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When Freedom and Honor Clash

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

International Herald Tribune, London, Jan. 15, 2005

Photo: Behzti

On Dec. 19, a violent demonstration by 400 Sikhs at the Birmingham Repertory forced the closure of Behzti (Dishonor), a play that raises uncomfortable questions about moral corruption within a religion. In an eerie echo of the Salman Rushdie crisis of 1989, the life of the playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh, was threatened and she went into hiding. Sikh organizations immediately condemned the threats, but praised the play's closure.

In Behzti's most controversial scene, a young Sikh woman is taken to a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, where she is raped by a man who claims a homosexual relationship with her father. When she comes out, confused, embarrassed and angry, other women - including her mother, who is unwilling to believe her - beat her.

Such things, devout Sikhs insist, never happen inside a gurdwara.

Gurdwara means the gate to the Guru. Practicing Sikhs emphasize that their faith is egalitarian: Any Sikh familiar with its scriptures can lead prayers. That's exactly Bhatti's question: What if such people are not perfect? In her foreword, she writes: 'The fallibility of human nature means that simple Sikh principles of equality, compassion and modesty are sometimes discarded in favor of outward appearance, wealth and the quest for power. Distortion in practice must be confronted and our great ideals must be restored.'

But by raising these issues, some Sikhs believe Bhatti brought dishonor to her community. In eastern societies, honor, like shame, is potent. Shame and dishonor follow the deviant. Not respecting the community's sense of honor is to act shamelessly, and, as one moves further east, to lose face.

Coexistence of different cultures doesn't only mean noodle shops, disco bhangra and kebab houses in Europe, but also different ideas about freedom of expression. Europe is beginning to face up: France has outlawed the veil (and Sikh turbans) in state schools. In Amsterdam, a young man, offended by Theo Van Gogh's film on violence against women in Muslim societies, killed him. In London, an irate believer toppled a waxworks model of David and Victoria Beckham, who were dressed up as Joseph and Mary in a nativity scene at Madame Tussaud's.

Liberals find this agonizing; they want to respect the sensitivities of the devout and of the minorities, and they want freedom of expression for artists.

Multiculturalism is based on mutual respect. Tolerance is the outcome of liberal enlightenment. But at some point, friction can tear the fabric apart. Responding to a question from The Guardian, Julian Baggini, editor of the Philosophers' Magazine, said, 'Europeans had forgotten or ignored the fact that their inclusive values were not universally shared.'

At some point, the Scylla and Charybdis - outrageous statements and censorship - have to be confronted. Politicians prefer what Benjamin Franklin called 'temporary safety' over 'precious liberty.' After Birmingham, Fiona Mactaggart, a Home Office minister, spoke like a safe, cultural relativist: 'When people are moved by theater to protest, . . . it is a great thing . . . That is a sign of the free speech which is so much a part of the British tradition.'

She missed the point. As Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about censorship, says: 'It looks like we are going to have to fight and win the Enlightenment thinkers' battle for freedom of thought all over again.'

Equating violent protesters with a playwright is wrong. Such pusillanimity will only embolden the intolerant, who will increasingly dictate what the rest of us should read and watch, narrowing the discourse. That wasn't part of any British tradition.