Can art change the world?

The Southbank Centre’s “Festival of the World” says yes.

There were all sorts of flags flying from the paramount of the Southbank this weekend. Jubilee bunting along the waterfront promenade, specially commissioned Festival Flags that blend the banners of myriad countries together in one “world community” standard; even a choreographed dance of red and yellow semaphores to send a message to the maritime-savvy royal flotilla: Happy Diamond Jubilee Queen Elizabeth, We Heart You.  

But more than just the usual fanfare regalia, from 1 June the Southbank Centre has flying another, more symbolic kind of flag. Let’s call it the Flag for Art. And it won’t be just polite, gallery-bound art. Think bold declarations and noisy celebrations: music, sculpture, cabaret, food, installations, blossoming gardens and over 4,000 artists, poets, writers, and performers from 195 countries coming together to stage three month's worth of performances. It’s The Festival of the World, an out-and-out global flavoured fete.

“Can Art Change the World?” is the gallant tagline of the festival. Idealistic as it may sound, if any institution is positioned to prove it right, it would be the Southbank. As Europe’s largest arts centre and a staple London attraction, the festival is well placed to receive, and engage, millions of visitors this summer. Last year’s Festival of Britain had 11 million bypasses. Nearly 3 million paused to actively participate. 

As the Southbank's artistic director Jude Kelly put it at the launch, the Southbank Centre is an “iconic” space of “continual transformation”.

“Our festival champions the idea that art holds the key to unlocking the collective imagination,” she beamed.

Kelly also points towards the institution's longstanding core ideals of engaging society through art. “One of the most important things we have inherited is the idealism founded by the [first] Festival of Britain.” First staged 1951, the festival marked the inception of the Southbank Centre; a “tonic for the nation” that brought frivolity back to a post-war England, reinvigorating sentiments of optimism and progress through art. In this century London is an infinitely more diverse place, though perhaps no less in need of a rejuvenating kick. Will Festival of the World do the trick?

With the 4,000-plus artists due to add their voice to the festival’s programme, the roster of events is simultaneously overwhelming and exhilarating. An interactive outdoor landscape chock-a-block with installations makes up the heart of the festival. The projects are numerate and a touch disparate. There’s sculptural columns built by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa - from florid green household baskets, large scale figures made of reconstituted woods scraps scaling the Hayward Gallery - a sound installation broadcasting poems from around the world read in their native language, a fifteen foot Baobab tree built from “global” fabrics, a luminous landscape of plastic milk bottles and much more. But assortment is well held together by the connective tissue of cultural celebration, internationalism and creativity innovation.

Several large-scale events are slated to headline the festival. Poetry Parnassus (26 June – 1 July) is a “world record breaking” gathering of poets from across the globe, while Africa Utopia (3 – 28 July) sees an extraordinary breadth of African music, dance, literature and debates take centre stage. The Hayward Galley will be transformed into Wide Open School, a visual arts summer school “devised and fuelled by the imaginations of leading artist from around the world”. The London Wonderground features top calibre comedy and cabaret in the sprawling Spiegeltent, one of only two dozen-odd mirrored circus tabernacles left over from the 1920s vaudevillian heyday. 

Perhaps the sturdiest pillar in the Southbank’s agenda to “champion the idea that art…can be a powerful agent for social change” is their continual highlighting of international project that shape lives through art. Dotted throughout the site are information placards drawing attention to programs such as Shelanu - a Birmingham based craft enterprise assisting refugee women - or AfroReggae, a dance-based social mobility scheme in Rio di Janiero. The Royal Festival Hall is also home to the Festival of the World Museum, a series of interactive environments honouring an ethos of “art as change”. One commemorates arts education visionaries such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, another captures the transformative power of music, a third allows visitors to apply to become “citizens of the world” (blue passport with your own photo included).

If there’s one thing that binds the projects in this festival together, it’s their collective multiculturalism.  “This summer, as London welcomes the world,” Jude Kelly says. “Festival of the World asks a timely and crucial question: How can we understand each other’s cultures better and help make the world a better place?”

The festival’s feel is rightfully democratic; its installations accessible to all and encouraging interaction. It’s sure to be a soiree of mass appeal – adults, children, gallery gurus and art rookies alike won’t feel out of place. So hit the newly opened roof garden atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall, sip a gin fizz, and take a moment to contemplate all that art can accomplish. Can it change the world? “Well possibly,” Jude Kelley admits. “We have to give it a go.”

Festival of the World is on at the Southbank Centre, SE1: 1 June – 9 September.

(Festival of the World Illustration: created by Antoine Corbineau. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Under the Baobab: created by Pirate Technics. Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Everything is beautiful when you don't look down: created by Robots>>>>. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Wastescape: created by Gayle Chong Kwan. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

"Perspectives", a canopy of oversized children's blocks that reveals hidden messages, is one of many installations at Festival of the World (Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era