Dara: Fighting Islamism with art & culture

London play Dara dramatises historic Muslim struggle against fundamentalism

By Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

Why every child in Britain should see the National’s latest play:
Dara dramatises the historic struggle against Islamist extremism – it can reach people that political debate cannot

Daily Telegraph – London, UK – 9 March 2015
READ & COMMENT: http://goo.gl/ldds9R

In the wake of the Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen terror attacks – and the repeated foiling of Islamist terror plots in the UK – the government is proposing a draconian clamp-down on hate speech and non-violent extremism. It argues that exposure to such views can be a gateway to Islamist terrorism.

Apart from being an inadvertent menace to legitimate freedom of expression, repressing opinions is unlikely to be effective. Already existing anti-extremist sanctions have failed to undermine the Islamist ideology that is recruiting young people to the jihadist cause. What makes ministers think that their new proposals will fare any better?

The truth is that Islamist terrorism will only be defeated when we defeat the ideas that nurture it. That’s why an ideological offensive against Islamism is crucial. We need to rebut fundamentalist ideas with enlightenment ones.

Politically countering the Islamist agenda is important but sometimes an even more effective method is via art and culture. Being more subtle – and entertaining – it can often reach people that politics and debate cannot.

Right now, at the Lyttleton Theatre on London’s South Bank, there is a production that does exactly that: exposing the dangers of religious fanaticism in a way that is entertaining and accessible.

Set in India and Pakistan in 1659, during the Mughal Empire, the play Dara dramatises the struggle by Muslims against fundamentalism that has been going on for hundreds of years. In my view, it is the most moving, powerful and important play on the London stage in the last decade – and has been deservedly acclaimed.

Based on the true story of the two sons of the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, the production is history with a searing contemporary relevance.

Prince Dara is the heir to the empire. He’s a pluralistic, humanitarian Sufi Muslim who loves music and poetry. Open-minded, he respects other faiths. His younger brother, Prince Aurangzeb, is a totalitarian warlord and fundamentalist with an ideology akin to Salafist extremism. He uses war and religion to usurp the more liberal and popular Dara in a power grab for control of the lands we now call India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Dara and his father are imprisoned by the power-hungry Aurangzeb. To justify his coup and destroy public support for Dara, Aurangzeb colludes with corrupt clerics and judges to have Dara charged with apostasy under Sharia law; culminating with his trial and execution.

The courtroom dialogue is as riveting, tense and chilling as any trial dramatisation I’ve ever seen; rivalling the scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird and reminding me of the sinister bias and evil of contemporary Sharia sham trials in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Specifics aside, this play is a snapshot of the age-old battle for the heart and soul of Islam; between competing interpretations and understandings of the faith. It is a story that speaks to us in a world where modern-day Aurangzeb’s are raining down murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Bought to London by the British-Pakistani cultural and human rights association, The Samosa, and its director Anwar Akhtar, Dara is performed by the courageous Lahore-based theatre company, Ajoka, which has suffered victimisation by the Pakistani Establishment for its liberal, dissenting productions.

It is an amazing, pioneering cross-cultural collaboration and celebration by Samosa, Ajoka and Nicholas Hytner, the soon-to-retire director of the National Theatre. I’d rank it as one of Hytner’s bravest, most imaginative productions during his illustrious tenure at the National.

In my estimation, Dara is a theatrical masterpiece, from the plot and dialogue to the sumptuous costumes and exquisite music and dancing. It is a ‘must see’ play of the moment – and of this century.

When it comes to countering extreme Islamism, Dara has more potential than the government’s often half-baked and repressive proposals to curb free speech.

To defeat Islamist propaganda and win the battle of ideas, education and awareness are the key. To this end, Dara should be on the national curriculum alongside Shakespeare. Every school kid in Britain should see it. But will the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, fund its filming and ensure that a DVD goes to all schools?

I have written to the National Theatre, urging them to film Dara for TV and cinema release; to give the production permanence and to ensure that it is seen by a much wider audience. It would be an artistic and political failure if Dara disappeared after the end of its run at the National on 4 April.

I’m hoping the Arts Council will fund the play to go on tour around the country. It needs to be seen beyond London – in places like Birmingham, Leicester, Luton and Bradford – to spark debate within Muslim communities and to show the non-Muslim population that Islam is not monolithic and closed to pluralism.

Dara is a hugely important, relevant production with regard to contemporary human rights and the battle against Islamist extremism. Why aren’t those who berate fundamentalism doing more to promote and sustain it to a wider audience?

• A slightly edited version of this article was published by the Daily Telegraph: http://goo.gl/ldds9R For more information about the Peter Tatchell Foundation’s human rights work, to receive email bulletins or to make a donation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org