Philip Hensher: Offensive Christians (and offensive theatre)

Rather dizzily, he promises that he will use the Bill to prosecute Islamic bookshops which sell the Koran
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The Independent Online

Despite a great deal of effort, encouraging several thousand complaints and a protest outside Television Centre, they failed to stop the broadcast. He notes, with a touch of rather personal rebuke, that they prayed, on that occasion, "for God to have mercy and stop the transmission. By letting it go ahead, it was clear God's heart was for judgment instead."

Despite this perhaps worrying lack of a sign that Mr Green did not, after all, know exactly what God's opinion was about a silly musical, he has pursued the cause indefatigably. When a UK tour was initially proposed, he pointed out to the 28 theatres involved that they could expect long protests. Some, bearing in mind the Behzti scenario, when a group of militant Sikhs forced the abandonment of a play in Birmingham, withdrew from the tour.

An attempt by the producers to get money from the Arts Council failed, on the grounds that the musical was a commercial prospect, and shouldn't expect the support of public funds. A certain amount of juggling with money followed. The creative team have waived their royalties; the theatres involved have agreed to pool the marketing costs, and the producers have put £650,000 into the show.

It now looks as if the tour will go ahead, although seven out of the original 28 theatres will not be taking part. I sincerely hope the names of these theatres will be published so that, should you live near one of them and wish to see the piece, you can go and mount your own protest.

What is Mr Green's objection to the piece? It's quite clear: "It's hard to see how it could [have been] made more offensive." "It insults us Christians." "It being on in a London theatre offends me, just as much as a murder or rape happening behind closed doors offends me."

The claim of offence strikes such people as a powerful one, and is used not only by such groups themselves. Other religious groups are ready to use the excuse; Muslims ever since the Satanic Verses affair, Sikhs over Behzti, and so on. More worryingly, the Government's Religious Hatred Bill, despite claims that it will only outlaw incitement to hatred, not mere offence taken, will find it very difficult to draw that distinction in practice. Rather dizzily, Mr Green promises that, though he is opposed to the Bill, if it should come into law, he will use it to prosecute Islamic bookshops - and others, I expect - which sell the Koran.

Just how feeble the claim of offence is, is shown by other comments by Mr Green. On the subject of homosexual police officers, he says: "Homosexual police are involved in some of the most disgusting perversions imaginable: how can they bring clean hands to any investigation?" Elsewhere, of homosexuals in general, he claims that "their whole life is lived in denial: how can they be expected to tell the truth in court?" and asserts that "many homosexual men will have been interfered with at an early age, and be sexually attracted to boys of around that age as a result."

I personally find these opinions staggeringly offensive; I can hardly think of any assertion worse than those suggesting that one's domestic relations make one corrupt, a congenital liar, and an abuser of children. Nor do I seem to be alone.

Mr Green wrote, in terms which can only be guessed at, to the chief constables of England and Wales about their equal opportunities policies. Among the replies he received were, from Mr Terence Grange of Dyfed-Powys: "I find your views morally offensive and totally reprehensible"; and from Mr Clive Wofendale, of North Wales - splendid Welsh policemen, all round - "Owing to the unreasonable, inaccurate, and abusive nature of your letters, I am afraid I am unable to provide you with a comprehensive response."

Mr Green observes that "the causing of gratuitous offence is hardly the hallmark of a civilised society. No civilised person would deliberately insult a stranger in the street." On the other hand, he seems quite happy to cause great offence when he and his beliefs are not the target.

The point is that mere personal offence is no kind of basis whatsoever to found public policy on. Nor, even, is it any kind of basis to found any constraint on public statements upon. Mr Green's organisation finds Jerry Springer: The Opera extremely offensive. I find Mr Green's opinions very offensive. Plenty of people find Jerry Springer's original television show pretty offensive. There are people who find the sympathetic depiction on television or in a film not just of a gay relationship but of an interracial relationship offensive in the extreme.

What we should be doing, and what Mr Green, the promoters of the Religious Hatred Bill and all other forces now cheerfully threatening our liberty should be doing is not looking around for causes of offence, and deciding which of them cause us, personally, offence. We should just accept, as most of us have, that we live in a big complicated world; not everyone is like us; not everyone holds, or should hold, the same beliefs that we do; and from time to time we will prefer to avert our eyes or close our ears.