For decades, the British Council has funded libraries and cultural initiatives across Europe. But the Observer reports that after a 20 million pound cut in its budget for European countries – one example being the impending closure of the Athenian library, with 8,000 volumes carted off to the University of Athens – the focus is shifting to Middle Eastern countries 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.
The change has some writers very upset. “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.” Fay Weldon is equally ominous. “I hope the Islamic world is grateful,” she said. “I doubt that it will be.”