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Behzti play; Gurpreet Bhatti and Birmingham Repertory Theatre dishonour Sikh community
The Behzti play caused uproar in the British Sikh community. The play sparked several days of non-stop peaceful protests in which literature was distributed about the Sikh religion and some of the misinformation by the play was corrected. However on the last day of protesting there was sporadic violence in which the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's window and door as well as effects inside were damaged. The important questions are what sparked this situation and what are its implications?
What sparked the Sikh community?
Unlike what several media sources are currently stating it was NOT the wording of the play that caused gratuitous offence felt by the Sikh community.
The offence was caused by the denigration of Sikh symbols on-stage; a fact ignored by the media and other criticisers of the Sikh community. The aggregated effect of using all these Sikh symbols was to create the Gurdwara context for the play. However the symbols were not just used for the context but were abused as well. A turban was placed on a shoe-rack; since the turban is worn not only by members of the Sikh religion but also culturally in Africa and Asia; this would have caused offence to many communities and races as well as religions. The mock-up of the Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Scriptures) may have been an imitation but still makes a mockery of the living embodiment of God in the Sikh religion. The use of pictures of Sikh Gurus, and other important members of the religion held in highest reverence, religious swords, the 'Ek-Onkar' symbol (the Name of God), all were used as a backdrop. The disrespect of symbols in this manner was equivalent to the public burning of a Cross. Would this NOT have caused offence to a majority of Britain?...
What are the implications?
The Sikh community at no stage requested complete censorship of the play. Also the shocking unfairness of the fact that the entire Sikh community was blamed, by the Arts community and some members of the media. Is the whole of English society ever blamed for the actions of unruly soccer fans? Also this was one instance in decades not like the regular and more sizeable football violence that occurs up and down the country and abroad, causing much greater damage in any instance. The West Midlands Police stated it could ensure the safety of theatre-goers since it could handle football crowds of 40,000 fans at matches regularly then it could handle a few hundred Sikh protestors especially since most of them were peaceful. So the question remains as to why did Birmingham Rep. theatre stop the play since the Police could easily handle the protestors? The only answer can be for commercial reasons. Basic spin-doctoring suggests they used this as a marketing ploy... they used the Media to 'whip up' demand for the theatre and it's plays and providing important publicity.
These symbols could have been removed without changing the writing of the play and would have removed the major bulk of the offence caused and definitely would have reduced the protestors. However this fact was made clear to the organisers of the play repeatedly over many months by the Sikh community but it was clear they wanted a public confrontation and much-needed publicity to get 'bums on seats'. The playwright and theatre were adamant on using BNP-style tactics of causing offence to religious minorities by playing on stereotypes and prejudices innate to our society to create intolerance and mass protests. Who has all this publicity benefited? Play-critics gave the play poor reviews in the national and local press and the play received few ticket sales from theatre-goers prior to the last day of protests. However since the last day of protests and wider media involvement the play, the writer and the theatre are now the most famous of their kind in the country. Does the public at large really believe the Media should have given this one incident international headline news coverage, even above Tony Blair's visit to further Middle-East peace negotiations, instances of major violence such as mass murders, and the continuing war in Iraq?
The Sikh community meanwhile have been hit with more negative PR than the days of Enoch Powell; standing for election in an area known for being home to a large populace of Sikhs. In the days following the protests there were bomb scares at Gurdwaras in Smethwick and West Bromwich yet this received no publicity. The widely cited death threats to the playwright were mentioned in the national as well as local press but the death threats to the Sikh leaders and Councillors have also been ignored.
Thus the whole freedom of speech argument used by playwrights and media to defend the play ignores this basic fact that it was the context; i.e. the use of Sikh symbols NOT the speech or writing that caused most offence.
Many members of the media have jumped on the bandwagon blaming the Sikh community as being 'closed' or finding freedom of speech unacceptable. This is entirely wrong due to many reasons:
Firstly the Sikh community is very widely accepted as being the most law-abiding community in Great Britain. They are proportionally more economically active than any other community in generating income and taxes for the economy. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs fought and died in the first and second World Wars for Great Britain against the Nazis for these freedoms such as freedom of speech. Unlike their English counterparts these Sikhs were always sent to the front line and fought for these freedoms for a country they never visited and a language they never spoke. Some journalists, even had the cheek to suggest the protests were because the playwright was a woman. Most notably Salman Rushdie; a writer who normally makes a cnsidered opinion did not even bother to check his facts before insinuating the entire religion is genderist; something which Bhatti herself never made nor did anybody with any basic understanding of Sikhism. Sikh leaders and protestors included a good mix of all ages, gender, etc. Britain only gave women equal rights in the last few decades yet Sikh women have enjoyed equal status granted by Sikh Gurus for hundreds of years; for example, fighting in armies alongside their male counterparts, something still today not granted in the British Army. The Sikh community upon entering Britain in the 1950s and 1960s were met with former critics of multicultural society such as Enoch Powell. Due to their appearance the Sikhs have remained the first to be ridiculed in comedies, dramas and other forms of media. Carbon-copies of arguments by writers to defend Racist comedy in the 1960s was used to defend ridicule o the Sikh way of life. Since then a multicultural society may have formed but media organisations have failed by consistent under-representation of the Sikh community in their bodies and thus have a total lack of awareness. In broadcasting coverage on the 9/11 attacks on the USA and the wars since the western media failed to distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims and thus resulted in many Sikhs being murdered in the USA and UK due to the ignorance in society exacerbated by the media. Also the media described the playwright and actors as being Sikh; a fact contested by the entire Sikh community at large as she does not follow any of the basic tenets of the religion, nor it's code of conduct. Those people in Society at large that are not ignorant of Sikhism understand nobody can be born a Sikh as it is a practised religion. If the media chooses to remain ignorant of Sikhism and describe the playwright and actors as Sikh then surely by the same notions the media must remain unbiased and apply this policy to all communities so that whenever it mentions any news story regarding anybody that has anything to do with Christianity, and other religions it should mention that religion. Thus many animal rights protestors who may be children of devout Christians should be described in every broadcasted news story as being Christian. Also the media were the first to push freedom of speech aside by encouraging retailers to censor West Indian Rap music due to the sentiments against the Gay community. Thus the absurd ignorance, blatant racism, hypocrisy and inequitable news coverage shown by many media broadcasters is apparent.