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Bradford literature festival hit by protests over counter-extremism funding

Several Muslim speakers withdraw from event after links to controversial government counter-extremism strategy revealed
Poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan was the first performer to withdraw from the festival (Supplied)

Prominent Muslim activists, authors and performers have withdrawn from a books festival in Bradford, northern England, after it was revealed that organisers received money from a British government counter-extremism fund. 

The Bradford Literature festival (BLF), which takes place later this month, is part-funded by the Home Office's "Building a Stronger Britain Together" (BSBT) programme, which supports the delivery of the government's counter-extremism strategy.

Critics of the strategy complain that it discriminates against Muslims and Muslim communities.

The fund has so far given money to 233 charities and community groups across Britain.

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Poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan was the first participant to withdraw her name from the festival. Manzoor-Khan told Middle East Eye she had pulled out in opposition to the festival taking money from the fund.

"I was alarmed to see BLF on the list of the BSBT recipients as it implied that the festival had a counter-extremism angle which to my mind undermines its aim of inclusivity since it would be legitimising the government's approach to Muslims," said Manzoor-Khan.

"After speaking to the organisers, it is clear that the aims of the BLF were not those of the counter-extremism strategy but I believe that taking any CE money in any circumstance legitimises the strategy of the state which approaches Muslims as criminals," she said.

In a statement announcing her withdrawal, Manzoor-Khan wrote: "The government's counter-extremism strategy relies on the premise that Muslims are presdisposed to violence and therefore require monitoring and surveillance, rather than that the material and systematic conditions of economic, racial and Islamophobic violence need addressing as causes of individual perpetration of violence."

Other participants who subsequently withdrew from the festival include activist Sahar al-Faifi, author Hussein Kesvani, Lola Olufemi and Waithera Sebatindira who co-wrote A Fly Girl's Guide to University with Manzoor-Khan. 

Malia Bouattia, another activist who was set to speak at the BLF, said that she was "shocked and disappointed" to hear that the festival was supported by counter-extremism funding. 

"It’s ironic that I was asked to speak about my contribution to the recently published It's Not About the Burqa, in which I discuss the destructive effect of CE funding on Muslim - and particularly Muslim women’s - political spaces," said Bouattia who also pulled out of the festival. 

"For those still expected to speak, who think that their attendance will provide a form of dissent during the festival, activists couldn’t have been clearer; there is no way to make interventions in a fundamentally racist policy, and being present on such a platform would mean legitimising a project that the state has used to fundamentally undermine political freedoms and civil liberties in this country."

The BLF, Bradford University where the festival's offices are based, and Culture Squared, the organiser of the festival, had not responded to requests for comments at the time of publication.

A sponsors page on the festival's website did not mention the Building a Stronger Britain Together fund among supporters of the event, although it is included on a list of recipients of funding published by the government.

The Bradford Literature Festival did not disclose it received fund from the Building a Stronger Britain together fund on its website (Screengrab)
The Bradford Literature Festival listed sponsors on its website (Screengrab)

In a statement issued in response to Manzoor-Khan's withdrawal, organisers said: "The funding has allowed us to do important work with women’s community groups, has been hugely valued by the groups we have partnered with to deliver the activity, and has received great feedback from participants and community leaders."

A Home Office spokesperson said it was "disappointed" that individuals had sought to "undermine and misrepresent" the Building a Stronger Britain Together Fund. 

"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," the spokesperson told MEE.  

"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."

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