December 29, 2004 : Multiculturalism/Diversity in Merry Olde England And Liberal Old Holland

For your information, below are two European newspaper articles commenting on Sikh and Muslim reactions to play/film criticism of Sikhism and Islam in England and Holland respectively.

Sikhs storm theatre to demand closure of play that ‘violates their sacred place’
By Terry Kirby, James Burleigh and Helen McCormack
(The Independent)
20 December 2004

A controversial play depicting sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple was at the centre of a clash between artistic freedom and religious sensitivities last night amid threats of more angry protests today following Saturday’s violent demonstrations outside Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Thousands of Sikhs from all over Britain are threatening to converge on the theatre tonight if the play, Behzti, (Dishonour) which was written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, continues its sold-out run. The author, a Sikh woman, has also received threats of violence, while the theatre has condemned the protests and warned against “blatant censorship”.

On Saturday night more than 400 Sikh demonstrators clashed with police outside the building, forcing the cancellation of that night’s performance. Some protesters tried to storm the theatre, attacking security guards, destroying a foyer door and breaking windows in a restaurant. More than 800 people were evacuated. Many of those inside were families with young children attending the theatre’s Christmas play, The Witches, which was also stopped before the curtain rose. Two people arrested have been released on police bail; five police officers were also slightly injured. The theatre’s management will meet senior officers from West Midlands Police today to decide what happens next. The theatre will be highly reluctant to accede to what it says amounts to censorship while the police will be anxious to avoid further unrest . The play, which was commissioned by the theatre for its studio auditorium and has been well received by critics, is sold out and is due to continue its run until 30 December.

Gurdial Singh Atwal, a former co-chairman of the city’s Council of Sikh Gurdwaras (temples) and a local councillor, who has been leading the campaign against the play, warned that ten of thousands of Sikhs could arrive to protest. “This has now become an international matter. I am getting telephone calls from all over the world. The play has to be cancelled or rewritten.”

Asked if he condemned the violence, he said: “Of course I condemn violence wherever it occurs and we are a peaceful and law abiding community. But you should also consider who is provoking this violence – who is creating this anger but the author herself.” He added: “This is not just about Sikhs. If this was set in a church or a mosque or any other place of worship there would be the same strong feelings.”

There are 40-50,000 Sikhs in Birmingham, with more than double that number in the wider West Midlands area.

Ms Bhatti said she had been advised not to comment because of threats which had been made to her but referred The Independent to the foreword of her play, in which she wrote: “I believe that drama should be provocative and relevant. I wrote Behzti because I passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy. The writers I admire are courageous … Such writers sometimes cause offence. But perhaps those who are affronted by the menace of dialogue and discussion, need to be offended.”

Before the play began its run on 9 December, Sikh leaders asked the theatre to consider changes to the crucial scenes set in a temple, perhaps relocating them to a community centre or similar place. Some changes were made, but the writer and the theatre refused to concede on the crucial temple scene. The theatre also invited the Sikh community to write a statement expressing its views on the play and this has been given to every audience member and also read out in the auditorium before each performance. Despite this, there were a number of protests during the week which progressively grew in size, culminating in Saturday’s disturbances.

The theatre said in a statement: “The characters in the play are not intended to be representative of the Sikh community, they are works of fiction characterising the fallibility of human nature and the injustice and hypocrisy that exists in the real world.”

In a city where ethnic minorities account for almost half the population and with a strong record on good community relations, the Sikhs have received support from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham. The Most Rev Vincent Nichols said the Sikh community had acted in a “reasonable and measured way” in representing their concerns over the play. He added: “Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion. People of all faiths, therefore, will be offended by this presentation.


Van Gogh murder backlash begins

(Scotsman On Sunday)

IT PRIDES itself on being the beating liberal heart of Europe, but the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh has convinced many in the Netherlands that the nation’s legendary tolerance has now reached its limit.

Van Gogh’s execution last Tuesday, which has been linked to Islamic extremists, has brought calls for a crackdown on fundamentalists and renegade preachers that would previously have been unthinkable.

Once liberal commentators now want Muslim hardliners to be thrown out of the country, even if they have Dutch passports, and greater surveillance of the wider Islamic community.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest Muslim populations in Western Europe is fearful of being tarred with the extremist brush by a nation which increasingly feels it is being taken advantage of.

Van Gogh, who had made a controversial film about Islamic culture, was shot and stabbed in Amsterdam as he cycled to work. A five-page letter addressed to a female Somali immigrant who scripted the controversial film that Van Gogh directed before she entered national politics, was pinned to his body with a knife.

A Dutch-Moroccan has been charged over the incident, and also with membership of a group with “terrorist intentions and conspiracy to murder a politician”.

The 26-year-old accused, identified by Dutch media as Mohammed B, was also charged with attempting to kill a policeman and a bystander.

The killing has revived memories of the shocking murder of anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn by an animal rights activist in 2002.

Prior to his death, Fortuyn’s views had been condemned by the liberal media. But the slaying of Van Gogh has had a cathartic effect in a country where racial tension and hostility towards foreigners is on the rise.

The leading liberal Amsterdam broadsheet, The Telegraaf, has led the charge with a hard-hitting editorial that would never previously have been published.

“There needs to be a very public crackdown on extremist Muslim fanatics in order to assuage the fear of citizens and to warn the fanatics that they must not cross over the boundaries,” the newspaper said.

“International cash transfers must be more tightly controlled; magazines and papers which include incitement should be suppressed; unsuitable mosques should be shut down and imams who encourage illegal acts should be thrown out of the country.

“This should also apply to extremists who have dual nationality. They have no business here. In addition, the range of extremists to be kept under surveillance needs to be expanded. If more money is required for all this, then that money must be made available. It is more than worth it for the sake of the citizens’ safety.”

Volkskrant, published in The Hague, declared that while Muslims might be infuriated by Van Gogh’s film, they should have taken the film-maker to court rather than engaging in acts of violence.

It said: “Muslims will have to learn that, in a democracy, religion, too, is open to criticism – this applies to Islam no less than to Christianity. Theo van Gogh, in this respect, always purposefully went to the limits of decency.

“Many have regularly had reason to feel hurt or offended by him. In a democracy, those who want to defend themselves against this can go to court. Any other curtailment of free speech is inadmissible.”

The daily Algemeen Dagblad challenged the nation’s Muslims to take to the streets to condemn the killing and “cleanse” themselves as a community in the wake of the murder.

It said: “The has to be the time when voices from the Muslim community must say a massive no” to this kind of madness. A mass protest made by Dutch Muslims could be the symbolic beginning of a needed cleansing within the self.”

The rising tension in the Netherlands has led increasingly to calls from white Dutch people for Muslims either to accept Western ways or leave the country.

Prior to the killing, a poll found that a third of Dutch people felt threatened by Islam in their midst.

Barry Madlener, a councillor in Rotterdam, where half the population is foreign-born – many from Muslim countries – said: “If you say: ‘I reject the Western lifestyle and I don’t want to fit in your way’, then I say: ‘Keep away.’ ”

“When the children of these people cannot fit into our society, then the problems will grow.”

The murder has made allies of both freewheeling liberals and traditional church-goers who normally condemn the nation’s drug culture and sexual licence.

Justice minister Piet Hein Donner, regarded as a stern Calvinist with little in common with the ultra-permissive outlook personified by Van Gogh said: “If this is what has happened to this man, who did nothing but express his opinion, then one can no longer live decently in this land.”

A backlash has begun. In the central town of Utrecht, several fires broke out on Thursday at a new mosque belonging to a Moroccan religious association. A police spokeswoman said no evidence had been found of fire-raising but this was still under investigation.

The Dutch cabinet, meanwhile, has made it clear it is considering new ways to tackle Muslim extremists, including stripping criminals with dual citizenship of their Dutch nationality, increasing police powers and boosting the budget of the security service.

Gerrit Zalm, the deputy prime minister, says the cabinet also considered taking action against a mosque in Amsterdam regularly attended by Mohammed B.

Van Gogh, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of artist Vincent van Gogh, has been described as the Netherlands’ Michael Moore.

The film, “Submission”, may have been only 10 minutes long, but it caused uproar in the country when it was broadcast at the end of August.

The outcry centred on the stories of four Muslim women who were beaten, raped and forced into marriage, and were asking for Allah’s help.

On their bodies were written verses from the Quran describing the permitted physical punishments for women who “misbehave”.

Van Gogh claimed that he had been deliberately cautious, and would have made the film differently if he really had wanted to shock.

Nevertheless, death threats were soon received.

In a recent interview, Van Gogh was asked how he felt about the threats. Laughing, he replied that no one would believe it worth their while to shoot at the “village idiot”.

As all of the Netherlands now knows, Van Gogh got that one badly wrong.