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Abhor Violence, Not Protest


Daily Mail, Dec. 21, 2004

Photo: Behzti

I abhor violence but can't help a sneaking admiration for those who, unlike us, fight to defend their faith

Most people will be shocked that hundreds of Sikhs should have laid siege to a Birmingham theatre on Saturday and brought the performance of a controversial play to an early end. Windows were smashed, missiles thrown and three police officers were injured.

Now the management of the Birmingham Rep. has abandoned the production of Behzti after failing to reach an agreement with Sikh leaders. With the prospect of further riots, it could not guarantee the safety of theatre-goers.

The play, deeply provocative to many Sikhs, depicted rape and murder in a Sikh temple. Written by the Sikh female writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, it is the story of a mother and daughter who visit a temple where murder and abuse take place.

After Saturday's riots, Sikh leaders had made the apparently preposterous claim that the setting of the play should be changed from a temple to a community centre.

On the face of it, these activities on the part of Sikh leaders amount to an outrageous suppression of free speech. The threat of brute force has led to the abandonment of a play that broke no laws, and which law-abiding citizens had paid good money to see. To force its closure challenges the values of an open society which most of us hold dear.

Without doubt, the incident will be used by those on the far-Right such as the B.N.P. They will say it shows that immigrants such as Sikhs with their own religious beliefs cannot be expected to respect British customs. Others of a more liberal disposition will limit themselves to the observation that free speech is a precious thing that must be defended at all costs.

Right and Left will agree that the behaviour of these Sikh leaders shows how they have not signed up to the post-Enlightenment values that prevail in the host society. Most of us accept the proposition that we fight ideas with other ideas - not with violence and censorship.

Of course, much of this is true. I deplore censorship. And yet part of me is unable to share in the general outrage. This bit of me even feels a degree of sympathy for the Sikhs. They were protecting something precious about their religion. No one can condone violence, but it is difficult not to admire their - to us - very unfashionable defence of their religious beliefs.

In fact, the idea that anything goes in the theatre or literature was not born fully-formed in the Enlightenment 250 years ago. Until quite recently most people, including many who thought of themselves as liberals, believed that there should be limits on free expression, particularly in matters of religion and sex. In the theatre the Lord Chamberlain ensured that there were few, if any, profanities.

In the history of this country - even its democratic history - the belief that free speech should be completely untrammelled is a very recent one. Over the past 40 years, there has been a string of films and plays mocking Christ, notwithstanding the blasphemy laws, which are largely ignored. Monty Python's Life Of Brian showed one of the thieves crucified with Christ singing to him on the cross Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. In the film the Last Temptation Of Christ, the saviour was depicted making love to Mary Magdalen.

Such films have caused enormous upsets, and some complaints, though we have seen nothing to rival the Sikhs rioting in Birmingham. A recent production in St. Andrews in Scotland of Terry McNally's play Corpus Christi - which depicts Christ and his disciples as homosexuals - did attract a small peaceful protest by Christian fundamentalists.

This Christmas Madame Tussaud's exhibited sacrilegious waxworks of Posh and Becks as Mary, mother of Jesus, and Joseph, with no regard for the feelings of Christians. A current Channel 4 brochure carries a photographic spread of the Gallaghers from the 'current hit show, Shameless.' It shows them in the attitude of the apostles at the Last Supper. The figure playing Christ leans forward drunkenly, beer can in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

What is striking about all these examples is how poor they are as works of art. Their notoriety derives from their ability to shock. I dare say the same could be said of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play in Birmingham. But even third-rate works can cause offence if the ideas they contain are sufficiently provocative.

Indeed, it is the mark of an inferior playwright that he should set out simply to provoke rather than to enlighten. If Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's object was to suggest that Sikhs in temples can behave improperly - as we know Roman Catholic priests can in their own world - she could have made her point more subtly without inflaming the very Sikhs whom she would presumably like to influence.

Having chosen a holy temple as her setting, she could have hardly been expected to change it in order to please her critics. But she would have been wiser to have found a less contentious venue in the first place. I am not advocating suppression of free speech. It would have been better if this play had been allowed to proceed as it was written. But I do feel a degree of respect for the way in which Sikhs are prepared to defend their religious values in the face of merciless assaults from their enemies. They show a robustness which most ordinary Christians - excepting a few fundamentalists - are too timid to express.

And perhaps this explains why Sikhs, one of the most successful of immigrant groups, observe their religion to an extent that is barely intelligible to most white Britons. For them religion is not something which may happen just at Christmas or Easter, if at all. It is part of the daily routine of their lives, and informs their belief in the importance of the family and of their social group.

Many will say that the religious intolerance shown by Sikhs in Birmingham shows how dangerously diverse Britain is becoming as a society. Here are people who put their religious beliefs before the notion of free speech. The same point is often made in relation to British Muslims, whose supposedly primitive beliefs are also pronounced to be pre-Enlightenment.

Certainly the intolerance is worrying, but the main lesson I draw from events in Birmingham is that Sikhs comprise a group in our society which retains a laudably strong religious conviction, as well as a firm belief in the family. They are not prepared to see their beliefs mocked and degraded, as many Christians have been.

If these values could be expressed peacefully and in a way that did not threaten free speech, would they not be an inspiration, rather than a threat, to Christian Britain?

Ours might be a stronger and happier society if Christians were readier to defend their values, and if third-rate playwrights thought twice before attacking them.