In the few days since a drama company in the Midlands canceled the run of a contentious play in the face of violent religious protests, British theater has been grappling with a range of uncomfortable and unusual questions about censorship, freedom and faith.
The cancellation, by the Birmingham Repertory Theater, challenged Britain's 400,000 Sikhs to contemplate the distinctions within their ranks as values change, separating a conservative old guard of immigrants from a newer generation born and reared in Britain. And the episode posed a near-unanswerable question for liberal-minded British theatergoers: What counts more, their commitment to free speech or their commitment to minority rights? Indeed, what kind of a society permits a mob to silence artistic expression in the first place?
"I think it's one of the blackest days for the arts in this country that I have ever experienced," said Neal Foster, the manager of another theater, the Birmingham Stage Company. "Violence is not part of the process we are used to. In the short term the thugs have won, and this has never happened before in the artistic community."
The furor centers on a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the British-born daughter of Sikh immigrants. Her latest work, "Behzti" ("Dishonor"), used a Sikh temple as the setting for a harrowing scene in which a young woman is beaten by other women, including her own mother, after being raped by a man who claims to have had a homosexual relationship with her father.
As the play was being performed on Dec. 18, hundreds of Sikh protesters attacked the building, throwing bricks, smashing windows and fighting with police. Citing the threat of further disruptions, the theater canceled the run, which started Dec. 9, but that was only the beginning of a much broader drama.
In the midst of this impassioned debate, Bhatti went into hiding, fearing for her life after death threats. The situation has evoked comparisons with the fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 that sent the writer Salman Rushdie into hiding following the publication of his Satanic Verses, a novel the Iranian authorities regarded as insulting to Islam.
"This is the Sikhs' Rushdie affair," said Gurharpal Singh, a professor of inter-religious studies at the University of Birmingham. "There are overtones of religious censorship and the clash between community norms and liberal society."
The soul-searching has become even more tangled because the staging of "Behzti" intersects with another discussion in Britain over a new law that would make incitement to religious hatred a crime, in effect extending earlier legislation that outlawed incitement to racial hatred.
In some ways it is all the more perplexing that the incident should have taken place in Birmingham, England's second largest city, which has managed to achieve an ethnic balance with a large minority of people from an Asian background, most of them Muslims. Not only Bhatti, the playwright, is a Sikh, but so are several members of the cast.
The play's setting infuriated Sikh protesters, who argued that acts like rape and brutality could never happen in the sanctity of a temple. Sikh leaders labeled the drama an insult to their faith, which has some 16 million adherents. The religion, founded in the 15th century, is rooted in the Punjab region of India and has spread in a million-strong diaspora to Britain, Canada, the United States and other countries.