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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 02:32 GMT
Birmingham becomes stage for a tragedy
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs reporter

Negotiations are set to continue with the Sikh community
Legitimate protest or mob rule?

If you had to write a theatrical pitch for what Birmingham has just witnessed over the play Behzti, you could do it in seven words: Play offends community, community protests, play cancelled.

But that simple three act performance conceals a far more complex drama about how we all share the same space in a pluralistic society. Can we really say what we want? Should we say what we want?

The violent confrontations that greeted theatre goers at the Birmingham Rep have genuinely shocked the city.

The talk radio stations have been full of it, taxi drivers talk of nothing else, and, three years after escaping the riots that hit other areas, there was a palpable sense of something about to go terribly wrong.

But such a prospect sits awkwardly with Birmingham's image. A successful and rejuvenated city, it makes a great play of its multi-cultural contemporary face. An ad campaign for the main market features a smiling Sikh trader.

And Sikhs are very much part of the city with 30,000 living in its boundaries, a good deal of them in the Handsworth area.

The play in question is not just about a Sikh community; it was written by a Sikh and included some Sikhs in its cast.

'Our Satanic Verses'

Soho Road, the main stretch of shops through Handsworth, is punctuated by Sikh businesses and two of the community's principal Gurdwaras (temples).

DTF Books, a specialist cultural shop which sells online around the world, is one of the most well known businesses.

Harjeet Singh: Petition signed by shoppers
Amid the devotional tones of Indian Raga (music) owner Harjeet Singh was well placed to gauge what happened over the past few days.

The temple council asked if he would keep a petition against the play on his counter. He said yes and most customers have signed, he says.

"I think there were going to be protests every day because there was such anger," he said.

"I received two phone calls today asking if I was going to join the protest."

"I know one man who was there and was arrested and released on caution. There is such a depth of feeling, this is for Sikhs what the Satanic Verses was for Muslims."

Seen on its own, the Sikh protest over Behzti would perhaps be regarded as a flash in the pan.

But put it alongside the 1989 furore over Salman Rushdie's novel, also considered blasphemous, and it tells us something about how the worlds of religion and a secular society, and the approach to artistic inquiry that each prompt, can still collide.

If people hold that view, then they are not aware of their religion, they are ignorant - they have to learn more about their culture and the values of the community
Councillor Gurdial Singh Atwal on young Sikhs who oppose the protests
When angry Muslims burned Rushdie's book in Bradford in 1989, it split the city. Birmingham is similarly divided today.

And with a new crime against religious hate expected to reach the Statute Book before the general election, this is not an issue that will go away quietly.

One of the organisations which knows most about the delicate negotiations of a multi-faith, multicultural world is Sampad, the Birmingham-based and nationally-respected south Asian arts organisation.

It is in the business of bridging the divide, not reinforcing it. One measure of its approach is that it develops all art forms - from Bollywood dancing to Greek tragedies.

Sampad had been co-promoting Behtzi in an effort to try to encourage more south Asian people to go to the theatre. Staff are at pains to emphasise that it is doing great work in creating dialogue between different groups.

But the play's cancellation prompted it to issue a fairly direct statement, decrying the use of force to prevent freedom of speech.

"To try to stop anything by the use of force contravenes fundamental principles of freedom of speech, a right that many people across the world do not have," said the organisation.

"This play does not deliberately set out to offend, but deals with universal themes of corruption and the abuse of power."

Young 'ignorant'

It's a view clearly shared by some Sikhs too. A small number of young people I spoke to said they had no problem with the play at all; one young man said he had never heard of it.

Anger: Artists furious at play's cancellation
One of the chief campaigners against the play was not best pleased.

"If people hold that view, then they are not aware of their religion, they are ignorant," councillor Gurdial Singh Atwal told the BBC.

"They have to learn more about their culture and the values of the community."

For some angry about the ban, deeply held religious views were not enough.
I am extremely worried about what this means for people like me and the art we want to create. This is mob rule
Shakila Taranum Mann, London artist

Shakila Taranum Mann, a London artist, said she had returned to Birmingham to defend the play after being impressed when she first saw it.

Far from being blasphemous, she said, it explored important stories of people in authority abusing their positions - stories that could be found in any walk of society.

"I am extremely worried about what this means for people like me and the art we want to create. This is mob rule," she said holding her placard outside the theatre.

"If people feel so strongly that they act like this, is their faith not built on quicksand because it can be so easily swayed to commit such acts?

"If I wanted to do a difficult film in a different community but similar setting, take female genital mutilation for example, what does this mean for me and people like me who want to talk about these things?

"This is a very dark day."

How events unfolded at the Birmingham play protest

Police meeting over play protest
20 Dec 04 |  West Midlands
Theatre defends actions over play
19 Dec 04 |  West Midlands
Theatre stormed in Sikh protest
19 Dec 04 |  West Midlands

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