Art and Culture: The War on Terror’s Secret Weapon

Humza Arshad (Diary of a Bad Man) recently made a video funded by PREVENT

Spoken word artist, Mizan the Poet, writes how the West is using art and culture in the War on Terror. He explains how the UK government’s anti-terrorism PREVENT unit is funding numerous organisations to promote Muslim rappers and comedians to counter Islamic “extremism”.

Currently we are in the 13th year of the War on Terror, a new era that saw the West facing an unknown enemy earmarked with the label of Islamic fundamentalism. The War on Terror came off the backdrop of the Cold War, a relentless ideological and militarised war to see Communism neutralised and in this era, many commentators have noted that methods that were being used to fight during the Cold war are now being employed in the War on Terror.

One of the proponents of this argument is an organisation called Spin Watch. In their report entitled, The Cold War on British Muslims: An examination of Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion they state:

“The report begins by placing these contemporary actors into historical context by comparing the current campaign against Muslims with that waged against the left during the Cold war. This introduction section provides much needed context and illuminates many of the contemporary strategies adopted to marginalise British Muslims. It reveals that a number of the key actors in that earlier period are still active today and using similar arguments. Only the targets have changed a little.”

It is public knowledge that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used to engage in covert activity, and participated in covert wars to stop the tide of communism in the third world. However, the physical war was only one side of the coin. What isn’t that well known is the other side of the coin, that the CIA was secretly using cultural methods to counter communism. This method would also find its way in to the Muslim community in this current era where individuals like me would get a first hand introduction.

My story

My interest in the issues affecting the Muslim community began during my years at Westminster University. I was looking for something worthwhile to participate in as I had become disillusioned with the education system. The disillusionment had firmly settled in when the Muslim world was protesting against the Danish cartoon controversy, an event that took the world by storm. This enhanced my interest in current affairs affecting the Muslim community and I decided to volunteer for Muslim youth charities and organisations.

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MYHAt that time there was an urban Muslim rap scene that was still in its formative stage. There were numerous events organised by the founders of this movement, which I had attended and it is through these events where I not only discovered my passion for spoken word, but I was also introduced to an organisation called the Muslim Youth Helpline MYH) whom I volunteered for.

By this time I had graduated and was struggling to find a job so the CEO at that time assisted me in finding a job by referring me to an organisation called SIRAAT, which was a Muslim prison mentoring project, aimed at providing religious mentoring to Muslim TACT offenders and those vulnerable to “extremist” ideology. I was employed by SIRAAT in the summer of 2008.

Back then the UK government had recently released its plans to counter extremism within the Muslim community. The government’s PREVENT strategy aimed to “Stop radicalisation, reduce support for terrorism and violent extremism and discourage people from becoming terrorists.”

What this meant was that there was a stream of funding available from the government for Muslim organisations working to counter extremism within the Muslim community. When I joined SIRAAT, the organisation was on its way to be directly funded by the Home Office’s Office of Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) unit under the PREVENT banner. It was during my employment here where I came across members of the state department who weren’t only engaging in speaking to various Muslim youth centres, but I also recall taking part in meetings where other members of the state department talking favourably of the UK film screenings of New Muslim Cool, a documentary about a American Muslim Rapper turned activist.

British Muslims are targeted under the government's anti-terror PREVENT strategy.
British Muslims are targeted under the government’s anti-terror PREVENT strategy.

I also noticed the inclusion of Muslim artists in various PREVENT related organisations. One notable event was organised by a PREVENT intervention in Hounslow called IMPACT (Intervention for Muslim Progression and the Advancement of Community Tolerance) where the director said that he was coerced in to organising an event with Dawud Wharnsby Ali. There were other Muslim cultural arts and music events that were organised around the UK at this time via organisations that weren’t funded by the Home Office but did have some PREVENT funding attached.

I failed to see how the inclusion of arts was countering extremism and thought it was just the government trying to use arts to co-opt Muslim organisations to present a more liberal form of Islam, but this was only one half of the story. I didn’t know that what I was witnessing was a Cold war tactic, previously used to fight Communism but with a marked difference this time round.

The Cultural Cold War

As stated above, the CIA was using cultural methods to fight the Cold War. In the book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, the author Francis Stonor Saunders writes:

During the height of the Cold War, the US Government committed vast resources to a secret program of Cultural propaganda in Europe. A central feature of this programme was to advance the claim that it did not exist. It was managed in great secrecy by America’s espionage arm, the Central Intelligence Agency. The centrepiece was of this covert campaign was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, run by CIA agent Michael Josselson from 1950 till 1967. Its achievements – not its duration – were considerable. at its peak, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in thirty five countries, employed dozens of personnel, published over twenty prestige magazines, held art exhibitions, owned news and features service, organised high profile international conferences, and rewarded musicians and artists with prizes and public performances. Its mission was to nudge the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of ‘the American way.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

Culture was seen as a pivotal tool to counter the Soviet Union and its image as a superpower. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA sponsored many American artists to perform in Europe, subtly, highlighting the “fact” that western civilisation, represented by America, is the brightest beacon of humanity. This is why up to even today, Europeans worship the ground American stars walked on. Although the Cold War came to an end in the early 90’s, the US government’s relationship with the entertainment industry and the use of culture did not.


In his book, Rebel Music: race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, Hisham D. Aidi draws similarities between the methods used during the Cold War and the War on Terror.

The ‘War on Terror in Western Europe today also has a cultural side. And while more discreet than covert, and often implemented through partnerships with local NGO’s and private-sector actors, the current cultural offensive is underpinned by a Cold War framework- namely the notion that the War on Terror is a battle of ideas and ideologies, and belief that the flow of information that brought down Communism can similarly defeat the jihadist ideology.”

The Cultural War on Terror

Although not highly popularised in the Muslim Community, the use of arts is a popular method to foster understanding of a people that are being misunderstood. And this is the aim of the US administration with the Muslim community, to “open” its eyes to America’s cultural diversity and to show the rest of the world that America is not at war with Islam.

In a highly revealing Telegraph article, journalists Tim Ross and Stephen Swinford highlighted how the US embassy in London launched an anti-extremism campaign in the UK to reverse UK radicalisation in the Muslim community, and provide extra funds to support their counter extremism initiative. According to author Hisham D. Aidi, they also showed how US embassies were funding several Muslim groups throughout Europe.

They wrote: “In April 2008, the deputy chief of the US Embassy in London, Richard LeBaron, wrote back, enthusiastically welcoming the funds and suggesting two fresh proposals for how to prevent British youths from becoming Jihadists.”

Defying-Statistics-6The first would involve hiring an American academic at a cost of $43,000 to study reformed British extremists who have “stepped back” from radical Islam, with advice from the UK government. The aim would be “to create a pool of individuals that could serve as a source of information on radicalisation in the UK – its causes and what they believe will work to deflate it“, Mr LeBaron wrote. He added that the project would “determine which of these individuals we might use to support counterterrorism efforts and how best to use them.

Mr LeBaron’s second suggestion was to spend $39,000 flying in the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy troupe to the UK to participate in the Ramadan Festival UK.

The message their performance would send – of American Muslims, proud to be both ‘American’ and ‘Muslim’ – is a powerful message that would open British Muslim’s eyes to American cultural and religious diversity as well as to encourage reflection on the part of British Muslim community in a positive, self-defining direction. Our expected outcome would be to reach thousand[s] of British Muslims, including the disproportionately high youth population, with these positive messages.”

The suggestion to use the comedy “Allah Made Me Funny” shows how cultural tools play a pivotal role in the US’ War on Terror initiative, and its intent to promote a version of Islam that is more acceptable to western standards. This is highlighted in RAND Corporation‘s report, Civil Democratic Islam: Islam Partners, Resources and Strategies.’

“The artificial over-Islamizing of Western Muslims can be corrected if attention and support are given to the other ways in which they express their identity: music, culture.”

Humza Arshad - Diary of a Badman
Humza Arshad – Diary of a Badman

Although not explicitly stated in the UK Governments PREVENT Strategy, projects such as the “Think for yourself” by Humza Arshad (Diary of a Bad Man) shows that the UK government will also use culture in its effort to combat extremism in the Muslim community, and although this is well known, there is another little story that has caused controversy in the Muslim community, which I was part of…


As of writing, there is a tour which has just ended in the UK with a well-known Muslim rapper from the US. The tour is sponsored by two UK Muslim charities and I was pencilled to be a part of the tour as a spoken word artist. I was told by the organiser from the very start that there was going to be police involvement and that they would carry out background checks. Having worked for a PREVENT organisation before, never gave a second thought to the police doing background checks – I never thought that it would matter if the police were concerned about something but I was proved wrong.

Just before the first event of the tour began, I received a text from the organiser saying “Salaams Bro, i got a call from the police about you!“, I replied back by saying “What did they say?” and the response was “Due to us working with the police, they said you can’t be part of the event!” I was then withdrawn from the tour. I had recently found out that the police expressed concern over my criticisms of PREVENT on my blog. However, the only posts referring to PREVENT in my blog were in reference to PREVENT Officers trying to cancel events organised by advocacy group, Cage and charity HHUGS. Regarding the posts, I merely expressed my opinion that PREVENT needed to engage with the aforementioned organisations and not close them down. From this experience, it seems that Muslims who are openly political are targeted.

The use of culture and Muslim artists is something that the West is looking to use in its War on Terror, and therefore Muslim artists are working in a politically volatile environment. Having a frank and open discussion about the use of arts and culture in the West’s War on Terror on the Muslim community is something that I think is long overdue but very important to have nonetheless.

You can follow Mizan on Twitter @MizanThePoet

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