The threat of mob violence should not curtail the right of artistic expression

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The Independent Online

The decision taken by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre yesterday to cancel further performances of the play Behzti can only be described as a capitulation to mob rule. Stuart Rogers, the executive director of the theatre, was at pains to explain that this drastic action was taken solely for safety reasons and out of a proper concern for the wellbeing of the performers and the audience. But while it is possible to sympathise with the predicament faced by the directors of the Birmingham Rep, they have made the wrong decision. The show should have gone on.

The decision taken by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre yesterday to cancel further performances of the play Behzti can only be described as a capitulation to mob rule. Stuart Rogers, the executive director of the theatre, was at pains to explain that this drastic action was taken solely for safety reasons and out of a proper concern for the wellbeing of the performers and the audience. But while it is possible to sympathise with the predicament faced by the directors of the Birmingham Rep, they have made the wrong decision. The show should have gone on.

West Midlands Police met yesterday with representatives of the Sikh community and the Repertory Theatre to discuss how to avoid a repetition of the events of Saturday night, when a demonstration involving some 400 Sikhs resulted in vandalism of the theatre. When these representatives failed to guarantee that violence would not recur, the theatre capitulated and scrapped further performances.

The directors were put in the invidious position of having to choose between the staging of an artistic event and public safety. They should never have had to make such a choice. The West Midlands Police should have guaranteed to protect the theatre, no matter how many demonstrators turned up. Shamefully, the threat of violence was allowed to curtail Britain's tradition of free speech. This is an unwanted example of indirect censorship by a handful of zealots.

Behzti is the work of a Sikh playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, and there is no suggestion that she - or anyone else involved in the production - intended to stir up hatred against Sikhism. Nor does the play attack the Sikh religion. There is no case for prosecuting the author for incitement to racial hatred. Nor would she fall foul of the proposed legislation outlawing religious hatred (although the episode underlines the foolishness of the Government in raising this issue.)

The protesters' objection is to the portrayal of sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple. It is the setting, not the content, that has caused offence. Debates over the limits of artistic freedom are usually characterised by a lack of information about what is actually contained in the work. That is why we today print an extract of one of the most controversial episodes in the play on our front page. People need the facts if they are to have an informed debate.

The Repertory Theatre has behaved sensitively throughout this affair. The directors consulted leaders of the Sikh community for months about the staging of this play. To counter concerns that the audience would come away with a negative view of the Sikhs, a statement was handed out before each performance which pointed out that the play was not intended to be a realistic portrayal of a Sikh temple. It is hard to see what more, apart from fundamentally altering the play itself, the theatre could have done.

Broadly secular societies, such as Britain, are not immune to the gathering storm of intolerance and zealotry that is buffeting the world. The Netherlands, once considered the most harmonious society in Europe, has been traumatised by the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh, who made a provocative film about Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Muslim who worked with him, has received death threats. That country now seems to be moving away from its tradition of toleration to meet a newly perceived threat from fundamentalism. Mosques have been targeted and the Dutch government is unjustly attempting to deport many peaceable immigrants.

That is not a path that Britain should follow. There are chilling echoes of the Van Gogh case in this weekend's riot, and it ought to serve as a warning. All sections of society must subscribe to the principle of toleration. It is possible for Britain to be sensitive to the concerns of religious minorities while at the same time respecting the right to free speech. Freedom of expression is the right of everyone who lives in a democratic society. We must not tolerate censorship, indirect or otherwise.

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