Violence or law can still voices


LONDON - Long before the curtain was raised in Birmingham on a play called Behzti, it was known that several elements of the production could cause offense to some members of the audience.

The play includes references to rape, murder and homosexuality and, most provocatively, it is set in a Sikh temple, or gurudwara.

What now has many people in Birmingham and the rest of Britain offended, though, is that protests against the play, which turned violent Saturday, led the theater to cancel the production. It had been sold out for the remainder of a run scheduled through the end of the year.

Civil libertarians fear the violence in Birmingham that darkened the theater is part of a trend in which people of different ethnic or religious groups have felt emboldened - partly because of government policy - to react to provocation not by making their own arguments heard but by preventing the arguments of others from being heard.

"The Birmingham situation is very, very disturbing and sends yet another signal that if you don't like something, simply turn to violence and it will be stopped," said Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the London-based civil rights group Liberty. "It is, in fact, disgraceful and more than that, it's dangerous."

Last week, an exhibit at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London was vandalized. It portrayed the soccer player David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, once known as the singer Posh Spice, as Joseph and Mary in a nativity scene.

Earlier this year, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph arguing against laws that would curtail free speech received death threats when he mentioned - as an example of discussions that could be made illegal - the Prophet Mohammad's marriage to a 9-year-old girl.

The government already has in place laws that forbid speech if it has the potential to incite "religious hatred" - but it covers only speech critical of Christian religions.

Next year, Parliament will consider extending the law to other religions, which has provoked an energetic debate here about just how free the British are to practice free speech.

A spokesman for the Home Office, the ministry proposing the new law, said he could not comment on whether it would prohibit such plays.

"Its purpose is to prevent hatred, not prevent free speech," said the spokesman, who in keeping with custom cannot be identified.

The violence broke out Saturday when hundreds of Sikhs gathered outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and several tried to force their way in during an afternoon showing of Witches, a children's play.

About 800 people watching that show were evacuated after protesters smashed windows. Five police officers received minor injuries and several protesters were arrested.

The Sikh playwright, Gurpreet Bhati, has been in hiding after receiving death threats. She and the theater management recognized the sensitivity of the play before it opened and had met with Sikh community leaders to discuss it.

Those leaders asked that the setting of the play be moved from a temple, perhaps to a Sikh community center, but the playwright declined. As a compromise, Sikh leaders drafted a letter that became part of the printed program for theater-goers, saying the work was fiction, the religion is peaceful and the events portrayed were solely fiction.

In addition, the playwright included a statement in the programs saying that some might find it offensive but that courageous "writers sometimes cause offense."

Through events in Bhetzi, which means "dishonor," the playwright attempted to dramatize the repression and hypocrisy she found in her own religion.

She added in her statement: "But perhaps those who are affronted by the menace of dialogue and discussion need to be offended. ... I wrote Behtzi because I passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy."

That was enough to keep the protests peaceful during the play's first five showings, but then the violence erupted.

"We are glad the play was canceled because freedom of expression does not give a license to cause hurt to a segment of the community," said Sewa Singh Mandla of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham. "We are saddened by the violence but happy that people have now seen our point."

Birmingham is home to about 30,000 Sikhs, a religion born during the 15th century in the Punjab area of northern India. It has more than 20 million followers, making it the fifth-largest religion in the world. About 500,000 Sikhs are in the United Kingdom.

Their religion is based on the belief that 10 gurus preached a message of truth and universal equality. Critics, such as the playwright, say its hypocrisy is found in its suppression of homosexuals and women.

The religion rejects idolatry and prohibits alcohol; the gurus are considered worthy of reverence, but Sikhs worship one god. It has long been considered a relatively tolerant religion, with a faith that god lives in each person, that even the most evil of people are able to change and that people of other faiths are just as capable of rebirth.

According to a review in The Times of London, the play shows the Sikh faith to be a source of strength and wonder but also liable to hush up what it regards as unpalatable.

"Bhetzi is not an attack on the Sikh faith," said the Times review by theater critic Sam Marlowe. "It is a condemnation of the kinds of abuses that can occur in any society. While she has chosen Sikh society as her focus, it is obvious that Bhatti's concerns are wider."

Neal Harris, the manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, the only other theater in the city that puts on large productions, said he is determined to get the play's message wider exposure - and to try to short-circuit future attempts at darkening theaters.

He said that today he will unveil a plan to have theaters throughout Britain hold readings of the play and discussions about its meanings with Sikhs and anybody else who cares to join.

"There were understandable reasons to cancel it but I feel they made the wrong decision," Harris said. "My hope is that, if the reading is done in a number of theaters, people will have the courage to go through with it.

"And, hopefully, that will encourage other artists, to let them know that there are theaters out there that will sponsor their work, no matter how provocative."

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