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Sunday, December 19, 2004


Sikh and tired

Saturday night's violent protest by a group of Sikhs, complaining about a play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is a cause Liberals should not touch with a bargepole. Indeed, we should repudiate it loudly and clearly.

Our instinct may be to side with an ethnic minority, but in this instance our sympathy would be utterly misplaced. The Sikh protestors are demanding censorship on the grounds that they find a play (written by a Sikh, incidentally) "offensive". They appear not to have grasped that being exposed to opinions you find distasteful is one of the prices you must pay for living in a democratic society.

Polly Toynbee (in an article in last Wednesday's Guardian) made a useful distinction between believers and their beliefs. People should be free to practice their beliefs and should be free from persecution or discrimination. But we should never place anyone's beliefs beyond ordinary debate or criticism.

This Sikh protest is a good illustration of how bad is the government's proposed law on religious hatred. But it also illustrates how more and more groups are leaping on the bandwagon set in motion by feminists and Zionists in the 1970s.

At the dawn of the PC era, feminists claimed that any and all criticism of women or their beliefs was "sexist", while Zionists claimed that any and all criticism of Israel or its actions was "anti-semitic". This tactic proved remarkably successful. Most critics were intimidated into silence, and both groups have been shielded from some much-needed intellectual rigour and much-deserved moral scrutiny.

No wonder so many other special interests find this political device attractive. But every expression of opinion offends somebody somewhere. If we were to accept 'offence' or, worse, 'feelings' as a criterion for restricting free expression, we would end up with complete censorship.

No Liberal should have any truck with the concept of 'blasphemy' or its modern day New Labour equivalents. It is illegal to assault anyone or deny them employment because they are a Sikh, and rightly so. But if we wish to say that their religious beliefs are complete bollocks, we should have every right to do so.

Now, I wonder. Will the Liberal Democrats be expressing this robust Liberal point of view, or will some local tactical considerations dictate that discretion is the better part of valour?

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