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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Monday, December 20, 2004 ::

Dishonoured

The Birmingham Rep has announced the cancellation of the rest of the run of Behzti. This is very bleak news. Stuart Rogers, the executive director, is quoted by The Guardian online as saying "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."

Boarded up windows at the Birmingham Rep after the violence on Saturday nightSo the protestors have closed a show, because of the threat of violence. Is this tolerable? Councillor Chaman Lal, a spokesman for the Sikh community in Birmingham, has told the BBC News website, that "The theatre has made the right decision in response to a peaceful protest. There are no winners or losers - common sense has prevailed."

This was not a peaceful protest: three police officers were injured, windows were smashed, equipment was broken backstage. There are winners and losers; the protestors have triumphed over the theatre and over free speech. Common sense has not prevailed; religion has triumphed over reason and freedom. Although we understand why it may have been made, this is emphatically the wrong decision. If you fancy emailing Chaman Lal to express your view, you can email him here.

It's a sign of how far the authorities are prepared to go to defend civil liberties. No distance at all. Creative freedom is a kind of freedom, no less and no more important than anyone's freedom to exercise their autonomous judgment. But that is the most important moral freedom we have. The protestors claim that "we have nothing against freedom of speech, but you do not make a mockery of someone's faith or beliefs. That is oppression." (a) No it isn't, and (b) Bezhti does not mock their beliefs. It is arguing that some features of the culture around Sikhism can provide opportunities for oppression and exploitation. This may offend but that's different from being offensive. Be clear: this is a matter of freedom of speech - whatever the protestors say - and this freedom has been trampled on today.

The playwright Ash Kotak is cited in The Guardian Online saying "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." This is exactly the point and this episode has only emphasised its importance.

Earlier this year BBC 3 caved in to pressure from the Catholic Church who objected to its comic series Popetown depicting - irreverently - working life in the Vatican. Protestors in Scotland have recently objected to a production of Terence McNally's Corpus Christi and apparently lodged a complaint with the police. Why should religion be treated on its own terms? Why should we be faithful to faith, religious about religion? We've seen what happens when religious fanaticism takes over a country - America has just re-elected a fundamentalist president. Censorship by religion dogma is deepening in America (see this article for further evidence). The fact that in Birmingham it's a Sikh protest and not a Christian one should not mask that this is another shot fired in a British version of the culture wars.


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