Authors pull out of Bradford writers festival in counter-extremism funding row

Authors pull out of Bradford writers festival in counter-extremism funding row

A number of writers have pulled out of Bradford festival in protest over funding from a government counter-extremism programme.

Poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan was the first to withdraw in response to the support from Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT), which provides funding and support for groups involved in counter-extremism projects in their communities, according to the Home Office website.

The others to boycott the festival, which runs from 28th June to 7th July, are political commentators Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindira, Malia Bouattia, Sahar al-Faifi and author and journalist Hussein Kesvani, according to the Guardian.

Kesvani posted a lengthy statement on his website explaining how his research for his debut, Follow Me, Akhi: The Online World of British Muslims (Hurst) influenced his decision. "In many interviews the young Muslims who trusted me with their stories expressed how the expanise counter-extremism programme had affected their ability to express their religious identity, to publicly participate in civil protest, and in some cases, even restrained their ability to express dissent in public spaces – rights that should be afford in any citizen. In trusting me to tell these stories in the book, I believe it would be unfair – and a breach of that trust between journalist and source – to use their stories at an event where an apparatus of the state which they felt uncomfortable with, and which they felt restrained their freedom of speech and right to self-expression."

Bradford-born Manzoor-Khan told the Guardian she had sympathy with the organisers. “It is not the fault of practitioners that there have been cuts to community spaces. I want to make a broader point about accepting money from a government who could choose to end austerity, but instead awards money to Muslim or BAME communities under a counter-extremism lens.”

In a statement on Tuesday 19th June, festival organisers expressed “regret” over Manzoor-Khan's decision but stood by the funding to run an education project focused on raising aspirations and literacy levels, ahead of the festival. On Thursday (20th June) it posted a similar statement over the further withdrawals. Festival founder Syima Aslam was named as the winner of the Hospital Club h 100 Award in the publishing and writing category last August.

"Bradford Literature Festival (BLF) is committed to using the power of literature to strengthen communities and bring people from all walks of life together,” the statement reads. “Over the past five years, the festival has grown from a two-day event, attracting just 968 visitors, to a 10-day festival boasting over 500 events across multiple venues in Bradford, attracting over 70,000 visitors. 51 per cent of the festival’s audience are from BAME backgrounds, a reflection of the inclusive nature of the programme.

"As part of the programme, BLF runs projects focusing on raising aspirations and literacy levels in disadvantaged communities. Some of this year’s projects are supported by the Home Office’s ‘Building A Stronger Britain Together’ fund (BSBT). The funding has allowed us to do important work with women’s community groups. This has been hugely valued by the groups themselves, and has received appreciative feedback from participants and community leaders.

"As a South Asian, Muslim-led organisation, BLF is entirely conscious of the opinion some parts of the Muslim community hold about the BSBT programme – and whilst we acknowledge and value the perspective and opinion, it isn’t one, on this matter, that we share. We regret that the support offered by BSBT to these specific projects has led to a number of speakers withdrawing from the festival programme.

"BLF offers a platform for a broad spectrum of opinions, and encourages healthy debate on issues of our time. Our door is always open to working with these speakers in the future and we wish them well."

Aslam told The Bookseller that they would consider replacing the writers on a case-by-case basis. "We are going to see because some of panel sessions but if the presence was important for balance, we will replace them or if they were a speaker in an individual session." 

In regards to the council cuts for community organisations cited by Manzoor-Khan, she said: “A lot of councils have been hard hit and that is the case across the board. We have been particularly hard hit in Bradford.”

However Aslam is hopeful for the festival overall with healthy ticket sales and the last two record-breaking years for attendee numbers. “It is looking good and very promising in sales but it is hard to say before. We have great events lined up although this is a different type of publicity to what we were expecting.”

As well as the regular themed annual events, she said there will be special themes this year around freedom of speech, as well as marking 30 years since the publication of The Satanic Verses (Vintage) by Salman Rushdie, and events exploring the Opium Wars.

A Home Office spokesperson 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. BSBT is an open and transparent programme, which supports local people in their vital work to bring communities together, promote fundamental values and tackle the spread of all extremist ideologies. We are proud of the work that our BSBT community groups do to tackle extremism in all its forms. We will continue to support our members to enable them to make a positive impact in their local communities."

Manzoor-Khan told the Guardian literary festivals should not be used to encourage Muslims “to work on themselves” as part of a government programme. She pointed out that much of her work, including This is Not a Humanising Poem, which went viral in 2017, criticised the government’s counter-extremism agenda and Islamophobia.

In a statement, she wrote that she was “alarmed” to learn of the funding source, saying it undermined the festival’s aims of inclusivity. She said the government’s counter-extremism strategy “relies on the premise that Muslims are predisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance”.

It is not the first time the festival has attracted controversy. In 2017, novelist Juno Dawson pulled out after expressing concern about what she called "bigoted" speakers slated to attend the event. Germaine Greer and the BBC's Jenni Murray appeared, who had both separately sparked controversy over comments they made about transgender people.

Last year it was revealed that the festival had seen attendee numbers rise by more than 40% with record audiences of over 70,000. The festival’s BAME audience also grew with 51% of 2018's visitors coming from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, up from 49% in 2017.

The Bookseller has contacted the Bradford Literature Festival for comment.