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It’s time to celebrate multiculturalism again

Ex-Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg tells his story in The Confession - a feature length documentary showing in cinemas now. Luke Wilson spoke to director Ashish Ghadiali about the British Asian experience of the War on Terror

August 16, 2016
11 min read

the confession(Picture: Moazzam Begg in The Confession)

Luke: How did you feel about Moazzam’s representation in the media as you approached this film?

Ashish: He’s been on TV a lot, especially around the time of his release, but the coverage was all superficial. It was as though they had turned him into a cardboard cut-out in order to ‘wheel on the Islamist’. So a long form interview film that really explored his experience and the context was intended to bring some kind of three dimensional representation, not in a way that you necessarily have to agree with.

Luke: He is questioned in an antagonistic fashion by the media, just as the Muslim community tends to be questioned with an assumption of guilt before innocence. Did any of your feelings towards him change as you made the film? Tell us about your journey with him.

Ashish: Firstly, for the sake of justice and accountability, and even setting the whole issue of Guantanamo aside; this guy has recently been held as a category A prisoner, charged with 7 terror offences, and then, when he’s released people are saying to themselves ‘well maybe he’s got away with it’, but I had to ask – have we stooped that low now? As a society we don’t bother to ask if the man is guilty? Because if he’s a terror threat he shouldn’t be released, and if he’s not then the man’s been wronged, and I don’t mind which it is, but why am I the only person asking that question?

There was a broader societal question driving me too; I wanted to tell his story as an exponent of the British Asian experience. So for me it became about multiculturalism. There was something in his story that I very much identified with. When he talked about why he went to Afghanistan I felt like I had access to that motivation, that many many people I knew didn’t. It remains a complete mystery to most people.

I was going to work, the only non-white person on my floor in the office and suddenly I was being stopped and searched on my way to work almost every day, sometimes twice a day.

Looking back, my personal experience was a high water mark in the story of multiculturalism. It was the 90s and there was the Lawrence inquiry, I was a journalist at Red Pepper and joined debates about institutional racism. I met my heroes Hanif Kureishi and V.S. Naipaul at a Harold Pinter book launch; we also had the music of Talvin Singh – so this was an era when British Asian culture was being celebrated and there was a confidence and optimism which defined me. I found that post 9/11 that milieu changed and post-2005 it crashed almost over night.

I was working in reality TV but suddenly I felt so disconnected from it. I was going to work, the only non-white person on my floor in the office and suddenly I was being stopped and searched on my way to work almost every day, sometimes twice a day. I would get to work and be depressed and wanted to share it with people and really want our work to reflect what was happening in society, but I would find that door closed. Other people would say they weren’t experiencing it, or they would find the response reasonable, that perhaps it was keeping them safe. But if our intelligence was so slight that over night I had become a terror suspect then I realised something was up. Gradually that made me want to seek my identity elsewhere.

The most crude way of putting it is that it made me want to find out what life was like among people who had the same colour skin as me. I wanted to be able to dissolve. So I travelled and spent a lot of time in India, Palestine and Singapore where I went to film school. I had a decade of my life shaped by not being in Britain and I came back to find the Tories were in power, Eton was back in and multiculturalism itself had been pronounced a failure.

Luke: Did you feel there was a stark difference when you returned to the UK?

Ashish: Massive, yes. Society seemed to have polarised a great deal and I saw that within Muslim communities everything was so much more accentuated and emphatic – the whole idea of a separate identity, along with its antagonism and mutual distrust seemed to me to be much greater.

But I kept coming back to this word ‘multiculturalism’ – and people from the left and the right were telling me repeatedly it didn’t work anymore. To me, the idea of multiculturalism is the only possibility of a sane future – it had been cast off and I felt very strongly that needed to be challenged, so I wanted to tell Moazzam’s story in a way that could hold that whole experience.

As I prepared for the interview I had to take much more seriously the possibility of his guilt. I realised that actually there was a whole world between his experience and mine, that was a world, for want of a better word, of radical Islam.

Luke: Moazzam has spent a lot of time in front of cameras and shows a lot of self control, how far dd you manage to really reach him during the interview?

Ashish: We did the interview in a dark room over two days. Then I sat down with that material for months and sifted through it to seek truth within it. I never really felt like it was my role to judge, which I think is unusual in this world of documentary makers. A lot of people around me were judging and expecting me to judge. It became clear to me that he’s been interrogated more than most people, he’s been tested very deeply and he’s very self controlled. He’s getting the story right from his point of view and the film shows his strength and provokes you to ask ‘what’s behind that’?

The funny thing now is that the distributor has got us going on tour together, so the distance and the objectivity is falling away because we’re spending a lot of time together and we’re both motivated by wanting people to see the film and for it to have impact socially.

Luke: What sort of impact do you want the film to have? And did you have a certain audience in mind when you were putting it together?

Ashish: I wanted the film to reach and to live in the Muslim community. In this country mainstream media is made about Muslims, on a very regular basis, but it’s never really made for Muslims. All the indications so far are that Muslim audiences love the film because it’s given some representation to their voice and experience. That was always really important to me, and I’m not Muslim by the way, I think that’s important to say, but I have shared aspects of the War on Terror just by virtue of ‘looking like one’.

But I never wanted it to be a niche film, his experience is iconic of our age, it was really important that we did reach a national audience. I would like the film to be a piece of a new debate around multiculturalism – because I think we let it go too lightly. What does it mean fundamentally when you say multiculturalism has failed? Now, multiculturalism means to a lot of the population: female genital mutilation, or it means inwardness of communities. And if that’s what we’ve allowed it to mean then we’re deeply impoverished by that. There is a racist assumption behind that position. To me, what multiculturalism means now is that our collective experience is going to be shaped by influences that come from many directions, not one. That’s a fundamental fact. If we’re going to build a culture that can hold a sense of difference and a new sense of collectivity then multiculturalism is our only way forward.

I hope that the film can help create a framework in which we understand the narrative of the War on Terror and the way that it’s undermined multiculturalism as a core concept and philosophy of our society, and we should recognise that that hasn’t worked – we’re not safer, we’re more polarised, we’re more insecure, than we were 10 or 15 years ago. From the left, we really need to address the issue of nation. We’ve allowed that to be the domain of the right so UKIP, the Queen of England or David Cameron defines what it means to be British. That concept in itself has come to a crisis point – the constant tub thumping jingoism of British identity has now cracked open, it’s leading to the break down of the union, to a more polarised society, a country that’s incoherent, so it’s our job now to really think that through and understand and fashion a new understanding of what it means to us – not to be British in a way that ‘I’m better than anyone else’, but we are joined together by a common collective experience, and within that journey, multiculturalism I believe, is our key.

Luke: Did your feelings on multiculturalism evolve as you made the documentary?

Ashish: On the day I started thinking about this documentary I was thinking about multiculturalism. The language of terrorism and the summations of guilt that come with it, and the assumption of guilt over whole communities – it’s something that is deeply destructive to a society, it breeds more mistrust, it hardens lines and hardens tension. I kept looking at the way things were evolving and asked if British multiculturalism was our great success within the whole postcolonial matrix, and we’ve now pronounced that a failure, where are we going? What’s the new vision? What’s the new idea?

Multiculturalism seems to have gone out of fashion, but it became clear to me that it wasn’t an idea, it was a social reality. It was a social reality of my being, but also of yours, and to deny it weakens us and separates ourselves from our own history, and the embrace of it seemed to me something powerful that needs to be talked about and brought back into the mainstream.

Luke: Do you see any areas where political expressions of multiculturalism are surviving and thriving?

Ashish: Take Back the City is doing amazing work. I think there was never the problem that the Tories were pointing towards – multiculturalism as an idea constantly reinforces a broad base. It’s a socialist principle fundamentally. It’s rooted in a progressive response to postcolonial context. It was developed as an idea through the late 60s, 70s and 80s and the idea that it failed was basically the consequence of 20 years of neoliberal co-option. Multiculturalism had always been rooted in anti-racist struggle, about communities, saying ‘we are what we are and society must include us’. It’s just a right-wing coup to imagine that multiculturalism has failed. It hasn’t failed, it’s evolving.

I think that actually, most people do see themselves as multiculturalists in Britain and most be do identify with anti-racism as a defining principle of how we need to move forward as a nation. Now seems like a more confident moment in terms of that debate, Black Lives Matter is being celebrated, it’s getting coverage and being recognised as being important. My film The Confession is coming out at the same time as The Hard Stop, so it’s not that multiculturalism needs to be rehabilitated as an idea, it’s just time to celebrate it again.

Watch the trailer and find your nearest showing of The Confession here.

Thanks to Yula Burin for contributing to this interview.

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