What is it that makes you most hopeful, I was asked recently. I hesitated. And I didn't want to hesitate. But I was recovering from a ghastly drum roll of media headlines comprising terror attacks, war, fear, hate crimes, and division.
As the world has become more polarized, it often feels like the cycle is getting more vicious.
Yet this painful, reductionist wheel of the human experience is a limitation that I choose not to accept. Without hesitation.
The moments when I feel most alive, when I feel most human, is through the universal and limitless prism of artistic and cultural expression. Most of all when it speaks to my own beliefs and heritage as a British Muslim who draws on multiple identities, whether that is ethnically Indian, symbolically Arab, spiritually Persian, or culturally British.
This notion is analogous to the figure of Saint George, who held Palestinian, Turkish, and Greek heritage - yet he has been embraced as the patron saint of England since the 14th century. One could argue he is the perfect symbol for 21st century Britain, but I wonder how Saint George would fare if he came to these shores today. Some might fly the English flag of welcome, others might use it to cast him out.
Unending questions around integration, belonging, identity, and loyalty, have circled Muslims like a ring of fire.Remona Aly
Things are never simple, yet this complexity is also integral to our stories. Muslim communities have undergone profound upheavals, particularly in the past 15 years.
Unending questions around integration, belonging, identity, and loyalty, have circled Muslims like a ring of fire. They have struggled with the challenges of puritanical interpretations of Islamic scriptures, they’ve been beset by socio-economic deprivation - nearly half of UK Muslims live in deprived areas in the country, and they can often face hostile public attitudes that see them as the eternal outsiders - 62% of Britons think rising numbers of Muslims in the UK ‘weaken’ the national identity.
The answer is not to retreat into the shadows, but to stride through the fire – to boldly challenge, explore, and broaden that very identity through a creative channel.
This week, Othello, the popular play by the national poet-playwright Shakespeare, is being revisited in a new production by the English Touring Theatre, this time with a strong nod to Othello’s Muslim identity.
Using the play as an entry point of vigorous debate and discussion, the Othello Project explores the question of ‘the Other’ in light of the current climate of right wing populism through a series of surrounding events. Podcasts, photography, and spoken word performances inspired by the 17th century play are designed to navigate modern Muslim perspectives on assimilation, prejudice, and identity.
The Othello Project, which takes place this Saturday, thus uses a traditional English play to confront our modern challenges around growing faith and ethnic divides – and in the process brings together a powerful, eclectic fusion of the diversity inherent to British culture.
The project is being supported by a newly launched programming fund called Amal, which supports Muslim cultures and arts, including storytelling, visual arts, theatre, poetry, music, dance and film. Amal’s vision is one that enables, celebrates and champions the rich mosaic of Muslim cultures in Britain – with a view to explore how art and culture bring us together and highlight the values that unite us all, no matter what our religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds.
Art is our oxygen
A rising young Muslim filmmaker from London tells me how thrilled he is that Amal exists. “Finally”, he says, “it’s what we’ve been waiting for”.
He, like so many artists, struggles with financial setbacks and the lack of opportunities, leaving a heavy lid on artistic imagination. But initiatives like Amal can lift it, and open the way for these artists to enrich, redefine and evolve the British cultural landscape.
Cultures and arts are the key to changing the stifling rhetoric that exists around Muslims – because the Muslim experience isn’t limited to niqab bans, Muslim bans, extremism, immigration or Sharia penalties.
Art is our oxygen. It enables us to wander the inner chambers of the human condition – for each hallway, window, and staircase reveals a different dimension, a new insight into arguably the most fascinating and most misunderstood faith group in the world.
If, as Shakespeare says, all the world’s a stage, then I believe there are many storytellers waiting for their stage entrance. They no longer need to wait in the sidelines. The light can finally fall on their exceptional stories, ones that challenge the status quo, that fire up the imagination, and celebrate the complex beauty of humanity.
In our diversity, there is so much to explore, so much promise – because it is only in accepting and celebrating our differences, that we can discover our common ground.
This is what fills me with hope.
Remona Aly is a journalist and commentator with a focus on faith, lifestyle and identity. She is also director of communications for Exploring Islam Foundation.
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