Can offence be avoided in this life?

The question the Sikhs should be asking is not does this play insult us, but are the claims of this play true?

In the dark days surrounding Muslim hysteria over Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, the usually intelligent Roy Hattersley got his knickers in a twist writing in The Independent. "A free society," he wrote, "does not ban books. Nor does it allow writers and publishers to be blackmailed and intimidated". However, he went on to say that The Satanic Verses should not go into paperback because, in his opinion, a real offence had been caused to Muslims. But an offence is an offence whether in hard or paperback. The important question is: can offence be avoided in this life?

I had to give thought to this question when writing three of my plays. There is a speech in my play Shylock, in which the Shylock of my imagination, a Renaissance Jew, considers the reasons why Abraham needed to invent God. Does the concept of "inventing God" offend believers?

Caritas is about a 14th-century anchoress who, after three years of immurement waiting for divine revelation which did not come, declares, as many have done, "there is no God". Who will take offence? The very title of the third play, When God Wanted a Son, might be considered irreverent; it's also a play in which a character explores the question of what and who can be ridiculed by humour. He concludes: "... all of them are game for ridicule if they can be seen to be in love with or intoxicated by: the martyr, her sacrifice; the freedom fighter, his anger; the missionary, his zeal; the educator, her cleverness; and those in pain, their suffering ... I'm a puritan. I believe everything has to be earned, and all those who engage in altruism and agony should do so with reluctance. Anyone caught enjoying it should be punished with ridicule..."

Offence can be divided into three categories: gratuitous, calculated, and unavoidable. Gratuitous offence is rooted in ignorance, and is linked with mindless violence. Calculated offence describes itself , the intention is clear and aims to achieve a defined result - hurt: spitting at someone's feet to show contempt for them; daubing a swastika on a Jewish grave; shredding a nation's flag as an expression of disapproval for their internal or foreign actions. Those two categories - as all categories - overlap, and are comparatively easy to deal with. The third, which concerned the Rushdie - and now the Behzti - affair, is less so.

Inherent in the normal conduct of human affairs is an unavoidable risk that how we legitimately behave and what we say and write may cause offence to others. It is an inescapable hazard of living and must be considered a sign of intellectual and emotional maturity when accepted. Accepting that other people's views and actions are an inescapable hazard doesn't mean we must not argue with or attempt to change them within the law, but it does mean we cannot leap up with outrage every time such an offence occurs and call for the perpetrator to die or for what is perpetrated to be censored.

Consider all that can offend. Fashion designers may be offended by those they consider badly dressed; much of what is on television offends a certain kind of sensibility; some unbelievers find the notion of God offensive to their intellect; some have expressed offence at what they consider the puerile vision of paradise described in the Koran; the novelist, Fay Weldon, views the Koran as offensive to Jews, Christians and women. As a Jew I'm not at ease with certain Christian writings, and as a humanist I'm not entirely comfortable with some of the utterances in the Bible! But we do not call for the death of the badly dressed or for the burning of the Koran or the Bible.

The knottiest of the problems is blasphemy. The question is not: "What is blasphemy?" but "Is blasphemy a right?" Blasphemy falls into the same three categories as "offence": gratuitous (and most of us are guilty of that each time we exclaim "Jesus Christ!"); calculated, and unavoidable.

I share my Shylock's suspicion that Abraham invented God to keep the anarchic Jews in control. Unavoidably my suspicion right blasphemes, because it denies claims that the texts of the Bible, Gospel and Koran are divinely inspired. I can be argued with or shunned; a devout artistic director of a theatre can decline to put on my play, but I cannot be sentenced to death nor held a prisoner in my own land.

This was the position in which Salman Rushdie was placed. Worse, as Fay Weldon described it, he was a prisoner of Iran in his own land. That was a new frontier of political madness that, I fear, was never fully comprehended. The Rushdie dilemma faded without resolution, with the result that a censoring has taken over a burning - a young playwright's work is being withdrawn from a major regional theatre. Ominous!

Let me not be misunderstood. Ask me, along with Voltaire, to stand at the door of the church, the synagogue, or the mosque to defend them against marauders and I will be there. But it is the year 2004. The Age of Reason has profoundly shaped me. The loveliest men and women have thought and died for my right to live and breathe the free air of reason. Now a young colleague, who has chosen the art of theatre to explore the truth of her experience, must think twice about her belief that art is where one can courageously pose dangerous questions. The question the Sikhs should be asking is not does the play Behzti insult us, but are the claims of this play true?

We are here not dealing with "a Muslim" or "a Sikh" but with "a type" identified throughout history as "a zealot". Dr Hesham el Essawy, head of the Islamic Society for The Promotion of Religious Tolerance, writing in The Independent's "Faith and Reason" column (in July 1989), all those years ago, stated: "The manner in which we conduct such dialogue is also important. And how should this be? In goodness, gentleness and tolerance, says the Koran. 'Your job is to pass the message along. Whether they believe or not is none of your concern,' God said to His Messenger in the Koran ... 'It is what you do with your belief that should concern one, not the belief itself ... The test of your beliefs, whatever they may be, is in how you treat me...' "

Such thinking is foreign to the zealot's mind. The zealot helped carve up many a dissenting saint; placed faggots on the fire that burned poor Joan; slaughtered the Russian peasant who stood in the way of commune-ism; lynched blacks in the southern states of America; marched Jews to the gas chambers; murdered the intellectuals of Bangladesh; mocked and murdered Chinese scholars who were sent to till the fields in the name of a cultural revolution; burned a book in Bradford; flew planes into the Twin Towers; and most recently, in Birmingham, censored a play.

We are here dealing with a special mentality that cannot bear deviation from its own perceptions and beliefs, a mentality which has existed like the weed since Adam. It has named itself many different names at different times, and, like the weed, it is rooted forever in the way of a world that will always need weeding.

The writer's two new plays, 'Groupie' and 'Longitude', are planned for the 2005/6 season in London

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