Getting Away With It

So now a play at a Birmingham theatre has had to be cancelled due to violent protests from Sikhs.

As the above report recaps:

The row over the play is the latest in recent months involving Britain’s religious communities.

Christians have picketed a theater in Scotland staging a play depicting Jesus as a homosexual.

Catholic and Protestant church leaders protested at a waxwork nativity featuring England soccer captain David Beckham as Joseph and his popstar wife Victoria as the Virgin Mary.

Hindus complained of a scene in Britain’s longest-running television soap opera “Coronation Street” in which a character wielded a Hindu statue as a weapon.

And Muslims strongly criticized a journalist who wrote a newspaper article asking whether the prophet Mohammed could be considered a pedophile because he had a child bride.

I just listened to a debate on the Birmingham Theatre issue on Radio Five’s Richard Bacon programme featuring Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society and the extremely reactionary Peter Jennings, spokesman for the Catholic Archbishop in Birmingham.

The NSS’s warning that the religious hatred bill is being seen by all groups as a chance to have their own blasphemy laws was strengthened by the comments from Jennings. He not only supported the Sikh protests that led to the closing down of the play but also had a go at Madame Tussaud’s and made an attack on Salman Rushdie which would have won cheers from an audience of Khomenie’s faithful. At one stage, as the discussion focused on the issue of freedom of speech, Jennings said “people are free to say what they want in their own homes“.

In your dreams.

Throughout the debate Jennings, and some of those who called in, constantly talked about the “offence” that the play would cause. I’ve no doubt that believers who see such scenes would be offended. Does that mean that the rest of us should be denied the chance to see a work of drama? Does that mean that a playwright should be denied the freedom of expression?

Believers have the choice not to attend and not to be offended. But it is not really about being offended at all. It is about power and control. Christians have the choice not to get ripped off and offended at Tussaud’s, Muslims didn’t have to read the Satanic Verses and Sikhs in Birmingham don’t have to go to the Rep to watch this play. They call for censorship because it marks down their territory in society if they win. If they win they can still claim to have some control over what was once called ‘public morals’ and they can install some limits on what they consider acceptable debate over religion. It gives them the right to act as censor.

As yet the government hasn’t handed them the victory of its illiberal religious hatred bill but the Sikhs got a result the old fashioned way.

As Labour MP Alice Mahon puts it “Are we to have our theatre censored by the mob who will decide what we watch and what we don’t watch?”

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said: I think there’s something sinister going on in society recently. We have got this protest turning violent, the attack on the nativity scene in Madam Tussauds, Christians in Scotland calling for a prosecution for blasphemy for the play Corpus Christi, Jews attacking Mel Gibson for his film The Passion of the Christ, Muslims attacking newspaper journalists for even talking about criticism of the prophet Muhammad.

We shouldn’t allow self-appointed religious representatives to restrict the freedom of speech. We have a real problem here and we have absolute silence from our political leaders.

All our government is doing is feeding this culture by its ill-judged proposals to have a law of incitement to religious hatred, which raises the expectation of religious people that they will have their own blasphemy law.

Charles Clarke could make a very positive step in his new job at the Home Office by announcing he is withdrawing that legislation.

We have already had a taste of what various believers want out of these laws. Lets not forget that in this case, it was the play of a Sikh woman that was effectively censored by the ‘offended’ protestors. How long, if we continue down the path of legitimising every grievance of every ‘faith group’, will it be before we have Muslims calling for ‘offensive’ Sikh performances to be banned and other such divisive and potentially dangerous ‘intra-faith’ disputes?

Rather than pander to those who wish to censor it is time the government restated some basics about freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

And in the interests of fairness, the halting of the religious hatred bill should be accompanied by the abolition of the blasphemy law.

Update: The playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has gone into hiding after receiving death threats.