Sunday, September 30, 2012

On the erosion of free speech and expression...

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

A new production of Jesus Christ Superstar is currently touring the arenas of the UK, featuring a Jesus Christ plucked from the obscurity of a TV talent show, the comedian Tim Minchin, Mel C (of Spice Girl fame) and former Radio 1 DJ, Chris Moyles. At the moment, the biggest concerns about it seem to revolve around whether the production (and indeed the cast) are suited to the arena format (opinions vary) but there are - you'll probably be unsurprised to hear - no concerns about the content. After all, Jesus Christ Superstar has been touring around the world for more than 40 years...

Which makes the current situation in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don all the more remarkable.

With a population of just over a million, the city of Rostov-on-Don is the tenth largest in the Russian Federation and, while it grew to be an industrial city during the Soviet-era, it has always been a city with a deep connection to culture (as witnessed by Mikhail Sholokhov's Nobel prize winning novel And Quiet Flows the Don). But what has brought Rostov-on-Don to the forefront of the news this week has been the restriction of culture, and the restriction of freedoms.

St. Petersburg's Rock Opera Theatre was due to put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar - something they've been doing all over Russia since 1990 (and indeed something they've done five times in Rostov-on-Don since then) - at the Rostov Philharmonic Theatre on October 18th. But, currently, the theatre has had to suspend sales of tickets due to an edict from the city's authorities. The reason? A letter of complaint to the city authorities by eighteen Orthodox Christians.

Eighteen. That's less people than can be comfortably be fitted onto a bus.That's less than 3% of the capacity of the Rostov Philharmonic Theatre's largest hall. Or to put it another way, that's just over 0.001% of the total population of Rostov-on-Don.

Eighteen people drafted a letter to the authorities of Rostov-on-Don in which they point out that the "image of Christ presented in the opera is false from the point of view of Christianity" (handily ignoring the myriad interpretations of Christ that Christianity itself has presented over the millennia) and state that "as it stands, the work is a profanation".

The authorities have handed the letter of complaint over to the Rostov-on-Don prosecutors and, while they investigate, the theatre has been ordered to halt all ticket sales.

Now it would seem likely that, over the years that it has been put on in Rostov-on-Don, there have been similar letters of complaint (perhaps even from the same eighteen people) but what is very different this year is the response of the authorities; and this stems from a sea change in Russia that has seen the Orthodox Church begin to reassert itself in the political arena and attempt to secure legislation that will protect it from criticism or ridicule.

Last week, the State Duma in Russian voted in favour of a bill - seemingly inspired by the furore of the recent Pussy Riot case - that will massively increase the punishment for "offending religious beliefs and citizen's feelings". The committing of "public offences, humiliation of worship or other religious rites and associations, or violation of the religious beliefs and feelings of citizens" will now result in fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000), 200 hours of compulsory labour and/or three years in jail. I am rather curious how all this plays out; after all, I can imagine that a great number of religions could make a strong case for the very existence of other religions as being offensive to their religious beliefs...

And this is not an issue confined to Russia; the riots throughout the Middle East over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in a film are a testament to that. Algeria, at a meeting of the UN yesterday, demanded that the UN bring in measures to prevent blasphemy. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in an interview on Saturday warned that the West needed to "understand the sensitivity of the Muslim world" and that to allow similar provocations would pose "a threat to international peace and security and the sanctity of life"

And all of this worries me. I'm with Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who coined the phrase (frequently misattributed to Voltaire, whose biography she wrote) "I disapprove of what you saybut I will defend to the death your right to say it". 

I am not religious but I have no problem with other people being religious. I'm not some evangelical atheist who feels that he needs to 'educate' those people who've not yet seen the light (of cold, hard, reason that is!); instead, I like to think that we all of us should have a right to hold our own beliefs and to express those beliefs. You believe in God? Good for you! You believe in Allah? Great! You believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? You go, with your pastafarianism! 

But what worries me is the way that the beliefs of others are growing to restrict the freedoms of what we can say, even the freedoms we have in the way that we live our lives. Now, you may think - if you are reading this in the 'civilised' West - that this is not an issue that affects you; but this is not an issue on which the West can sit smugly on its high moral horse; after all, the US Republican party this year endorsed a ban on abortion even in cases such as rape and incest; based upon religious conviction. This is, after all, the same party whose Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has repeatedly reiterated his opinion that marriage is an enduring institute between man and woman (although, being a Mormon I'm not sure he was precise on the exact numbers) and that he would ban same-sex marriage at a federal level. Now, Romney swears that this isn't a religious decision but instead "based upon what I believe is right for the nation and the building of strong generations for our future" but he's fooling no one. The religious beliefs of Mitt Romney, that homosexuality is a sin, would (if, God forbid, he were to be elected) directly impact upon the freedoms of millions of people to live their lives.

You see, as the capabilities we have to communicate with each other have increased; through first mass media and now 'new' media; the beliefs of countless billions have crashed headlong with each other in a way that would have been unimaginable less than a century ago. And - surprise, surprise - this has led to a world in which it has become ever easier to offend the beliefs of others, ever easier to incite violence through rhetoric. But, reactionary steps to try to limit freedoms of speech and expression such as those proposed by Algeria are not a solution to this - in fact, if we follow a logical path of that particular mindset then we end up in an Orwellian future of non-expression where only the most neutral and neutered viewpoints can be voiced.

The way to solve this is acceptance. To accept the possibility that others don't share your beliefs or customs. To accept the possibility that others will have a different viewpoint on how to live their lives. To accept that what you hold most holy and sacred may have no value to somebody else. It may be a futile wish but, in the words of President James Dale, "why can't we all just get along?"