Outcry as British Council quits Europe to woo Muslim world
Helena Smith, Athens
Sunday August 5, 2007
It was the first visible sign of a cultural earthquake. Last week 8,000 books - the entire literary heritage of the British Council in Greece - were carted off to the English department of Athens University. Many of them are works by British hellenists, including poets such as Byron, or celebrate those who forged the bond between Britain and Greece.
It is not just in Athens that the British Council is winding down. Across Europe, half a century of promoting British culture and values is slowly being wound down in favour of a huge increase in funding for activities in the Middle East and Muslim world.
It is a switch that has been greeted with horror by writers who had successfully campaigned to prevent the closure of the council's Athenian Library in 1997. That high-profile campaign prevented the council's European libraries being replaced with computerised 'informational centres' across the continent. But this time the British Council has been in no mood to back down - 2007 is not 1997, it says, despite mounting criticism over policies that have come to be seen as smacking of cultural imperialism and a catastrophic waste of UK taxpayers' money.
Instead, funding of EU countries is being reduced by £20 million - a tenth of the body's total government grant - which is being reallocated to the Middle East as the council attempts to bridge the 'widening gap of trust' between the UK and Muslim states.
Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are among 'high priority' regions that will also receive a 50 per cent boost in support for projects to steer Muslims away from extremism. And as the council's physical presence in Europe is cut back, public access buildings, some recently renovated at spectacular cost, will close.
'You cannot succeed unless you enter into risky areas and are prepared to deal with them,' Cathy Stephens, acting director of British Council operations, told The Observer. 'We are in transformational mood,' she said, acknowledging that, while security is an issue, the ultimate aim is to win over the hearts and minds of men and women in predominantly young populations across the Arab world.
'We will, of course, tailor our programmes ... and if it is felt we are doing something wrong in those countries, we will listen.'
Given the threat of terrorism, the British Council believes the overhaul is overdue. The new strategy will not only prove beneficial to Britain's long-term security and prosperity but perfectly upholds the council's mission of 'increasing appreciation of the UK's ideas and achievements overseas'.
'We want more impact, better results and interaction,' says Stephens. 'Books and buildings are inert resources that [entail] fixed costs and a lot of maintaining and staffing. And the internet has enabled much better access to books.'
But not all are convinced. Authors who have long viewed the council as a conduit to wider audiences in Europe, are appalled.
'This whole policy is misconstrued from top to bottom,' complains Charles Arnold-Baker, author of The Companion to British History. 'We are going somewhere where we can't succeed and neglecting our friends in Europe who wish us well. The only people who are going to read our books in Beirut or Baghdad are converts already.'
Failure to endear hostile Arab populations will be exacerbated, opponents claim, not only by the logistics of maintaining branches in danger zones but by the success the policy will have in cutting off the next generation of Anglophiles in Europe. The Institut Français and Goethe-Institut are both expanding and replenishing libraries Europe-wide.
Speaking from her home in Dorset, Fay Weldon, a vociferous supporter of the earlier campaign to prevent the closure of the council's libraries, and an author who has long toured with the council, argues that women fiction writers will be especially hard hit because they will not be read in those closed patriarchal societies with tiny educated elites. 'I hope the Islamic world is grateful,' she adds. 'I doubt that it will be.'
'What do they hope to do? Win hearts and minds by sending in rappers to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East?' she asked. 'We're trying to impose our culture and values on the culture of countries that don't share them, in the extraordinary conviction that we are right.
'All of this feels like somebody's bright idea that has not been properly thought out,' says Weldon. 'The British Council should examine its own motives, attitudes and indeed cultural imperialism, because what they are doing is totally short-sighted.'