The creators of a play examining issues of Islamic extremism and radicalisation in a London school that was mysteriously cancelled earlier this month have described how police officers asked to see a copy of the script and told producers they planned to place undercover officers in the audience.
‘Homegrown’ was partially inspired by the case of three schoolgirls from East London who ran away to Syria in February and had been marketed as one of the highlights of the National Youth Theatre’s 2015 season prior to its abrupt cancellation just 10 days before its opening night.
Omar El-Khairy and Nadia Latif, who wrote and directed the play, told Al Jazeera they were still in the dark as to why it had been dropped, and said the NYT had postponed a scheduled meeting to discuss the issue.
They fear the production has fallen victim to political censorship amid heightened sensitivity about the themes of the play and its critical examination of government counter-extremism policy, and say the announcement of the cancellation came shortly after theatre company representatives had met with police.
“We were having our weekly production meeting and the producer said to us, ‘Oh, we had a meeting with the police yesterday and they were really friendly and helpful. They would like to see the final script, attend the first three shows and circulate plain clothes officers in the audience,’” Latif told Al Jazeera.
El-Khairy said the pair had been notified of the cancellation by email a week later: “We don’t know who made that decision. All we know is that conversations took place between the police and the NYT. But we don’t know who instigated that and we weren’t part of that conversation.”
The NYT has said that ‘Homegrown’ was cancelled because of concerns that it did not meet its standards. But Latif said: “There was no indication, there was no consultation and there was no warning that they were considering pulling the show.”
‘Homegrown’, which featured a cast of 113 young performers, had also been heavily promoted by the NYT. A press release in June described the play as a “theatrical visual spectacle”, and two of the show’s characters still featured prominently on the theatre company’s homepage at the time of writing.
Speaking to the Guardian in the same week, Paul Roseby, the NYT’s artistic director, said: “I think it is our duty as a young company to commission new work and tell stories that are on the edge that divide opinion.
“Perhaps the end result will also divide opinion but I think it is worth the risk because theatre is a very powerful medium to explore those issues that can make people feel uncomfortable.”
The cancellation of ‘Homegrown’ comes at a time of heightened concern in British Muslim communities about the expansion of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy in response to the perceived threat to the UK posed by Britons travelling to Syria and strong statements by David Cameron, the prime minister, calling on Muslims to do more to tackle ‘non-violent extremism’.
Critics say that Prevent, and the related Channel counter-radicalisation programme for young people, treats the entire Muslim community as a security threat and subjects it to discriminatory levels of surveillance and harassment, as well as conflating conservative Islamic beliefs with violent extremism.
‘The climate of Prevent’
“We are making art in a particular climate: the climate of Prevent and Channel – programmes which are creating an environment in which certain forms of questioning, let alone subversion, of the given narrative pertaining to radicalisation or extremism can be closed down,” the creators of Homegrown said in a statement.
Critics of Prevent have also voiced concerns that the police-led programme is being used to shut down or disrupt criticism and debate of counter-extremism policy that does not suit the government’s agenda, with organisers of other events also complaining of police interference.
David Miller, the organiser of an academic conference on terrorism and radicalisation at the University of Bath in June, said that police had approached university security staff to request a list of all attendees and had asked questions about the attendance of a specific individual.
“I got a call a week before the conference from our security people. They asked me if a particular person was coming because his name was flagged up in the police computer. I don’t know how they got that information because the list wasn’t public,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
“The police also asked if they could see a copy of the list of attendees. I said they couldn’t and I kind of thought we were going to get shut down. It is obviously intimidating.”
Arun Kundnani, author of ‘The Muslims are Coming!’ and a researcher on the impact of counter-terrorism policy on Muslim communities, said the cancellation of ‘Homegrown’ also appeared to have the hallmarks of a “Prevent intervention”.
“This sounds like exactly the kind of informal censorship at the behest of the police that many people have been predicting would happen under the new legislation,” Kundnani told Al Jazeera.
The cancellation was also condemned by civil liberties and anti-censorship campaigners who said in a letter published by the Times newspaper: “We fear that government policy in response to extremism may be creating a culture of caution in the arts.”
Bella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, told Al Jazeera: “You don’t protect artistic freedom by encouraging censorship and you don’t protect free speech by shutting it down. Clumsy surveillance programmes like Prevent and Channel risk aggravating the problem they seek to solve by sowing seeds of mistrust and alienation at an early age.”
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, the NYT said: “We can confirm that no external parties had any involvement in the decision to cancel the public presentation of Homegrown.”
London’s Metropolitan Police Service also issued a statement which said: “Suggestions that the MPS has had any role in the decision to cancel this play are plain wrong.”
But Latif and El-Khairy maintain that they and their young cast have been silenced.
“What is really sad for me is to have had the experience of seeing young people opening up their minds to the cacophony of voices that are out there and then having that shut down,” said Latif. “Someone comes along and says you are not allowed to do that. That is mini-Prevent to me.”
A version of this story was originally published by Al Jazeera on 1 September, 2015.