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No Religion Is Immune From Criticism
By YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has won numerous awards for her work. Most notably she was appointed M.B.E. in 2001 for services to journalism. She has also won the B.B.C. A.S.I.A. Award for Achievement in Writing 1999, the Commission for Racial Equality Special Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism 2000, E.M.M.A. Media Personality of the Year 2000, Windrush Outstanding Merit Award 2000, and the George Orwell Prize for Political Journalism 2002, among others. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Independent, Dec. 20, 2004
Photo: Behzti (Dishonor)
There are limits to the protection that groups can claim. We know that sexual abuse can go on in religious places.
Most weeks, as a columnist, you can quickly make up your mind about where you stand on issues, events, personalities and on good days, hundreds of words flow well to build up persuasive arguments for the position you support. Readers expect this whether in the end they love or loathe what you have written. Robust comment page writers rarely confess to feeling a bit lost and confused about their views on serious matters. But I feel a little lost and confused about what I think of the furore which is fast building up outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre over a play.
The play, Behzti (meaning dishonour in Punjabi and Hindi), is written by a young Sikh woman, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who is an actress-turned-playwright. She has infuriated many of her own, British Sikhs, by portraying (fictional) sexual abuse, manipulation and secrecy within a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Hundreds had been protesting quietly outside the theatre - which is their right - and then on Saturday night the scene turned ugly, five police officers were hurt and there were a number of arrests. More than 800 people had to be evacuated and there are threats of further violence if the play is not withdrawn.
Now the media is suddenly interested in the story, because it is generating heat. That in turn will only encourage more threats and protests and intransigence on both sides. This row comes at a particularly sensitive moment, when the country is split between those citizens who want the law to provide better protection for religious beliefs and identities and those citizens who are fighting government proposals that would make it much harder for anyone to mock or criticise any aspect of recognised religions. Charles Moore recently wrote a senselessly provocative column, accusing the Prophet Mohammed of being a paedophile - this, he said, was his way of standing up for freedom of expression. The reaction was turmoil, fury and rebuttals. The idea of them and us is reinforced by both sides and I am torn between the two.
A part of me feels panicked. We have been here before, nearly 15 years ago on that ghastly day when Bradford Muslims burnt The Satanic Verses, an act of bitterness the symbolism of which they didn't understand until it was too late. That pathetic gesture shook up Europe, a continent steeped in memories of Nazism and Stalinism. But it is forgotten that while Muslims were protesting peacefully, demonstrating day after day without any danger to anyone or to the nation's deepest held values, they were ignored. The book burning got them the attention they wanted. Then came the vile death threat issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini and suddenly all of us Muslims stood accused of murderous intent.
We found the courage to answer these gross prejudices and also to look more honestly at the rot within our families, mosques, communities. We were forced to grow up, to develop an intellectual movement and to start debating the need for an enlightened European Islam.
The conflagration led to the first phase of modern Islamophobia, with the left and the right coupled together in unholy matrimony to express unbridled disgust at the barbarians they had until then been forced to accommodate. The neo-conservative belief that the country is self-destructing because it has tolerated too much diversity - now promoted by people such as David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect, is the bastard child of that confrontation. Anti-immigration sentiments are spreading to the solid-wood kitchen tables of the same folk, virtuous social democrats who once were proud to reject the manic statements of Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit. The murder, allegedly by a Muslim, of Theo van Gogh, the provocative Dutch film-maker whose last film was seen as blasphemous by Muslims, has encouraged the refrain that we are witnessing a clash of civilisations.
If this Sikh revolt spreads, it will, I suspect, encourage that pessimistic and dangerous belief. Immigrants of colour will once again be seen as the enemy within, the alien wedge. It has been hell for most of us, living with and fighting this presumption whenever it comes back into public life, which it does - a cyclical terror - generation after generation.
So do I think we, black and Asian Britons should slink off and never make our objections heard? No, of course not. I stood up for Muslims who non-violently campaigned against The Satanic Verses, and in this case the Sikh objectors must be allowed space and respect to vent their concerns. Freedom of expression is not an absolute, and in a civilised society the most outrageously offensive language and images are kept within the private sphere. This is not censorship, but good manners and a necessary compromise to enable us all to live together with relative ease. But there are limits to the protection that groups and individuals can claim for themselves.
In our mature democracy, where all ethnic groups are becoming socially mobile, it cannot be right that any criticism is beaten down and silenced by vociferous campaigners. We know that sexual abuse can go on within the walls of religious places.
One of my dearest friends, Jafar Kareem - a psychotherapist, now passed away - told me of several cases of young boys and girls who had been violated by priests, imams and temple-keepers. Earlier this year the B.B.C. withdrew its planned cartoon series Popetown after outraged powerful Catholics went on the attack. We must be allowed to criticise or laugh at faith groups and political parties and racially identified communities too, white and black. It is a sign of confidence - strong faith should not feel endangered by a play or a novel or a cartoon. We have the capacity to disagree without tipping into base behaviours.
And I think this is now accepted by most Britons. In 2004, I received very few truly disgusting accusations or abuse and no death threats at all. This is progress, as I can see when I look back and remember how frightening it sometimes was to say anything negative about Muslims or Israel or the U.S. or even England. Only two years ago, my family had to live with fear - fire extinguishers by our postboxes and under-car mirrors. This latest surge of outrage among Sikhs and Muslims needs to be held in check by responsible leaders, otherwise we will slide back to hysteria and conflict.
It is bewildering that anyone has time to rage against writers when there is evidence of real censorship - as with the Iraq war. Many of our basic liberties have been confiscated by the elected dictatorship we are now forced to endure. There are no demonstrations against these high-handed measures by the all-powerful state. We are not free to read or watch certain material, for example the latest Diana tapes - and the B.B.C. is still over-cautious, post-Hutton, with no one needing to remind it never again to cross New Labour spinners.
When The Satanic Verses dispute flared up, Ian Jack, then editor of the Independent on Sunday, wrote: 'Of all the failures of modern Britain, perhaps the greatest is the failure of our imagination, of our ability to think ourselves into the lives of others. It might be called the rift in our common humanity.' As another clash arrives into a more dangerous world, I hope the lessons we have learned serve us better. But I am not at all sure they will.