The recent Sikh assault on a theater in Birmingham, England, illustrates once again how religious radicals are using violence and threats of violence to curb basic freedoms not just in their former homelands, but throughout the West.
In Birmingham on Dec. 18, a mob of some 400 radical Sikhs stormed the Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre prior to a performance of Gurprett Bhatti’s play Dishonor. During the subsequent melee, 800 theatergoers had to be rushed from the theater, while the mob smashed doors, shattered windows, battered security guards, and destroyed equipment. Five police officers were injured in the brawl. Three Sikh’s were arrested and later released on bail. Ms. Bhatti’s play, which contains scenes of murder and rape in a Sikh temple, sparked controversy not unlike Dutch director Theo van Gogh’s film Submission, which ended in his murder by a Muslim fanatic on Nov. 2.
In the meantime the playwright has received the usual round of death threats, and local police have advised Ms. Bhatti — herself a Sikh — to keep her mouth shut. She is currently in hiding somewhere in Britain. As for her play, it was immediately shut down after local officials said they could not guarantee the safety of the audience and actors. As one blogger put it, perhaps next time she’ll write about something inoffensive and safe, like vaginas.
She may have to. Thanks to draconian British hate speech laws — Section 18 (1) of the Public Order Act outlaws speech that stirs up racial hatred — Ms. Bhatti could theoretically end up paying heavy fines for instigating the riot or even serving hard time long after the violent protesters are set free.
A spokeswoman for the protesters, Kim Kirpaljit Kaur Brom, crowed over the success of the violent protests and destruction of property, gushingly telling the Guardian newspaper that the decision to pull the play was the right one: “We congratulate the theatre for making its decision after we exercised our democratic rights to protest. There are no winners and no losers. The end result is that commonsense has prevailed.” The protesters’ spokeswoman sounded a note very much like British Arts Minister Estelle Morris, who likewise told the Guardian, “Although today is a very sad day for freedom of speech, I think the Rep has done the right thing.”
The mob seems to have found yet another ally in the Catholic Church. Rather than condemn the violence and mayhem, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, let the Sikh thugs off the hook when he told the BBC, “Such a deliberate, even if fiction (sic), violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion.”
The violence could strengthen the hand of British MPs who have sought to pass legislation to ban “incitement to religious hatred,” much like the hate speech laws currently on the books in Canada and the UK. Opponents of the ban frequently quote author Salman Rushdie, who once famously asked, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” The British, however, are used to far fewer liberties than are Americans, whose First Amendment protects speech no matter how offensive its content, and is so jealously guarded that American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in German concentration camps, defended the right of Neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1979. At the time Neier said, “Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened.” Doubtless the law would have a deep chilling effect on speech. If one is to risk jail time for writing something that may provoke a fanatic, he is likely not to write anything at all, or like Thomas Paine and his book The Age of Reason, release it posthumously when he is safely beyond the reach of the law.
One can never be sure how controversial, enigmatic, or wryly humorous speech will be taken by imbeciles and hotheads. Often fanatics will react violently to the slightest provocation. Samuel Johnson once suggested that “Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.” But fanatics are not contented with merely knocking a man down. Theo van Gogh was hounded and slaughtered, while his friends and colleagues are doomed to spend the rest of their lives like bank robbers living in the shadows or on the run. Johnson’s quote reminds us again what separates the man of the Enlightenment from Dark Age religious fanatics. Indeed, one can almost imagine a day in the not-too-distant future in which every outspoken European critic of radical Islam or Sikhism will be dead or in hiding.
Until the closing of Ms. Bhatti’s play this month, wide latitude had been given to controversial works of European art, especially so-called blasphemous art. Europe seemed to have made great leaps since the sixteenth century Florentine monk Savonarola torched Renaissance art on his bonfire of the vanities. (Fortunately the monk got his comeuppance and was himself later roasted on a spit.) Then in the twentieth century blasphemous and shocking art took on a wide new popularity becoming the easy path to recognition for a surplus of recently minted art majors.
In recent years, Christians have had ample opportunity to be offended by blasphemous works, from Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. In some cities Christian demonstrators attempted to close down theaters showing the Scorsese film. A few fanatics even denied that the director had a right to make the film. Had these protests sparked violence America may have seen further government attempts to erode free speech. Happily there was no violence. The film was allowed to be shown, the demonstrators to demonstrate. The exhibitors of Piss Christ were threatened with losing their federal funding unless they cleaned up their act — the price you pay for going begging for a government handout — but overall the system worked.
For decades now American and European liberals have been singing the praise of multiculturalism as if all cultures, no matter how different, how unenlightened, how opposed to liberty, might magically join hands and live together as one. The reality finds secular European cities housing theocratic enclaves where residents stubbornly retain their own languages, schools, religious animosities (of Jews in particular), and barbaric traditions like female circumcision, polygamy, and arranged marriage, while state officials turn a blind eye.
The West now finds itself ill-equipped to deal with great numbers of immigrants from Muslim and developing countries who have no tradition or experience in Western freedoms, who literally sat out the Enlightenment and the subsequent 300 years of human progress. The concepts of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, equal rights and separation of church and state are not only foreign to vast hordes of Muslims and Sikhs, but they are inimical. Ironically America and Britain are now belatedly trying to bring the ideals of the Enlightenment to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The initial signs show that the Iraqis and Afghanis are open to these new ideas. We will only know for certain after the American troops leave.