My Brothers & Sisters - A play about radicalisation

Craig Hanlon-Smith
Mad 'Ed Theatre
Sarah Siddons Theatre City of Westminster College

The government worries about its Prevent strategy to deal with extremism. Not everyone thinks it’s marvellous. A Commons Select Committee suggested abandoning the "toxic brand". David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, told the BBC in 2016 that, “there is a strong feeling in Muslim communities that I visit that Prevent is, if not a spying programme, then at least a programme that is targeted on them."

This is despite giving training to over half a million public sector staff, introducing a legal obligation for staff to report even non-violent extremists and having over 8,000 people referred to its anti-radicalisation programme. Ministers still find themselves awake at night wondering if more can be done to control extremists who happen to be Muslim.

Craig Hanlon-Smith’s My Brothers & Sisters—A play about radicalisation reflects the government’s anxieties about its lack of support amongst Muslims and has come up with a solution. Get Muslims to report on themselves.

The play isn’t an examination of why someone should travel from the UK to join the Islamic State. Nor is it dealing with so called radicalisation or even what is meant by extremism. Instead it is an exposé of the failures of the Muslim characters to help the authorities stop this happening.

It opens with a striking image. Against a backdrop bathed in a dull red light, four figures stand unmoving with suitcases in their hands. Perhaps they are waiting for their trip to the Islamic State. It is an unsettling moment.

The play then shifts to the home of what the show’s web site describes as "a previously unremarkable family" .

The Hassans are being visited by the police. They believe it is about their fifteen-year-old daughter Shamilla who has been missing for 24 hours. In fact it is about their son Mohammed who they claim is holidaying in Turkey after achieving five A levels. However the police show them a video of him that has been posted on line from the Islamic State.

The police are convinced the parents turned a blind eye to his changing views and are suspicious about the daughter whom they later discover missed exams. The failure of the parents to tell them about this adds to concerns about her safety.

She is strongly critical of Western intervention in Iraq, describing the people there as her brothers and sisters. Her boyfriend mocks this, pointing out that her family came from nowhere near that area and that she had benefitted from the free UK education system. But he too failed to report her brother though he believed Mohammed’s ideas were dangerous. For him it was a matter of "you don’t snake a brother".

These failures are sufficient for the police to have Shamilla placed in a youth detention facility. It is made fairly clear that her boyfriend can expect a later visit from the police.

The show defines its problem as a refusal of Muslims to help the State. Never mind that a young person achieving five A levels might have been in contact with a few teachers who also didn’t report an issue even though they have the training. Maybe behind the scenes all the children in their care are being hauled off to the safety of a detention centre.

The play might spark a few lively discussions but its narrow focus on the extremism supposedly lurking in Muslim communities and the way that community fails to report it will tend to limit that discussion and risk feeding prejudice.

The characters are merely mouthpieces for particular "dysfunctional" positions. A good cast and director manage to give them a believability and warmth, but even that can’t hide its negative depiction of Muslims as a group.

In 2016, the Commons Select Committee talked about the "responsibility to avoid contributing to negative views of particular groups in society... This is particularly important in relation to stories about extremism and terrorism involving people professing to be Muslims, and in reports about views held by Muslims, because of the impact it can have in creating hostility towards Muslim communities."

Some people will worry this play encourages a distrust of Muslims. They might not regard the play as racist but believe that its negative depiction of Muslims contributes to racism.

Most people will simply regret its unimaginative account of a complicated situation and its single-minded advocacy of a top-down solution. The play yearns for an extreme surveillance society where even children are enlisted to denounce suspects.

The Commons Select Committee said that Prevent "is perceived to be a top-down 'Big Brother' security operation. Allaying these concerns and building trust will require full and wide engagement with all sections of the Muslim community, including at grassroots level—and not just with groups which already agree with the Government.”

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna