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Last Updated: Monday, 20 December 2004, 15:16 GMT
Head to head: Sikh protests
Protest sign
Hundreds demonstrated against the play "Behzti"
A play which includes scenes of sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple has had its run cancelled by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre after violent protests among the city's Sikh community.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, an honorary member of the National Secular Society, and Sikh Human Rights Group director Jasdev Rai debated the issue on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Evan Harris MP

I think there's something sinister going on in society recently.

We have got this protest turning violent, the attack on the nativity scene in Madam Tussauds, Christians in Scotland calling for a prosecution for blasphemy for the play Corpus Christi, Jews attacking Mel Gibson for his film The Passion of the Christ, Muslims attacking newspaper journalists for even talking about criticism of the prophet Muhammad.

We shouldn't allow self-appointed religious representatives to restrict the freedom of speech
We have a real problem here and we have absolute silence from our political leaders.

All our government is doing is feeding this culture by its ill-judged proposals to have a law of incitement to religious hatred, which raises the expectation of religious people that they will have their own blasphemy law.

Clearly there are already restrictions on freedom of speech, you can't slander or libel someone without taking a risk.

There are obscenity laws, even acting in the theatre, there are laws about incitement to violence and incitement to racial hatred.

Freedom of speech is a licence to offend. I hope it is used sensitively. I regret if people are offended.

But the point about performances like this is people who are likely to be offended have the choice not to go, but they should not close down the choice of those people who wish to see this, nor indeed close down the livelihood, by threat or boycott, of people who are working in this field.

The Chief Rabbi doesn't speak for me and I'm Jewish, the writer of this play and many performers are Sikhs themselves. We shouldn't allow self-appointed religious representatives to restrict the freedom of speech.

Jasdev Rai

There are two issues here. One is there is a lot of very good talent among the Asians in this country in the arts field, but none of them get funded.

The Arts Council and mainstream media seems to promote people who can be offensive to their cultures and show degenerative scenes. Why are people who are talented not being funded in this country?

Freedom of speech is not a licence to offend people
Secondly I think Mr Harris is confusing freedom to criticise, freedom to expose hypocrisy, freedom to have a critique of religion with the intention to offend.

This play is not about freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not a licence to offend people.

Thirty years ago Mr Harris would have been standing here saying, to abuse someone's race is a freedom of speech. Thank God thirty years on we have become more civilised.

There is a line between freedom of speech and an intention to offend. The fact that someone has brown skin, or is from a Sikh background, doesn't mean they are an authority on that background. Eastern religions can accommodate criticism - we are in fact based on criticism.

I think there has to be something written in that law [religious hatred] which defines the line between the right to criticise and the right not to be offended.

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