1.7 million people watched the BBC2 screening of the award-winning Jerry Springer, The Opera on Saturday 8 January.
Prior to the broadcast, the BBC received 47,000 complaints from people organised by fundamentalist Christian groups who regard the musical as blasphemous.
The Christian Voice Group has threatened to take out a private prosecution against the BBC for blasphemy. And apparently BBC chairman Michael Grade sought personal assurances from director general Mark Thompson that the show did not breach blasphemy laws.
No doubt these organisations would have been happy to see the opera shelved. But they were also mobilising for the future — to pressure media bosses to cancel and closely scrutinise any future programme or feature that might give offence to Christians. The Christian organisers openly admit that they have begun to organise because they have taken inspiration from Muslim campaigning groups.
Groups such as the Islamist Muslim Association of Britain are extremely media savvy and very quick to make it known when an “offence” has been caused. Their latest target is the right-wing Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore. Moore, no doubt being deliberately provocative, began an article by asking if the prophet Muhammad was a paedophile. Moore claimed Muhammad married one of his wives, Aisha, when she was nine. Iqbal Sacranie’s utterly unconvincing reply to Moore in the Telegraph states, “Why would the Prophet have waited three years after his betrothal to Aisha — his only virgin bride — if not because he was waiting for her to attain puberty?”!
The Springer protests must also, surely, have had a boost from the contemptible decision of the Birmingham Rep to give in to a Sikh-communalist mob and cancel their production of Behzti (Dishonour). Behzti, written by a young Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatt, offended some Sikh community leaders and was cancelled in December.
Neal Foster, of the Birmingham Stage Company based at the Old Rep, said the decision to cancel the play had been made by “cowards” and promised to stage the play.
The Royal Court theatre in London says it may also stage Behzti. Ramin Gray from the Royal Court said, “Irrespective of the quality of this play I think we have to see it.” After the Behzti cancellation Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s artistic director said, “The giving of offence, the causing of offence, is part of our business.”
But will the causing of offence continue to be legal?
The government’s proposals for laws to ban incitement to religious hatred is a factor in encouraging these kinds of protests.
Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, discussed his attempts to find out exactly what the government is proposing: “The Home Office clearly doesn’t have the slightest clue what would constitute an offence under the new provisions. A Home Office spokesperson told me it ‘wasn’t about criminalising people making justifiable comments about religion.’ Justifiable? Define please. ‘Well, I can’t say, really… you’ve put me in a difficult position. But it’s not about defending religion, per se.’ So what is it about?
If I said Islam was stupid, like the French writer Michel Houellebecq, would I be in court? ‘Definitely not’. But if I said people who believed in something that was stupid were therefore themselves stupid, would that land me in the dock? ‘Um. Not sure. Possibly. I just don’t know at this stage. It has to go to the Attorney-General first. I suppose if it were likely to incite people to hate Muslims’. The press officer said this: ‘There are no definitive answers’.”
The fact is that, no matter what the final detail, attempts to restrict condemnation or discussion of the stupidity of religions and religious views — and particularly at a time when religious organisations are mobilising against such views — is a threat to rational discussion. If such a law comes into force it should be systematically disobeyed and made unworkable. And the left should be prepared to support and defend the showing of plays and films, or the selling of books, which challenge religious obscurantism and hypocrisy.