Our fear-ridden culture
Free speech, libel, self-censorship, religious sensitivities – it’s a minefield. Sikh journalist Hardeep Singh, who’s been on both sides of the divide, tries to find a path through
Earlier this year playwright and scriptwriter Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti accused executives at the BBC of an “extraordinary” act of censorship. Bhatti was objecting to the fact that a line she had written for an episode of the Radio 4 drama DCI Stone had been cut, on the grounds that it could be considered offensive. The episode in question, Heart of Darkness, concerned the murder of a teenage girl and touched on issues of honour violence in the Muslim community. The offending line – “There is so much pressure in our [Muslim] community, to look right and to behave right” – was excised on the advice of the compliance department who adduced that it could “create the suggestion that all Muslims condoned honour killings”.
Bhatti refuted the idea that the line was offensive and berated the corporation for bowing down to “our fear-ridden culture.” Her accusation gains some force in the light of the admission by the then outgoing Director General of the BBC Mark Thompson, who in 2012, admitted that the fatwa against Rushdie, the 11 September terror attacks and the murder of Theo Van Gogh had made broadcasters realise that religious controversies could lead to murder or significant criminal acts. He revealed that BBC producers had to consider the possibility not merely of receiving complaints but now, also, “violent threats”, a change he dramatized in the difference between letters which say “I complain in the strongest possible terms” and those that say “I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write.”
It’s not the first time Bhatti has been involved in a controversy over religious sensitivity. It was her play Bezhti (dishonor), which focused on sexist attitudes within the Sikh community, that led to protest and denunciations in 2004 and was taken off stage in light of these protests. I remember this well, because I empathised with the protestors at the time. Many Sikhs felt outraged at the way the play depicted scenes of rape inside a gurdwara or Sikh temple. Generally the protestors had no issue with the idea of a Sikh character committing rape. Concerns were raised primarily about the backdrop being a gurdwara. Was this necessary or unnecessarily provocative? The promotional poster showing a woman holding a large pair of knickers was repugnant. What added to the sense of grievance was the ill-conceived promotional byline: “a new black comedy that reveals just how many secrets can be hidden in a Sikh temple.”
Initially the protests against the play comprised of a candlelit vigil, outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, during which ordinary Sikh men, woman and children used their right of free speech to protest peacefully. I felt they had every right to assert their grievances. But very soon things went wrong. A few Sikh-born lager louts (ironic given that alcohol is prohibited in Sikhism) hijacked the protests and smashed the theatre’s windows. In the interests of public safety the theatre pulled the play.
For me, the episode still brings up mixed emotions. The emergence of self-appointed Sikh leaders on the national stage, the media maelstrom unfairly pitching Sikhism against the arts and the violent actions of boozed up Sikh-born bruisers, was a public relations disaster. The vacuum created by a void in legitimate leadership was sadly filled by those ill-equipped to articulate community concerns and a coterie of idiotic men willing to use violence to censor.
So how should minority faith communities deal with this kind of situation?
There are important lessons to be learnt from the dignified way British Jewry responded to Caryl Churchill's inflammatory play, Seven Jewish Children performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009. The play was criticised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, whilst the Man-Booker Prize winning British-Jewish author Howard Jacobson expressed concerns in the broadsheets in a piece titled “Let’s see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is.” Moreover in response Richard Stirling wrote a counter-play, Seven Other Children, which premiered at the New End Theatre in Hampstead in May 2009. If only Sikhs, who see Jews as their elder brothers, could respond to provocation with such savoir-faire.
Being a minority community brings with it a desire for the mainstream – commentators, filmmakers, writers and artist – to take notice. We welcome reference to our values, teachings, heritage and literature. But we want this to be balanced. By all means discuss the failings of our communities – the days of exoticised patronising depictions of our culture are over – but alongside the successes. For example Sikhism has a uniquely modern view of the role of women in society, consistent with a feminist agenda. The founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, rejected Sati or self-immolation of widows in the same funeral pyres as their husbands, as well as purdah, the practice of concealing woman from men. He stood firmly against many of the social inequalities prevailing at the time, especially discrimination against women. In the face of constant Mughal aggression, the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh baptised men and women into a military fraternity called the Khalsa, men became referred to as Singh, meaning lion and women Kaur or princess. Yet these important tenants faded into insignificance in the face of violence and the ensuing front-page controversy. There has to be a better way to balance community outrage on the one hand and free speech on the other.
Behzti added to a sense of frustration simmering under the surface of the British Sikh psyche. After the September 11 terror attacks, the first person to be killed in retribution was a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona. Sikhs have since (including those in Britain) continued to face the backlash of Islamism, because bigots assume sporting a turban and beard means you are affiliated to Al-Qaeda. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been called “Bin Laden.” Is this not Sikhophobia? Sadly, although the Government has since funded hate crime monitors for the Muslim community, others including Sikhs feel increasingly brushed aside. At a time when Sikhs might well have hope to hear some good news, a pat on the back or a celebration of their positive contribution to British society, Behtzi triggered a sense of outrage that instead resulted in the question “why are Sikhs tearing down theatres?’
The intervening years, and especially my own 4-year journey through the libel courts, have given me a new perspective on these issues. In 2007 I was sued for libel by a self-styled holy man from the Punjab. “His Holiness” Sant Baba Jeet Singh ji Maharaj took umbrage at being described as a “cult leader”, in an article I had written for a Birmingham based newspaper, The Sikh Times. Having uncovered political infighting in Sikh temples in High Wycombe, Birmingham and Bradford, I’d discovered that there was a dispute over ownership of temples, hinging on the apparent spiritual status of “His Holiness” in India.
The editor of the Sikh Times, now defunct, caved in issuing a craven apology, entering into a compromise agreement with “His Holiness”, and subsequently published a series of glorifying articles about him. Meanwhile I was left with the frightening prospect of fighting the case alone. In May 2010, on the first day of trial, Mr Justice Eady made the decision that secular courts simply don’t do God. A court couldn’t make a decision on whether someone was holy or not. Nor could it delve into the complexities of Sikh doctrine, tradition and polity. The case was struck out.
At a dinner in London some months later, a preeminent libel lawyer introduced me to a colleague with the following memorable words: “Meet Hardeep, he was sued by God and God lost.” But my ordeal didn’t end there. The claimant dragged me to the Court of Appeal. In the end, it was only the formidable libel law specialists Carter-Ruck who saved the day. My refusal to back down was tantamount to playing poker with my livelihood.
So, I’d been dragged through the courts for years, faced bankruptcy and lost years of my life for writing something in the public interest, about a powerful foreign national with deep pockets. I’d challenged a new religious movement, which appeared to have limitless funds, serious political clout in India and a determined bunch of disciples to boot. My assumption was that Sikhs would rally around me, but few came forward. It was the libertarians of the Libel Reform Campaign who stood with me when it counted. They attended court hearings, publicised my plight in the mainstream and raised my case with Parliamentarians. My new friends, who themselves had faced libel actions, included other free speech campaigners like the popular science writer Simon Singh and the preeminent cardiologist dubbed “the godfather of all medical whistleblowers”, Dr Peter Wilmshurst.
There are, I now realise, strong parallels between my battle for free speech and the Bezhti affair. There was the challenge to those in positions of authority in the Sikh community and the solidarity of other free speech campaigners, predominantly non-Sikhs. I still believe that writers have an important part to play in supporting the best aspects of religion and in questioning the morality of those in positions of religious authority. Those in power need to be held accountable, especially when they offer others spiritual guidance or act as brokers between congregations and the creator.
I also take the view that religious minorities have a right to protest and express offence. But, let’s be clear, this is not an open invitation to censor.
What’s objectionable is when the powerful use their influence or wealth to silence critics, be it through pernicious use of libel law or when those at the helm of state media self-censor in the fear of upsetting religious minorities. The BBC’s cowardly decision to cut lines from Bhatti’s episode of DCI Stone sets a very dangerous precedent, which threatens the autonomy of the arts. On what basis did the compliance department adduce that the line was offensive? Surely it’s for minority faith communities to decide what offends them, and to take the appropriate, legal, action? If they feel offended they have every right to say so, and to protest peacefully. But this does not mean that they have a veto.
There is no doubt we are living in an age of censorship. Both the right to freedom of expression and the right to protest are a crucial part of our democracy, but we need to distinguish between those that wield power and those that are powerless, for whom public expressions of outrage may be one of the only avenues they have to express their views.
When I spoke to Bhatti recently she told me that writing Behtzi continues to be a massive thing in her life, and though she has moved on, she remains committed to free speech. She also said that the experience has, perhaps surprisingly, brought her closer to her faith. The same is true for me. I continue to draw inspiration from my belief as I campaign for more balanced libel laws, and for a world where religious minorities can be treated fairly and heard without getting special treatment, or patronising protection from offence. We can look after ourselves and censorship harms us all.