The Behzti story has been in the news from England for the last few weeks. It evokes one of the themes of the movie Bend it Like Beckham, as second generation Sikhs come into conflict with their families as they make their own way in British society, but there are no happy endings here. Behzti is a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a younger Sikh woman, which was being staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theater. The play is set in a gurdwara (temple) and has a scene of sexual abuse by a Sikh priest – a rape scene. Conservative religious Sikhs protested. At first the protests were small but they escalated to protests by hundreds, with protesters storming the theater on December 18. By December 21, the play had closed and the playwright had gone into hiding after receiving death threats. Some Sikh leaders condemned the death threats.
The offensive part of the play, for the protesters, was the fact that the rape scene took place in a temple. Spokesmen for the protesters say they accept that sexual abuse occurs in the Sikh community and that this can be the subject of drama. They say that the temple is a sacred place and should not be used as a stage setting for rape and that the play showed a lack of respect for their beliefs and traditions. The Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham seemed to approve of the initial protests when he said that the play demeaned the sacred places of all religions. The protesters felt that their identity as Sikhs and their deeply felt attachments to their culture and religion were under attack. Other religious groups supported the Sikhs, because they also feel threatened by the erosion of their religious values, embodied in orthodoxy, tradition and fundamentalism, by the forces of modernity.
Salman Rushdie (also see The Telegraph coverage) and various arts groups (also in the Guardian)and feminist groups criticized the protests as an attack on freedom of speech, and defended the right of creative writers to be offensive. They criticized the government for not taking stronger action against the protesters. The responsible Cabinet ministers pointed out that the violent protesters had been charged with offences, and that the protesters had been exercising their own freedom of speech before the protests got out of hand.
Earlier in the year, former British Home Secretary David Blunkett tabled legislation that would make it an offence to promote hatred on the basis of religion. He presented it as human rights legislation to protect religious and racial minorities from hate speech. His Bill was supported by a Committee report by a select Committee of the House of Lords. His point is that white racists are able to get away with essentially racist attacks on ethnic minorities by talking about religion and religious fundamentalists in the ethic communities.
His initiative was seen by writers and performers as an attempt to censor satire and criticisms of religion and religious practice. Rowan Atkinson (see also the article in the Telegraph) star of Mr. Bean and Blackadder, has been the spokesperson for this campaign and addressed a Parliamentary Committee only a few days before the Behzti protests started.
As the Behzti incidents demonstrate, within the muddled politics of British multiculturalism, conservative religious values have become identified with the core values of some ethnic communities. Some see see religious and cultural innovation and dissent as an attack on the their cultural identity as Sikhs (or Muslims or Catholics). There is a real risk that religious leaders will demand the prosecution of religious and cultural progressives within their own ethnic groups under a law intended to guard their communities against hate speech and there is a risk that a gutless government, concerned about block-voting ethnic communities would prosecute.
Religious studies professor Gurharpal Singh wrote a commentary about the background of the Behzti story in the politics of the Sikh community for Guardian. He starts with the idea that the politics of identity in the Sikh community evolved through the campaigns to combat discrimination by fostering pride in the symbols of Sikh identity, such as the right to wear turbans. For many Sikhs, their identity and rights became connected to a conservative interpretion of their religion, and conservative religious leaders became influential. The influence of religious leaders was increased by a corrupt vote-buying policy of funding religious and cultural groups in the name of fostering multiculturalism. Younger Sikhs want to maintain their identity (cultural and spiritual) as Sikhs and to participate in British society and in the arts (Behzti, Bend it Like Beckham) but their own community has become stiflingly conservative.
The media coverage that I linked to above was sensitive and neutral. For the most part, the media avoided portraying the Sikhs who protested against Behzti as being fundamentalists, although there was a sense that the problem is that the immigrant communities have failed to accept proper British attitudes to religion and freedom of speech. The coverage has been thorough, and deep by North American standards, although it deals with complex issues in broad generalities.
Within the political traditions of Western Europe and America, the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of speech have favoured Rowan Atkinson’s position. There are no laws requiring anyone to observe or believe in a state religion, or any religion (although England does technically have an established state Church in the Church of England). All religions are tolerated, although the law is skeptical of fraudulent groups claiming to be religions, and some cults. Most religious groups are content to live under this political doctrine, although many want to promote the moral values of their religions as public laws within a democratic legislative agenda. Some religious groups claim that societies that promote freedom of religion are actually promoting a religion of secularity – worshiping the government and humanity. Most of these groups still accept that the government can take care of public safety and the economy while true believers devote their energy to worship and prayer.
The idea that all religions and religious believers are entitled to “respect” seems to be based more on the principle of equality than on the principle of liberty. There are modern liberal theories which are based on the idea that free human beings creating the rules for a new society would have to agree that everyone’s rights should be worthy of “concern and respect” but that seems to be a different idea of respect.
The idea that people are entitled to respect for their personal ideas and beliefs is a new idea, or at least a new twist on older ideas. Freedom of religion has tended to mean that religious beliefs are tolerated, and that none have special value. It has not been interpreted, until recently, as a method of forcing other citizens to approve of religion. The idea that respect supporting self-esteem or good feelings about religions and religious identity by not criticing or laughing at people is a new twist on the idea of tolerance and on social conventions of politeness. There is much to be said for civility in public discourse, but some people seems to think that disagreement, challenge, or even indifference to their ideas is a violation of their right to respect. This new version of respect seems be taking in some areas of the law. Recent court decisions have held passionately held personal feelings and ideas – sexual preferences for instance – should be accomodated in public institutions like marriage. For the most part, however, respect remains a nebulous concept in the law, in philosophy and in ordinary discourse.
Freedom of religion logically means the right to hold to the beliefs of one religious movement (or to maintain a skeptical position such as an agnostic, atheist or humanist belief) and implies the right to reject other views. There are pluralist movements within some religious traditions which recognize the validity of other religions, but if freedom of religion is respected, a government cannot force anyone to respect someone else’s beliefs and ideas. We do in fact criticize and despise the religious and personal beliefs of our neighbours, and we have the legal right to hold and speak those opinions. We have the right to talk about our beliefs in our homes and our churches – and in public spaces. We do not have the right to press our views in an aggressive, harassing or disorderly way. Hopefully, when we criticize someone else’s religious belief, we can articulate good logical reasons related to clear standards, and we can maintain respect for the deep human emotional and cultural impulses that make other people hold to their own beliefs.
Theatrical director Dominic Dromgoole writing about the Behzti episode in the Guardian, identified theater with the forces of the Enlightenment, resisting religious fundamentalism. Dromgoole’s comments are unfortunate, because they reflect a condescending approach and label all religion believers as fundamentalists. His argument implies that Sikhs have to give up their cultural and religious identity and adopt Enlightenment views (rationalism, romanticism, humanism) to be accepted in modern British society – which takes away from Ms. Bhatti’s own story.