Talking point

The Lady of Heaven row: are British cinemas bowing to the mob?

Muslim protesters are furious about a film that features one of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters

In theory, Britain has no blasphemy laws, said Jawad Iqbal in The Times. The right to challenge religious beliefs is meant to be a fundamental one in this country. Do we have the courage of our conviction, though? It’s hard to believe it when cinemas across the country are “busy cancelling screenings of a film about Islam at the behest of an angry mob”.

Muslim protesters are furious about The Lady of Heaven, a film that features Fatima, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters (and even a representation of Muhammad himself, albeit in CGI form). Hundreds picketed Cineworld cinemas in Bradford, Sheffield, Bolton and Birmingham that were showing the film. The chain quickly cancelled screenings across the whole of the UK, “to ensure the safety of our staff and customers”. Another cinema chain, Showcase, also pulled the film entirely.

We’ve seen similar controversies before, over The Satanic Verses and cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, said Stephen Daisley in The Critic. But this one introduces a new dimension: what do we do when one Muslim faction “seeks to censor another”?

The Lady of Heaven is a British-made historical epic, written by a Kuwaiti-born, UK-based Shia cleric, Yasser Al-Habib. It tells the story of Islam’s development from a Shia perspective, and reflects the mainstream Shia view “that the Sunni caliphs who succeeded the Prophet were usurpers”, who were also responsible for Fatima’s death. Because of this, the UK Muslim website 5Pillars branded it “pure, unadulterated sectarian filth”. Videos on Twitter show groups of Muslim men outside cinemas chanting: “Shia kaffir” (Shia unbeliever).

The Lady of Heaven is a provocative film “that many Muslims (and not just Sunnis) find distasteful”, said Kenan Malik in The Observer. Fatima’s story is intertwined with the tale of a child whose mother is gruesomely killed by Isis militants in present-day Iraq; drawing parallels between the two stories, it describes Fatima as “the first victim of terrorism”. This is clearly offensive. But there is no right not to be offended, and “the tenets of one religion are often offensive to the believers of another”.

Besides, we must be clear that the protesters do not represent “the Muslim community”. 5Pillars, for instance, is edited by Roshan Muhammed Salih, who has expressed support for the Taliban and the amputation of hands for theft. He has the right to express such loathsome views. But to close down a film at the behest of people like him “is to betray more progressive Muslims”.

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