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Satanic Verses to Behzti

By Hasan Suroor

You cannot threaten to kill someone or force a ban simply because you do not like what is written.

FIFTEEN YEARS after British Muslims, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, made a spectacle of themselves by burning copies of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses on the streets of Bradford and forfeited, forever, their claim to be regarded as a tolerant and self-confident community capable of taking in its stride the odd cheeky writer or stand-up comic, another Asian group is making news for the wrong reasons. And this time, it is the Sikhs who have worked themselves into a rage complaining that their religious sensitivities have been upset by a play about alleged sexual abuses in a gurdwara.

Travelling down the same path that Muslims did in 1989, angry Sikhs stormed a theatre in Birmingham recently and forced it to abandon the "offending" play. Its author, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti — an obscure actor-turned playwright — claimed that she had received a series of death threats forcing her to go into hiding.

The play, Behzti (Dishonour), was billed by Birmingham's Repertory Theatre as a "black comedy that reveals just how many secrets can be hidden in a Sikh temple" but even before anyone had a chance to see the play it was pulled. The cancellation of a play even before it opened is said to be unprecedented in recent history of British theatre. The last time this happened was in the 1980s when the Jewish community forced the cancellation of a play it claimed was anti-semitic.

Although the present controversy is not on the same scale as the Rushdie episode, the basic ingredients — a needlessly provocative work of fiction, an easily excitable community over-reacting to a perceived attack on its religion and self-styled "leaders" using the occasion to serve their own interests — are the same prompting critics to call it "L'affaire Rushdie Mark-II — minus the fatwa."

Apart from some obvious similarities, there is another reason why in the minds of white British commentators the two cases are interchangeable, namely the fact that the current furore — like the one over Satanic Verses — has been stirred by an Asian ethnic group. Substitute Bhatti for Rushdie and Behzti for Satanic Verses and it would almost seem as though, in a seamless continuum, Sikhs have taken over from where the Muslims left off in 1989 creating a sense that somehow intolerance is unique to the genetic make-up of immigrants from the subcontinent. A typical comment is: oh, there they go again demonstrating their contempt for free speech.

Indeed, Rushdie himself has said as much. "This seems to be a trend that has come from India, where extremists have attacked a number of artistic and cultural events, with very little control. Works by some of India's most revered artists have been attacked by the Shiv Sena, and now the Sikh community here are travelling down a similar path," he told The Sunday Telegraph.

Even observers, who acknowledge that freedom of speech is not "absolutely indivisible," believe that what lies at the heart of the Rushdie/Bhatti controversies is a basic disconnect between the western ideals of the right to free speech, including the "freedom to offend," and how it is seen by immigrant "faith" groups. In other words, there is a clash of cultural traditions in which the cultures from the Orient place a higher value on religious beliefs and the sensitivities connected with them than on free speech, so dear to the host societies.

According to The Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin, she was surprised that British Sikhs "simply don't understand the problem with censorship at all." While she regarded the forced closure of the play as a "victory for thuggery," many Sikhs hailed it as a "victory for common sense." To her, this illustrated the cultural divide that results in recurring tensions of the sort highlighted by rows such as those over Satanic Verses and Behzti. And she was convinced about the superiority of the "western ideals of the centrality of freedom of speech" which, she insisted, "cannot and must not give way to the demands of any other culture or religion." "This is where multiculturalism has to stop," she decreed.

There is a widespread view that what one newspaper described as "values long held to be the soul of a democratic state" are under threat from beliefs of alien groups which are using multiculturalism to impose their own ideas. The liberals have come under attack for "romanticising" diversity in their quest for a "multicultural utopia" forgetting — as Ms. Marrin argues — that diversity also "means differences" and that "differences matter to people."

The Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has been strongly criticised — including by many Sikhs — for not standing up for Ms. Bhatti's rights for fear of alienating an organised "multicultural" faith group and losing its votes. The most savage criticism has come from Rushdie who said he was horrified by the Government's response suggesting that the decision to withdraw the play was right. "In 1989, when Satanic Verses was attacked, all political parties were united in their condemnation of the violence and their support for the principle of freedom expression. It seems that the Blair Government's capacity to disappoint knows no bounds," he said.

More significant, however, has been the reaction of many Sikhs who have publicly expressed disgust at the rowdy behaviour of some of their community members, especially the alleged death threats issued to Ms. Bhatti. "Sikhs have done immense damage to themselves and even though many are hesitant to speak out in public the vast majority of ordinary Sikhs are outraged," said Paramjit Bahia, a prominent Sikh social activist. He said he had not read Ms. Bhatti's play but it could not be denied that there were gurdwaras where questionable practices of the kind depicted in Behzti did take place.

Writing in The Guardian, Gurharpal Singh, professor of inter-religious relations at Birmingham University, said the Sikhs were the "real losers" as by a "single act" they had destroyed their reputation as a quiet hard-working community. Like many others, he blamed the rise of intolerant groups on "rotten multiculturalism" where "culture has long given way to religion, particularly if it is capable of delivering ethnic minority votes." Sikh women see it as a gender issue arguing that attempts to suppress the play have a lot to do with its theme, which raises questions about the position of women in minority communities and shows how vulnerable they can be in cultures where priests wield unchallenged powers.

The women's rights group, Southall Black Sisters, has said the issues of rape, corruption and abuse of power are "real and need exposure." It has listed alleged incidents of sexual abuse by priests who then tried to "vilify" their victims when the latter complained to the police. "It is not just the freedom of expression that is at stake... we support the right to dissent because of the ramifications for women in minority communities," the group said.

Eventually, however, the point is not whether Behzti truly and faithfully depicts certain events but whether in a civilised society there are other ways of reacting to contentious works of art and literature than burning them and threatening to shoot their creators. Those of us who spoke out against the attacks on Rushdie and opposed the ban on Satanic Verses were not putting our seal of approval on the novel's contents. Nor were we saying that the book or the author should not be criticised. By all means, attack the book, question the writer's motives, and even boycott him or his works. But you cannot threaten to kill someone or force a ban on their work simply because you do not like what they have written. As Rushdie says:

"If being upset is the only requirement to banning something, there will be nothing in the theatres... Should we ban Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for being anti-semitic? Where do you stop?"

As for the West's sense of moral superiority in such matters, the truth is rather different as Ross Clark — a white male columnist for the right-wing Sunday Telegraph — pointed out: "When earlier this month, students of St. Andrews put on a play about a homosexual whose life echoes that of Jesus, a crowd of Christians turned up to demonstrate; (artist) Sam Taylor-Wood, a Turner Prize nominee who painted a Last Supper scene with Jesus depicted as a bare-chested woman, received death threats, (and) a nativity scene at Madam Tussauds featuring the faces of David and Victoria Beckham was damaged by a protester... . don't let anyone pretend that the author of Behzti... would have had an easier time had she written a play about a rape on the altar of an English cathedral."

Intolerance, culture-specific? Who said that?

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