Art of Change Fellow Deeyah Khan answers questions for the Art of Change on combatting extremism, social media as creative resistance, and the human side of radicalization. Read Deeyah’s answers below, and then tune in on January 15 to watch the live stream of The Artists of Change–a daylong interactive forum with Khan and the other Fellows presenting about their work.

In previous interviews, you have noted that women and artists are always the first victims of extremist movements. Why do you think this is?

Islamic extremists have very narrow roles for women. Fundamentalists are very quick to react to women who transgress these, even slightly. Professional women, women who seek education, women who defend their bodily sovereignty, or women’s human rights are often their first targets. Art has the capacity to present alternatives to black and white, either-or absolute positions. With the power of human creativity behind it, it can present real questions to the extremist world-view. Art is intrinsically human and has the power to transcend the boundaries of thought set by extremists. It is a direct language which speaks to people’s hearts.

The purpose of religious and violent extremists is to control and direct human feelings and restrict imagination. For those who seek to control and break the spirit of a people, the “dangerous” potential of artistic expression is controlled, censored or destroyed. Art has the capacity to insert colour back into their black and white worldview. This is why art and women are the first targets – this is why we need to pay attention to changes in the status of women, and in restrictions around artistic expression. These aren’t trivial. These are indicators of growing extremism. Sadly, these issues are often treated as cultural differences, rather than attacks on human rights by extremists.

The Arab Spring showed us how social media could be leveraged to develop political resistance in the Middle East. How can technology and social media help build a creative resistance to extremists throughout the world?

Social media will continue to strengthen the spirit of the Arab Spring. We need to make sure that it is a space in which all expressions can be shared, but also where people can do so without fear of harassment or exposure. Social media platforms themselves need to take some responsibility for this. Throughout my year as an Art Of Change Ford Foundation fellow, I have been building a network of professional artists and courageous activists across the MENA, South Asia and diaspora communities in order to connect creative resistance against extremism.

Islamic extremism uses the power of dogma to enforce oppression, injustice and violence. Many Muslims live in repressive states, where censorship and blasphemy laws are used to repress criticism of the state and other vested interests, which often include religious groups. The continuing negative impact of Western foreign policy and local political rivalries develop into political tensions.

Within this complex landscape, the independent voices of artists and activists are precious. These courageous and creative individuals provide innovative and humanist understandings of history, tradition, politics, culture, religion – and more inclusive visions of the future. Compassionate and committed activists are able to draw attention to the suffering that happens within Muslim majority nations: the low status of women and minorities, the lack of respect for human rights, the weak rule of law and high levels of corruption.

The Muslim world has a long history of resistance to oppression, led by poets, musicians, filmmakers, writers, human rights defenders, intellectuals, feminists and scholars. Throughout history, these individuals have been the vanguard against tyranny, whether external or internal, protecting their societies and people, and protesting injustice, despite the great dangers that they face. I want to build upon this tradition of creative resistance. Through this fellowship, my production company Fuuse has begun the preliminary process of creating a network to provide support, solidarity and connection between these artists, activists and dissidents across the Muslim world from Pakistan to Egypt to Mali, and within its diaspora communities. We seek to provide these champions the support they need in resisting those who practice violence in the name of the Muslim faith. This will be an indigenous voice of progressive, secular and democratic alternatives to radical Islam. The Network will be a network of lovers of freedom, troublemakers and peacemakers, the doers, thinkers and revolutionaries of the Muslim world — artists across all art forms, activists across all disciplines. We will be working with secularists, feminists and champions of human rights, who receive little coverage within a media that often positions the Muslim world in over-simplified terms of East v West or as Extreme v Moderate Islam.

Artists have the ability to bypass preconceptions and typical cultural barriers. Art makes us feel a direct connection to our emotions, which is something fundamentalists fear. Art and creativity, regardless of the form, to me is about inner freedom. Even when outer freedom is taken from us if inner freedom remains, we will resist, we will revolt, we will oppose oppression and injustice and most importantly we will not lose hope. I believe in the powerful relationship between art and dissent as instruments for social change.

With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in the US and Europe, how can artists help combat the prejudice and fear propagated by public figures and the media?

Artists can explore our shared humanity. Artists can ask questions and tell stories in a different way than journalists. Artists can facilitate dialogue and engagement in a different emotional register, beyond rhetoric and the politics of polarization. Artists have the creative skill-set to facilitate the possibility of seeing each other differently, maybe more humanely and to work in a space beyond “us and them”.

We need to be heard in the US and Europe. There are many of us who come from Muslim backgrounds, but are also progressive and secular who represent an alternative view. It seems to me, the media has a tendency to prefer to show men with beards spewing hatred and exacerbating people’s fears because it makes ‘good TV’-  or else apologists for violence, who downplay the damage done to Muslim societies by radical Islamists. Honest, fearless and inclusive dialogue would promote public understanding and give a clearer picture. My hope is to leverage one of the greatest resources for a peaceful resistance movement: artist and activists’ individual and collective struggles for peace, rights, hope and pluralism within the Muslim world and its diverse communities.

>Much of your work seeks to understand radicalization through telling the human stories behind it. How can storytelling help us see this situation, and potential solutions, differently?

My documentary Jihad explored the psychosocial aspects of radicalisation. It was an attempt to say that there’s something more intimate contributing to this phenomenon than the words in the Quran or responses to colonialism. The film shows the humanity of people that we otherwise think of as monsters. It does not justify or excuse their actions, it simply invites us to understand. Storytelling can provide points of contact, and explore our shared humanity. This can both help young people tempted by radicalisation be more self-aware about the emotional drivers behind their ideas, and for the rest of us to understand radicalisation in a more complex way.

In all my work I try to create the space and find even the smallest cracks in the hardened surfaces of our societies where we might recognize ourselves in “the other”, not because we agree with them, but because we appreciate their humanity, even if some of them would seek to deny ours. Storytelling gives us a window into the minds and motivations of people we might otherwise never encounter. Art has the power to break down barriers, to help us see through the eyes of another. There is no better solution to the divisions that threaten our world today than to increase our empathy. Dehumanizing each other is what makes violence, hate and fear possible. Storytelling that centres on the truth of human experience makes us understand each other, and ourselves. We have to tell a more truthful story about what it means to be human.


We will be celebrating the work of these 13 Fellows at The Artists of Change, a creative forum on January 15, 2016 from 9-5pm ET at the Ford Foundation. During this day-long interactive event, they will share their work and spark lively conversation around the ideas they are exploring. We will be live streaming everything here at artofchange.is, and at partner screening sites around the world. Tune in here and on social media @FordFoundation to participate.