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Behzti Controversy Highlights Britain's Religious-Secular Split


The Associated Press, London, Dec. 23, 2004

Photo: Mohan Singh, president, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, Birmingham, U.K.

A cancelled play, a damaged theatre, a playwright in hiding.

The violent clash of views sparked by a dark comedy depicting rape and murder in a Sikh temple shows that art and religion are still often failing to understand each other.

Some British Sikhs feel Behzti, or Dishonor, is offensive to their religion - an opinion shared by a Roman Catholic archbishop who said the play 'demeans the sacred place of every religion.' Artists and civil libertarians fear the devout are growing bolder in attempts to silence 'offensive' artwork, and claim government moves to ban religious hatred will make things worse.

'The causing of offence is part of our business,' said Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre.

'I don't think people have the right not to be offended by works of the imagination,' he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

On Monday the Birmingham Repertory Theatre cancelled its run of Behzti after a violent protest by members of the Sikh community. Several police officers were injured and three people arrested after a small group within a 400-strong demonstration tried to storm the theatre, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Birmingham Rep. said it had reluctantly scrapped the play because it could not guarantee the safety of audiences and staff. Playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is reportedly in hiding after receiving death threats.

Sikh leaders say the play, which depicts acts of sexual abuse and murder in a fictional gurdwara, or Sikh temple, demeaned their religion. They applauded the theatre's decision.

But artists and civil libertarians were dismayed. More than 700 actors, directors, writers, composers and academics - including actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West, poet laureate Andrew Motion, playwright Michael Frayn and Monty Python comedian Terry Jones - signed an open letter in support of the play.

'It is a legitimate function of art to provoke debate and sometimes to express controversial ideas. . . . Those who use violent means to silence it must be vigorously opposed and challenged, whatever our faith, belief or opinions,' said the letter, published Thursday in The Guardian newspaper.

Reaction to the play is split not between Sikhs and the rest of the community, but between the devout of all faiths and the secular.

Behzti received good reviews and drew large, multiracial audiences that included many Sikhs. Many artists of South Asian origin have come to its defence.

Christian leaders, meanwhile, joined their Sikh counterparts in criticism. 'Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred place of every religion. People of all faiths, therefore, will be offended,' said Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham.

John Sentamu, the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, agreed that the play 'causes the greatest offence to most people.'

Works of art with religious themes often touch a nerve.

Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which depicts Jesus as a gay man, drew protests by Roman Catholic groups when it debuted on Broadway in 1998. There were death threats against McNally when it played London in 1999.

Earlier this year the B.B.C. pulled Popetown, a satirical animated series set in the Vatican, after complaints from Catholics.

The Vatican complained about a Nativity scene at Madame Tussauds wax museum that depicted soccer star David Beckham and his pop star wife Victoria as the parents of Jesus. It was removed after being damaged in an attack by a visitor.

In 1989, angry Muslim demonstrators burned copies of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, which they said blasphemed the prophet Mohammed. Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict calling for Rushdie's death, and the author spent years in hiding under tight security.

Britain has a long tradition of free speech, but the legal picture is murky. There is a law against blasphemy, but it applies only to the Christian faith, and has not been used successfully since 1979.

The government has proposed new legislation that would make inciting religious hatred a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. The government says free speech will be protected under the law, but civil libertarians worry it will embolden protesters.

'This legislation might seem to endorse the kind of violence and intimidation we've seen in Birmingham,' said the National Theatre's Hytner.

'It's only through the strongly and passionately expressed clash of ideas and beliefs that we have any hope at all of reaching an accommodation with each other,' he added.

But Mohan Singh, spokesman for the Guru Nanak [Nishkam Sewak Jatha] temple in Birmingham, said there must be limits to free speech.

'Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the U.K. for that?' he said. 'Religion is a very sensitive issue and you should be extremely careful.'