The Rights and Wrongs of Free Speech

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I wanted to respond to the discussion of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti.

I completely agree that this debate cannot be divorced from the context of racism, and that the anger of many in the Sikh community over Behzti is not like the attempts by Christians to block the showing of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Appeals to some abstract 'freedom of speech' will not do. It is the duty of the left to respond to the situation sensitively, conscious of the powerlessness and alienation that racism can engender, and which underlies many of these protests. Above all that means we have no truck with the demonising of 'Asian mobs' whose 'illiberal values' are a threat to our way of life, etc.

That should not mean, however, that we do not ultimately defend Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and her right to write. Context works both ways - had this been a play denigrating Sikhism written by a racist, our response would be one thing. This was, however, a work produced from inside the community, wrestling with difficult issues that trouble that community, and all communities.

Hassan Ali (Letters, March SR) says that 'the fact remains that the Sikh religious leaders who saw Behzti were deeply offended'. Well, some Muslims were deeply offended by The Satanic Verses, and it was incumbent on the left not to dismiss that offence as 'irrational' and to engage with it sympathetically, but nonetheless to defend Salman Rushdie's book and argue against the fatwa. Whether or not one agrees with all its formulations, it is, I'm afraid, silly of Hassan to insinuate that the call of the open letter in support of the play for 'vigorous opposition and challenge' against such protests as occurred means the signatories would support the police setting dogs on protesters. Given that these signatories include socialists such as Tariq Ali, this is even rather insulting.

'Did the Birmingham Rep management not realise that the play... was bound to severely aggravate Sikhs?' Hassan asks. That surely isn't the main question we should be asking. A play by, say, a gay orthodox Jew, Hindu or Muslim about his life might 'aggravate' some Jews, Hindus or Muslims, but does that mean that we should excoriate a theatre that chose to show it?

The Sikh community, like all others, is divided by class, gender and politics. We must be unflinching in our defence of all in minority communities against racism. But, even if the timing of a confrontation is not what we would have chosen, and makes for complexities, we must also support radical and questioning voices within those communities as they arise, especially when they raise potentially difficult issues. Yes, this is sometimes a difficult job, but it won't be the first or last time we face that.

China MiƩville
London