On July 19th, 2017, Frontpage Mag published an article by Bruce Bawer entitled, “Improving Muslim Integration, Sending in the Clowns.” In it, the author shares his opinion about the Swedish Migration Board financially supporting Clowner Utan Gränser, or CWB-Sweden. In the spirit of collaboration, Clowns Without Borders USA or CWB-USA, is responding to the criticism in that article.
Mr Bawer writes: “Just speaking for myself, however, the last thing I can imagine wanting to see if I were a little kid in a Third World refugee camp or youth prison would be a bunch of guys in clown outfits climbing out of a tiny car, juggling bowling pins, riding unicycles, making balloon animals, and sweeping up spotlights. Not to put too fine a point on it, but is any child ever really entertained by the antics of clowns?”
We only go where invited, working in collaboration with our partners to make sure that our performances are wanted. We hear feedback like, “This is perfect. This is exactly what we need,” as stated by Stavros Myrogiannis, Director of Karatepe Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece, where thousands of Syrian refugees were hosted. We see children’s attention captivated during our performances, and watch them re-enact our shows as we leave. We meet audience members years later who remember different acts and different songs. Mr. Bawer claims he cannot imagine wanting to see a performance if he were in a refugee camp, however, the audiences we perform for tell us otherwise. Those of us who are not on the run from war take activities like music, movies, concerts, and dinner parties for granted. Imagine a life where these sources of relaxation and diversion are not accessible.
“[F]or as long as I can remember, clowns struck me me as witless, depressing, and vaguely creepy… A painted-on smile seems the very opposite of cheery.”
The “Creepy Clowns” as they are now commonly referred to, are, in fact, not clowns. The term is a misnomer. The pretenders are disturbing figures who are pretending to be clowns and hiding their identity because they do not understand the art form. Many Americans share this response to traditional circus clowns, and CWB knows that excessive make-up can be scary. Our performers wear limited makeup, often just a red nose, so that children can see their expressions. All of our performances are free, and no one is forced to attend. If a child—or adult for that matter – doesn’t want to attend, there is no obligation. When we partner with other NGO’s, we make sure that there is no incentive—such as food or toys—for attending a show, and no repercussions for not attending.
“Dressing up as a doctor doesn’t make someone a doctor,” says Sarah Liane Foster, CWB-USA board member and U.S. Representative to Clowns Without Borders International. “Wearing a mask and a wig doesn’t make someone a clown.” True clowns are professionally trained performers who have undertaken years of study. The skilled clown connects to the audience in a safe manner where they understand that the clown is a character and the red nose is a mask that invites interaction – – not to conceal identity for nefarious reasons.
Mr. Bawer raises another question. “I did react to one detail on CWB’s site. It informs us that the group ‘is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.’ What is that supposed to mean?”
The U.N. Declaration of the Rights of a the Child were adopted by the Un general assembly on 20 November, 1989. They are the guiding principles for giving aid to children, such as that children are entitled to receive medical care, food, and shelter, even in times of war. CWB is guided by Principle 7. “The child is entitled to receive education….The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right.”
Just as children have a right to a country and medical care, they also have the right to play. Play is an essential part of child development and education.
Mr. Bawer’s main critique of the program is that Sweden’s Migration Board is using laughter to integrate Syrian refugees, and claims that “Swedish authorities still don’t know the first damned thing about Islam.” This is based on Khomeini’s proclamation that, “There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam.” This, like the rest of Khomeinism, is the founding ideology of the Republic of Iran. In fact, many Syrian refugees have left Syria because of rising Islamic extremism, such as that embraced by Khomeini. CWB’s program to use laughter to promote integration is in no way in conflict with the audience’s faith. All chapters of CWB are sensitive to the culture and cultural norms of the audience. Performers never make jokes at the expense of audience members’ faith, culture, ability, or gender.
It is unclear from Mr. Bawer’s article if his concern is for displaced people living in Sweden, or the high financial cost of delivering services to those people. CWB-Sweden’s program to use laughter to integrate Syrian refugees is for the post-traumatic stress benefit of laughter and the trust and community that is built through watching a live performance. CWB works diligently with partner aid organizations to make sure that our programs are supporting other aid efforts. Our programs do not take away from essential services, such as food, water, and medical care.
Mr. Bawer goes further to say that the real humor would be if a clown was beheaded by one of the refugees. Commenters on the post have shared this sentiment, and also complained that Sweden is focusing resources on refugees, and not its own citizens. One commenter wrote: “It is high time for the self-loathing traitors amongst the White race to be expunged from the gene pool, and if that means whole nations of said traitors must be destroyed then so be it.”
At Clowns Without Borders International, we uphold an ethical pillar of solidarity. We take this as an opportunity to reject the racism and violence of Mr. Bawers article, and to say that we are humbled to serve people on the run from war all over the world. The Swedish government is attempting to implement a holistic approach to integrating their newly arrived community members. It is inevitable that our communities transform and change as we give refuge to diverse populations fleeing violence in their home countries. This holistic approach, which incorporates trauma support and seeking creative means to develop trust, may be a path forward to a more diverse and peaceful community.