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By JASDEV SINGH RAI
Jasdev Singh Rai is director of the Sikh Human Rights Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Guardian, Jan. 17, 2005
Photo: Jasdev Singh Rai
Freedoms are never absolute, least of all in multicultural, multiracial societies where responsibilities to co-exist must limit them. Most British people recognise this, which is why the career of the football commentator Ron Atkinson was ended when he made a racist remark. Britain's Asian communities are generally less fazed by colour prejudice, but are sensitive to offence of the sacred: culture and the sacred defines Asians. The Sikh community's reaction to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti illustrate this.
In her statement - published on these pages last week - Bhatti, now self-declared 'Sikh warrior,' missed the point. It was not the substance or message of her play that invoked the wrath of so many Sikhs, but the deliberate, sensational and offensive use of sacred icons.
Sikhs, like Christians, do not mind criticism of their religion or exposure of hypocrisy. A genuinely creative production can get the message to the right people without causing gratuitous offence. Even satire can work without being offensive. Indeed, Sikhism, like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, has pluralism at the very core of its belief system. But when a line is overstepped, conflicts begin.
The sacred is variable in different communities. Hindus, renowned for tolerating any provocation, get into a rage if beef is taken into a temple. For them, the cow is the foundation of piety. For Muslims, Muhammad is the embodiment of Islam, and sacrilege is to portray him in any physical form or abusive context. Criticism of most other aspects of Islam will not offend - it is even encouraged.
For the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, the text in complete form, is sacred. The Granth Sahib is the embodiment of the Sikh gurus and is treated as our living spiritual guide. The gurdwara is where the Guru is in residence and therefore has a different significance than a synagogue, a church or a mosque. The Sikhs zealously maintain the sanctity of the Guru Granth Sahib while being happy to engage with criticism of other aspects of our religion.
Behzti's theme is sexual and financial abuse using Sikh characters. Most Sikhs could not care less about this. But by setting the play - unnecessarily - in a gurdwara, Bhatti disrespected the sanctity of the Guru. An offended Sikh can of course stay away from the play, but most Sikhs feel they have to maintain the gurdwara's sanctity. This may not make sense to non-Sikhs - just as chaos theory is beyond classic scientific logic, the sacred is beyond the discourse of human reason.
These cultural reactions are not limited to Asians. To Christians, the body of Christ is part of the sacrament. Most Christians are deeply hurt when Christ is depicted in a degrading fashion, as he was most recently in Jerry Springer - The Opera.
Nor are these cultural, 'irrational' reactions limited to religious communities. When the Australian prime minister patted the Queen on the back in a friendly gesture, it threw the English establishment into a spin. The monarchy, an idiosyncratic institution in the rational, modern world, is treated as a sacred living icon of secular British culture.
Neither is rationalism alien to eastern cultures. Science and mathematics thrived both in the great age of Hindu civilisation and Islamic ascendancy. Eastern cultures have long traditions of theatre, reform movements and of absorbing criticism. But when a creative work offends the sacred, it loses its message.
The Sikh approach to free speech appears paradoxical. Sikhism emerged challenging both forced proselytisation by Islamic invaders and caste restrictions among Hindus. The Guru Granth Sahib, the text, uses rational discourse to deconstruct proscriptive, superstitious and suppressive ideologies. All the Sikh gurus used practical rational examples to attack superstition and blind ritual. Yet Sikhs will throw out a person who walks into a gurdwara hall with shoes and uncovered head. The sacred is different to the irrational.
Sikhism believes that the rational is as speculative, variable and subjective as any other construction of belief. From that philosophical premise, the sacred cannot be dismissed. Jacques Derrida similarly analyses the subjectivity of rationalism. Further, Sikhism holds that language is limited. The Guru Granth Sahib uses several tools of communication including poetry, music and pragmatic symbolism. Again, a 20th-century western philosopher - Foucault - has also articulated the limits of language.
The sacred may not make sense in the constructed paradigms of rationalism, but it sustains people through traumatic times, as well as giving strength to the successful. Offending the sacred wounds those whose hopes and culture are orientated around the subjective inscrutability of sacred icons.
Fifty years after the end of colonialism, most British people are comfortable living with people of different colours. But many are still uncomfortable with different cultures. The legacy of colonialism lingers, now disguised as a defence of 'free speech.' Ironically, it finds its most xenophobic expression among liberals. Forty years ago, it was the British way to condemn racism but to defend remarks like Atkinson's in the name of free speech. No longer.
Asian communities look forward to a day when cultural pluralism is likewise claimed as the British way of life.