A Crisis Out of a Drama

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Patrick Connellan, 'Thought for the Play' (February SR), is far too one-sided in his survey of all that he calls censorship.

By lumping together government cuts to the arts with the furore over the Birmingham Rep play Behzti, The Satanic Verses, the Lord Chamberlain and Christian fundamentalists protesting over Jerry Springer: The Opera, Patrick unfortunately clouds the issues instead of shedding light on them.

New Labour's £30 million cuts to the arts next year is certainly a disaster and shows how philistine New Labour is, but to call it censorship is surely to abuse the meaning of the word.

But it is Patrick's analysis of the sorry affair around the cancellation of Behzti, by Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, after protests by some of Birmingham's Sikh community, that I find unhelpful. We should all agree with defence of freedom of speech, but we have to root it in a complicated reality, especially post 9/11 when religious minorities, particularly those with brown skins, become targets of racism and bigotry.

Patrick's defence of the text of the play and the intention of its author are probably formally correct, but the fact remains that the Sikh religious leaders who saw Behzti were deeply offended by the play, which they saw as ridiculing their religion and close to blasphemous. Patrick sees this as a manifestation of the irrationality of organised religion, but I see it more as a simple case of cause and effect - the play upset the religious leaders, the theatre refused to back down, protests were organised which escalated into violence and the pulling of the play.

No one came out of the mess unscathed. Sikhs in Birmingham, whether they opposed the play or not, were branded wild-eyed fundamentalists. They attracted some of the racism previously felt by Muslims.

Some of those lining up to protest at the cancellation of the play were rather unwelcome allies of the playwright: they wrote into the regional newspaper to brand the Sikh protesters as 'a mob', 'fanatical morons', 'terrorists', while declaring 'my next vote is indisputably BNP', and characterising the protest as nothing less than a full frontal attack on 'liberal western values' and the baleful result of 'multiculturalism'.

Similarly, various 'liberal left' artists and intellectuals (as Patrick terms them) signed a rather illiberal open letter calling for vigorous opposition to 'those who use violent means to silence' artistic freedoms. So next time something like this happens should we call on the police to set the dogs on protesters?

To me the row over Behzti is as much about how big theatres nurture up and coming black and Asian artists and those theatres' relevancy to the minority populations as it is about free speech.

Did the Birmingham Rep management not realise that the play they were going to put on was bound to severely aggravate Sikhs? How prepared were they to defend the playwright? How did they think invitations of 'community consultation' with religious leaders while never intending to back down over the central issue was going to help? Why did they let the Sikh leaders into the dress rehearsal? I feel the theatre must share some of the blame for the grievous situation Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti now finds herself in.

Perhaps if big regional theatres had better links with all the communities they are supposed to serve and regularly put on work relevant to them they might not find themselves with an alienated and hostile crowd outside their doors.

That is not to say that there are not conflicts between artists and religion - of course there are, and they should be debated. But some perspective is needed - a group of aggrieved members of an ethnic minority is not the same as the Nazis breaking up Bertolt Brecht's plays in the 1920s or the state intervention of the Lord Chamberlain to censor plays that even remotely questioned the established order.

Hassan Ali
London