[Marxism] Religion and the left - part II

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at rogers.com
Sun Dec 26 07:02:44 MST 2004


Play Furor Exposes Deep Rifts in Britain
By ALAN COWELL
New York Times
December 25, 2004

LONDON, Dec. 24 - In the few days since a drama company in the Midlands
canceled the run of a contentious play in the face of violent religious
protests, British theater has been grappling with a range of uncomfortable
and unusual questions about censorship, freedom and faith.

The cancellation, by the Birmingham Repertory Theater, challenged Britain's
400,000 Sikhs to contemplate the distinctions within their ranks as values
change, separating a conservative old guard of immigrants from a newer
generation born and reared in Britain. And the episode posed a
near-unanswerable question for liberal-minded British theatergoers: what
counts more, their commitment to free speech or their commitment to minority
rights? Indeed, what kind of a society permits a mob to silence artistic
expression in the first place?

"I think it's one of the blackest days for the arts in this country that I
have ever experienced," said Neal Foster, the manager of another theater,
the Birmingham Stage Company. "Violence is not part of the process we are
used to. In the short term the thugs have won, and this has never happened
before in the artistic community."

The furor centers on a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the British-born
daughter of Sikh immigrants. Her latest work, "Behzti" ("Dishonor"), used a
Sikh temple as the setting for a harrowing scene in which a young woman is
beaten by other women, including her own mother, after being raped by a man
who claims to have had a homosexual relationship with her father.

As the play was being performed on Dec. 18, hundreds of Sikh protesters
attacked the building, throwing bricks, smashing windows and fighting with
police. Citing the threat of further disruptions, the theater canceled the
run, which started Dec. 9, but that was only the beginning of a much broader
drama.

In the midst of this impassioned debate, Ms. Bhatti went into hiding,
fearing for her life after death threats. The situation has evoked
comparisons with the fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 that sent
the writer Salman Rushdie into hiding following the publication of his
"Satanic Verses," a novel the Iranian authorities regarded as insulting to
Islam.

"This is the Sikhs' Rushdie affair," said Gurharpal Singh, a professor of
interreligious studies at the University of Birmingham. "There are overtones
of religious censorship and the clash between community norms and liberal
society."

The soul-searching has become even more tangled because the staging of
"Behzti" intersects with another discussion in Britain over a new law that
would make incitement to religious hatred a crime, in effect extending
earlier legislation that outlawed incitement to racial hatred.

In some ways it is all the more perplexing that the incident should have
taken place in Birmingham, England's second city, which has managed to
achieve an ethnic balance with a large minority of people from an Asian
background, most of them Muslims. Not only Ms. Bhatti, the playwright, is a
Sikh, but so are several members of the cast.

The play's setting infuriated Sikh protesters, who argued that acts like
rape and brutality could never happen in the sanctity of a temple. Sikh
leaders labeled the drama an insult to their faith, which has some 16
million adherents. The religion, founded in the 15th century, is rooted in
the Punjab region of India and has spread in a million-strong diaspora to
Britain, Canada, the United States and other countries.

The play itself, with themes like arranged marriage and the clash of
tradition with modernity, drew mixed reviews. It was advertised as a black
comedy, but The Birmingham Evening Mail said that "what begins as a sharp
and black look at a modern family dilemma sinks beneath its own weight." By
contrast, The Birmingham Post called the play - Ms. Bhatti's second after a
2001 work, "Behsharam" ("Shameless") - "gripping and essential."

Whatever the faults and merits, though, they were lost in a debate that made
headlines in British newspapers and on radio and television shows, and
raised profound concerns about the consequences of, as some saw it, caving
in to violence.

In the future, "theaters will not want to take the risk" of staging
provocative works, Mr. Foster of the Birmingham Stage Company said. "It
doesn't just affect theater. What about controversial books, art galleries,
paintings?"

(Braham Murray, an artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theater in
Manchester, which has commissioned a new play from Ms. Bhatti, said there
will be "no prescription" about the theme of the play and "no doubts about
staging it provided the play is a good play.")

But many Sikh representatives argue that the issues have been misunderstood.
Harmander Singh, a spokesman for the advocacy group Sikhs in England, said
concerns about the setting of the play had gone unheeded for days before the
violent protests. Sikh representatives had suggested that the play would be
far less offensive if the setting were changed from a temple to a community
center, a proposal the theater rejected.

"Rape and other things happen everywhere," Mr. Singh said in a telephone
interview. "We know that is a reality."

The fact that Ms. Bhatti's play took place in a temple was at the center of
Sikh objections. "It's nothing to do with the contents; it's the context,"
he said. "We are not against freedom of speech, but there's no right to
offend."

Like other immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, Sikhs began arriving in
Britain in the 1950's and 60's and are widely depicted as having prospered.
In recent years, Sikh leaders have steered clear of the political activism
associated with campaigns in the 1960's for the right to wear a turban and
in the 1980's in support of Sikh separatism. And other Sikhs have registered
far less hostile views about the play.

"Most Sikhs don't wear a turban," Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, a 30-year-old Sikh
writer whose father immigrated to London in 1959, said in a telephone
interview on Thursday. "They are very laid-back about their religion.
There's a perception that if you are not white, you take your religion a lot
more seriously than anyone else. That's not true."

Professor Singh at the University of Birmingham also spoke of a lack of
dialogue between older Sikh leaders and younger generations. "Sikhs who have
been born here take the idea of freedom of expression quite seriously," he
said.

Indeed, Ms. Bhatti, 35, said in a foreword to her play that "sometimes I
feel imprisoned by the mythology of the Sikh diaspora, with its stress on
Sikh success, affluence, hard work and aspiration." Ms. Bhatti has not
appeared in public since the cancellation of her play and has declined
requests for interviews. But in the foreword she wrote: "I believe that
drama should be provocative and relevant. I wrote 'Behzti' because I
passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy."

The play's cancellation has inspired concern about where British liberal
values stand. "The ancient, almost defining liberal idea is freedom: of
expression, of movement, of protest," wrote Jonathan Freedland, a columnist
for The Guardian. "The newer value is an approach to society's minorities
that aims to go beyond mere tolerance and reaches for understanding and
sensitivity. Today's good liberal aims to be both."

And yet, he wrote, the events in Birmingham had shown that "in the 21st
century, these principles, both noble, keep colliding."

In The Independent, the British playwright Arnold Wesker argued that
offending others was "an inescapable hazard of living and must be considered
a sign of intellect and emotional maturity when accepted."

By contrast, he attacked zealots of all eras, from the tormentors of Joan of
Arc to the perpetrators of the Holocaust and those who "flew planes into the
twin towers and most recently in Birmingham censored a play."

And Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theater, told the
BBC that theater's role was to provoke powerful feelings. "The giving of
offense, the causing of offense, is part of our business," he said.

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