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Austin Cline

Britain: Sikhs Riot, Protest Play, Theater Closes

By December 22, 2004

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A Birmingham theatre tried to put on a production of Behzti, a play that involved sexual abuse and murder occurring in a Sikh temple. British Sikhs were so outraged at these depictions that they not only protested, but rioted - ultimately forcing the theater to close the play down. Let's hear it for free speech!

The BBC reported on the rioting:

Hundreds of Sikhs gathered outside Birmingham Repertory Theatre and a few tried to storm their way in, forcing Saturday's show to be halted. Managers said they deplored "the illegal actions of some protesters".

Behzti (Dishonour), written by Sikh playwright Gurpreet Bhatti, has a scheduled run at the theatre until the end of December and explores issues of sexual abuse, manipulation and relationships inside a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. The theatre says it is a work of fiction and makes no comment about Sikhism as a faith or its followers in general.

Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader, said: "When they're doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?" The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, said the play was offensive to people of all faiths. "The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good. Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion."

What if such events really happened — would it be "demeaning" and "offensive" to depict and discuss them? Are Singh or Nichols willing to assert that nothing evil has ever occurred in a gurdwara?

The Guardian reported:

Ms Bhatti was yesterday refusing to comment, apparently because she has already been threatened with violence. In her foreword to the programme, she praises Sikhism, before adding: "Clearly the fallibility of human nature means that the simple Sikh principles of equality, compassion, and modesty are sometimes discarded in favour of outward appearance, wealth and the quest for power. I feel that distortion in practice must be confronted and our great ideals must be restored _ I believe that drama should be provocative and relevant. I wrote Behzti because I passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy."

Ash Kotak, a playwright and filmmaker, said: "The idea that whole [Asian] communities are homogenised is bollocks, especially as we go through the generations. The people who are campaigning are the ones who have oppressed us in the first place: the very people we are writing against. These are issues which have to be highlighted."

Unfortunately, outward appearance is exactly what won when then play was closed, as the BBC reports:

Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in south Birmingham, also welcomed the decision, but said it had come a week too late. "Free speech can go so far. Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run," he said. "Are you going to upset 600,000 thousands Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that?"

Would it have been acceptable if the play had been seen by a million people, then? I doubt it — these people wanted the play shut down regardless of how many would see it. Plays shouldn’t be permitted or ended merely on the basis of whether it offends someone. If I'm offended by a pro-Sikh play, should it therefore be shut down?

Behzti, which translates as "dishonour", was written by a young female Sikh, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatt, and was said to have been inoffensive to many younger Sikhs. However, religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, had urged a boycott of the play.

A play about how religious leaders abuse their power over adherents will, of course, be offensive to religious leaders who then mobilize followers, distort the truth, and impose censorship on ideas that threaten their positions.

The Guardian reports:

Speaking at a press conference at the city centre theatre, Mr Rogers said: "It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play, purely on safety grounds. "It remains a matter of great concern to us that illegal acts of violence can cause the cancellation of a lawful artistic work," he added. ... This morning the theatre could be seen with its windows boarded up after protestors smashed the front entrance and backstage equipment on Saturday night.

The author Hanif Kureishi, however, defended the Birmingham Rep's production of the play. He told Today: "I think the Sikh community should be ashamed of the fact that it is destroying theatres. Destroying a theatre is like destroying a temple. Without our culture, we are nothing. Our culture is as crucial to the liberal community as temples are to the religious community."

In this case, the barbarians and the supporters of authoritarian religion have won. It was claimed that the play "mocked" the Sikh religion, but that has been denied by all of those involved — the people making the claim have not, near as I can tell, actually seen what they are attacking. Based upon what I have read it sounds more like the play mocks hypocrisy, the abuse of power, and the predilection of some to place appearance of honor above the realities of justice and truth. People who are upset at that are not people who should be trusted in leadership positions of any sort.

Daniel suggests that the protesting Sikh leaders may have violated the proposed British law that would criminalize incitement to religious hatred:

Apostate Sikhs are very definitely a group defined by their religious views. As are apostate Muslims and heretics or blasphemers in general. The Home Office FAQ doesn’t mention blasphemers specifically, but it does reassure the atheists and says that the proposed Bill “will also protect people targeted because of their lack of religious beliefs or because they do not share the religious beliefs of the perpetrator”.

It is hard for me to see how the people in Birmingham’s gurdwaras who stirred up these crowds could have done so without taking steps which would at least prima facie have given rise to a case that they had incited hatred against the play’s author. I doubt that specific acts of violence could be laid at their door, but this crowd did not assemble spontaneously, nor did its members become enraged entirely as a result of their independent theological scrutiny of the theatre listings.

The play probably wouldn't have violated the proposed law, however critical it may have been of Sikhs (which doesn't even seem to be the case). Sikh leaders who stir up a mob that vandalizes a theater and threatens the life of a Sikh author, however, probably would.

Sikhism is often a tolerant and peaceful religion, but right now the leadership of British Sikhs can be counted among the intolerant, the abusive, and the barbaric of world religions.

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