in France in support of fighters in Chechnya. At one point, his older brother Menad, considered the group’s chemicals expert, was mixing toxic potions containing ricin in his mother’s face-cream jars. His mother and father, an imam in a makeshift mosque in a grim Lyon suburb, were expelled to their homeland in Algeria. The brothers served time in prison and are now free in France.

John G. Horgan, head of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said officials should overcome their fear of tapping people like Benchellali.

“There’s fear that, well maybe, if we invite people in … they may inadvertently serve as a beacon for radicalization or recruitment to others, may actually have a reverse effect,” said Horgan. But “the tales of disillusionment (among returnees) are very real, and we seem to be unable to harness them with any kind of momentum.”

Still, Horgan said, not everyone back from the battlefields is a good candidate for prevention work. He and other experts said candidates must be vetted, protected and supported financially – but with as small a government footprint as possible.

“You may face reprisals from your community for doing this kind of work,” said Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College.

Yet he, too, emphasized the importance of teaching by example: “If you really want to reach youth, prevent them from taking drugs, the best person you can put out there is a former drug addict.”

For Benchellali, lending a hand at a critical time is a “collective responsibility.”

He recalled an encounter with a cellmate at France’s Fleury-Merogis prison who told him it was cool that he had been a jihadi – and said he wanted to become one, too.

“Hearing that, I knew I had to explain,” Benchellali said. “Explain that this was a mistake.”

145 writers sign letter protesting Charlie Hebdo PEN Award

The number of writers who have signed a letter in protest of PEN’s award to Charlie Hebdo has grown to 145—a sharp increase from the initial group of six dissenters, The New York Times reports. Signees include Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Eric Bogosian, and Michael Cunningham. The first six—Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi—withdrew as table hosts for the PEN Literary Gala, which takes place next Tuesday, May 5, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.


PEN released a statement Thursday, April 30, in response to the 145 signatures on the protest letter:


“We have seen that a letter is making the rounds, though it has not yet been sent to us. We appreciate its expression of support for PEN’s work and mission, and agree that there are many writers who merit recognition for courage in defending free expression. A number of people have approached us urging a counter-letter, but we feel strongly that asking writers to declare themselves for or against oversimplifies and needlessly polarizes a complex issue. We have heard and felt powerful support in many different forms over the last few days and don’t see value in a roll-call that pushes people to take a position that may not fully reflect the subtleties of their view. Everyone in PEN is committed to free expression; debate over its meaning and how to reconcile it with other important values is vital. We have created an open online forum for people to share their views, which we are reading carefully. We see this robust conversation as a credit to the strength and diversity of PEN’s membership.”