Last night, protestors stopped the performance of Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti at the Birmingham Rep. Most of the 400-plus protestors tried to storm the building, breaking windows and bringing the area around the theatre to a standstill. The protestors were from the Sikh community, protesting against the play's representation of sexual abuse and other irreligious activities in a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple. It comes after a week of smaller-scale protests outside the building and yesterday's escalation seems to be due to significant numbers of Sikhs joining the protest from around the country.
A leading protestor and community leader, Mohan Singh, president of the Guru Nanak Gudwara in Birmingham, has made a series of claims:
- that they have no objection to depicting immoral acts, as the play does, even if those are being performed by Sikh characters. Their objection is the setting of the play in a Gurdwara. "We are not bothered about rape scenes or paedophiles - we know that there are good and bad people from every background and religion. The problem is having these things take place in a temple. Any religion would not take such a slur." (BBC Website)
- they also believe this will promote religious hatred: "people out there who don't know anything about Sikhs will see this and what sort of a picture will they have in their mind? They will paint all Sikhs with the same brush." (BBC Website)
- the protestors also seem suspicious of the motives of those involved. "We don't like you doing a play about a Sikh Gudwara which you don't know nothing about" (BBC News)
It's hard to work out what these protestors are objecting to. If they don't object to depictions of Sikhs engaged in immoral acts, then they can't really be objecting on the grounds of 'promoting religious hatred'. It's unclear whether it's the depiction of a Gudwara or the depiction of a Gudwara being morally defiled that's causing offence. It is the case that Gudwaras are all equally holy spaces, sites where Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, can be installed and read from. But Sikhism is not an iconoclastic religion, indeed is famous for its elaborate iconography and ceremonial representations, so it is unclear what the real objection is here. And the final claim seems irrelevant to the first two (besides which, the playwright is herself a Sikh). Are they claiming that no immoral act has ever taken place in a Sikh Temple?
It seems that the theatre has worked hard to inform the Sikh community of its project and to reassure them of its intentions. The production's programme contains positive statements about the values of Sikhism. It is possible that more could be done to assuage local concerns but we have to decide: does theatre have the right to offend? Or is this right something that can be curtailed by religious protest?
Let's not forget the most shameful episode in the Royal Court's history, the cancellation of Jim Allen's play Perdition at the Royal Court in 1987. That play repeated well-documented claims that Hungarian Zionists contributed to hiding the truth of the Holocaust - mindeed acquiesced in some of its mechanisms - because they knew it would make their case for the establishment of Israel in Palestine irresistible. It was scheduled in a production by Ken Loach, but pulled after an orchestrated campaign of resistance from the press and other influential figures. A wholly disgaraceful connection was made (and is still, of course, being made) between Zionism and Judaism, between the Jewish faith and the state of Israel. If you criticize the foundation of the state of Israel, it seemed and seems, you are an anti-Semite.
Obviously this is not true. It is the same concern for human freedoms and human rights that would lead one to condemn the Holocaust as to condemn the action of the Israeli military in the occupied territories. It's the defence of liberty that is fundamental, not one particular version of the liberty. Behzti (Dishonour) does not inhibit anyone's liberty and we should be very firm in its defence.
However, religion befuddles people. Is it racist to criticise religion? (No.) Is someone's religious belief worthy of more respect than any other belief? (No.) If someone venerates a place, an event, an object, a text as sacred, should we yield to that veneration? (No.)
No one should offend anyone else for the sake of it - there's nothing ethically fine or politically valuable about doing that. Indeed, it's reprehensible. But a play that is trying to engage with a community, question it, hold it up to scrutiny, needs to be defended. The community leader's confusing tangle of arguments points to something else, a more alarming political pattern that is being established. This is another sign of a rising neo-conservative movement in Britain that is consciously modelling itself on the Evangelical coalitions in the US. There, curious alliances have been formed (between, for example, the Evangelicals and the hardline pro-Israel lobby).
And now the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, has denounced the play: "such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion". Does it? How does it? Has the play - in any meaningful sense - violated the Gudwara? Has he, in fact, seen the play?
Liberals and the Left are too often riven with misplaced qualms on occasions like this. But the argument is clear, the route of the Left obvious. It is not racist to disagree with the protestors. It is not even disrespectful of the humanity of that community to allow this play to be staged; we all know that communities have multiple voices and we must remember which voices are not being represented by these protestors: often it's the victims of a community, the people whose story this play is trying to stage. The Birmingham Rep's freedom must be defended.