Thursday 4 October 2007

Causing religious offence is not a crime

After the deluge of justifiable praise for the brave Burmese monks (and attempts by some commentators to deploy them in support of their argument for religion playing a greater role in politics), it's only healthy to be reminded that followers of the Dharma can be as narrow-minded and petty as adherents of other faiths - even if only rarely. As Catherine Bennett reminds us: 'Alone among practitioners of world religions active in this country, Buddhists enjoyed, until this week, the distinction of not having tried to ban anything.'


This week, police in Norwich were called after local Buddhists spotted a Buddha in a gallery window, whose lap area had been disrespectfully customised by the artist, Colin Self, with genitals composed of a pair of shining eggs and a vertical golden banana. Anyone who visited the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition this year will probably remember it. "We have had a complaint in respect of the prominent exhibition of this statue on the basis that it causes religious offence," reported a police officer. "We have liaised with the management of the gallery in order to reach a solution which both upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused to any general member of the public or faith group."

But the police solution - to turn the figure round, so that the banana and eggs could offend only those faith groups actually in the gallery - did not satisfy the gallery owner with whom he had liaised, David Koppel. He said an officer told him, "in no uncertain terms, that if I turned the sculpture around again to face the window he would be coming to arrest me and the sculpture may be destroyed".

One is left wondering precisely which law had been infringed here, and by what authority the police felt able to insist on the statue being moved. Apparently the officer quoted in Bennett's piece was from Norwich's Hate Crime Unit, but it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to equate a humorous send-up of the ubiquitous Buddha with daubing swastikas on synagogues or beating up gays. It's a little worrying that the police in this instance class 'causing religious offence' as a criminal act, since the amendment to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act specifically required that there must be a clear intention to stir up hatred.

If this looser interpretation of the law is adopted, Catherine Bennett wonders whether the police will be able to cope:

It is debatable, however, whether our overstretched police have the manpower, even with their new hand-held computers, for the kind of intensive artistic supervision that is rapidly becoming necessary, as religious communities outdo one another with claims to special protection. What happens when Norwich's Hindus see Self's Ganesh? Even if complaints from religious groups are already leading to widespread self-censorship by individuals and organisations who prefer to avoid persecution, and thus help save police time, there will always be some inadvertently offensive work, or more deliberate piece of mischief requiring investigation, prior to the issue of a ban, or special guidance, which as the Norfolk Inquisition puts it, "upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused ..."

If this enforced prevention of offence is not to be the monopoly of large religious groups, particularly those able to support their demands with the threat of violence, or yet more effectively, a global death sentence, the time has surely come to formalise arrangements with the appointment of some sort of official censor, tasked with extending rights of artistic suppression impartially, to all. Something like the old lord chamberlains, but much more so. Though diligent enemies of artistic freedom, the activities of those busybodies, stipulating when a character should keep his vest on, and so on, seem feeble, looking back, compared with the unpredictable demands of our various faith groups backed, where necessary, by officers from the local hate-crime unit.

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