Six writers and activists have pulled out of the Bradford literature festival (BLF) in protest after it emerged it received funding from a government counter-extremism programme.
The group withdrew from planned appearances after learning that the 10-day event, which was founded in 2014, has accepted money provided as part of the Home Office’s counter-extremism strategy for the first time.
The Home Office programme, Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT), provides “funding and support for groups involved in counter-extremism projects in their communities”. Separate to the counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, BSBT is part of the 2015 counter-extremism strategy and funds more than 230 groups.
The Bradford-born poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, who was the first to withdraw, said the government strategy treated all Muslims as potential criminals and that she could not endorse community organisations working with counter-extremism funding and support.
“It is not the fault of practitioners that there have been cuts to community spaces,” she told the Guardian. “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.”
The others to boycott the festival, due to start next weekend, are Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindira, Malia Bouattia, Sahar al-Faifi and Hussein Kesvani.
The organisers of the festival said they regretted the withdrawal of the artists but defended the use of the funding to run a pre-festival education project focused on raising aspirations and literacy levels. Its director, Syima Aslam, pointed out that 51% of the audience for the south Asian, Muslim-led festival last year were from BAME backgrounds, with 61% from families with a household income of less than £40,000.
“BLF’s work in Bradford spans all communities particularly those which are the most disadvantaged,” the organisers said in a statement. “The BSBT programme is a broad initiative, working with communities across the board. For us, in the context of this festival, the focus of the BSBT work has been on promoting the value of education and the importance of literacy, which is central to the ethos of this festival.”
But Manzoor-Khan said 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”.
Bouattia, a former president of the National Union of Students, said she had been invited to discuss a chapter she had contributed to the anthology It’s Not About the Burqa, which explicitly discusses the “destructive effect” of counter-extremism funding on Muslim political spaces. Faifi said she could not endorse a strategy that had demonised Muslim communities, adding: “I really hope that BLF will not receive this funding in future as we need such cultural festivals that celebrate diversity and inclusivity.”
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.”