In August 2016, four male French police officers in Nice stood over a Muslim woman who was lying alone on a beach wearing a burkini and ordered her to remove the piece of clothing. She was then fined for not ‘wearing an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’.

More recently, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and head of Counter-terrorism, Mark Rowley, suggested that the children of ‘extremists’ should be separated from their parents. In fact, since at least 2015 numerous children (some as young as two years old) have been the subject of family court orders over fears of ‘radicalisation’ and separated from their parents by being made wards of court or placed into foster care following an interim care order.

These aspects of the ‘war on terror’ have recently been the subject of a new play, entitled Cuts of the Cloth, produced by Outside the Frame Arts Collective (OTFA) which had its first showing at live@thelibrary in Oldham. Written and played by OTFA co-director Hafsah Aneela Bashir, directed by OTFA co-director Nikki Mailer, with live music by Sarah Yaseen, the play explores the place of “Muslim women and their relationship with the cloth in a society obsessed with policing the female body”.

Exhibit 162001

Cuts of the Cloth revolves around one nameless Muslim woman. She is Exhibit 162001 ‘London Muslim Woman: a successful participant of the Global Government Muslim Realignment Programme’, in the Global Hearts and Minds Living Museum. The audience walks into the exhibit, which allows the audience to engage with “indigenous people of the Old World Order in their natural state”. Under the occasional gaze of a guard, the London Muslim Woman is cordoned off by colourful scarves in a space alongside Islamic artefacts like a prayer mat. The audience observe her using water from a bowl to perform wudhu, to see how Muslims used to wash themselves before praying.

London Muslim Woman begins by speaking in a loud, official tone. Using the scarves around her, she proudly describes how the Global Government introduced the enlightened Realignment programme to show Muslims the ‘right’ way to live and integrate into society. As part of this realignment, the hijab was banned by the Global Health and Communication regulations in the interests of modernity and for the freedom of Muslim women. The global eradication of religious attire allowed for ‘good’ morals and freedom to prevail and empowered women to take on a central role in the fight against terrorism in their own communities.

However, despite outward signs of pride and comfort, she’s a prisoner on the platform. She has been weaponised by the Global Government and turned in on herself. Whenever she notices her guard being distracted, she escapes from the microphone to speak candidly. Her ‘real self’ tells her real story about what it was like to be a Muslim.

A former school teacher, she was dismissed – without the right to attend, have representation, or appeal the decision of the disciplinary commission – after she facilitated a classroom discussion with her students about a news story of the razing of a 2,000 year old temple in Syria. Some of her students disappeared soon after. Then, her husband, Abdul Lateef, was arrested by IRIS after he was caught conducting research on similar cases of dismissal for her defence. Being branded the ‘wife of a terrorist’ led to isolation in her community, being spat at on the streets, and interrogated about her views on ISIS by a GP as she sought medical support for her anxiety. Next, IRIS raided her home one morning at 3am and ‘saved’ her children from their mother’s rebellious nature. Their teachers noticed their inquisitive nature and blamed ‘radicalisation’.

Through time, she cannot remember her children’s ages. When did she last see Abdul? Do her children still remember her? Will they forget her as they grow older? IRIS exploits these fears with promises of help in exchange for the “names of those growing beards, wearing scarves, praying more, learning more”. When the guard notices her deviation, pictures of her children flash onto screens, returning her to the script while pleading for mercy. Tragically, with fading memories, she can’t be certain whether it’s her children’s images or an IRIS trick.

Through small moments as her ‘real self’, the play touches on themes of being Muslim in the west: experiences of racism and Islamophobia; racial profiling; children separated from parents; mental health in the ‘war on terror’; integration debates; surveillance; and victim blaming. The writer clearly understands these intricate details of the desperate attempts to be treated humanely and deep-rooted fears and anxieties. Nothing feels out of place or exaggerated. However, the authenticity that makes investment in the character easy is undermined by setting it decades in the future.

Much like the commonplace refrain to George Orwell’s 1984, the play is a warning of what awaits Muslims on the current trajectory. The reality is that much of the story could have been lifted from contemporary cases. Arresting Abdul for researching his wife’s case mirrors the case of Dr Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested and placed into solitary confinement as a postgraduate student in 2008 whilst researching terrorist tactics for his dissertation. There’s the case of Umm Ahmed, sentenced to a 12-month prison term for a terrorism offence in 2012. She was researching her brother’s terrorism conviction and was found to be in possession of terrorist literature. The judge acknowledged she’d gathered the documents to understand the charges her brother faced, rather than to commit an act of terrorism.

The story centres on loss – London Muslim Woman loses her job, her children and her husband – but it’s also about loss of control over life, over material belongings – symbolised by her hijab being taken from her on several occasions – and the loss of millions of lives in the ‘war on terror’ which are destroyed beyond repair. All results directly from Islamophobia. This is vividly illustrated in the play as she reads a death list across numerous Muslim countries. It’s also about the West’s loss of values – its Janus face of self-projected enlightenment versus its oppressive reality – so forcing western audiences to confront their seemingly moral civilisation.

However, some language used to characterise Muslims was problematic, as it reflected an internalisation of dominant characterisations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the ‘war on terror’, which undermined attempts to undo its dehumanising tendencies.

As a retort to IRIS, London Muslim Woman appeals to liberal notions of universal humanity, but how useful are such appeals? Whilst narratives of universal humanity are important, they’re often deployed in racialised contexts like the war on terror, which dismiss and hide dimensions of race and Islamophobia that shape experiences and outcomes for Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. Talking about ‘being human’ in a racialised context often functions to encourage BAME communities to focus on the white life experience, demanding they don’t raise uncomfortable issues of race and Islamophobia. To talk about ‘being human’ with BAME communities is to tell them to ignore race and religion by being more like and thinking more like everyone else. The problem of course is that in racialised contexts BAME communities cannot escape their race and religion – they are reminded about it at each turn. More important than appealing to liberal notions of universal humanity, which in any case are difficult for the war on terror machinery to grasp given its deliberate dehumanising efforts, is the need to reflect on and change the nature of counter-terrorism practice.

Cuts of the Cloth is a poignant but disturbing portrayal of one of the most pressing issues of our time. A must see.

Cuts of the Cloth was performed at Oldham Library on 25 July.

Dr Fahid Qurashi