How predictable, how cowardly, that cinema bosses should cave in to the mob instead of standing up for free speech: As a film about Muhammad’s daughter is pulled by Cineworld, IRAM RAMZAN says it’s difficult to see what has got the protesters so upset
The winner? Bradford. Crowds that had gathered in the city centre broke into cheers and let off colourful smoke flares at the happy news.
But this week, a very different side of Bradford has been on display.
Another crowd, with vastly opposing attitudes to ‘culture’, aggressively picketed a Cineworld cinema for showing The Lady Of Heaven, a supposedly ‘blasphemous’ film about the daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
‘It’s not OK to offend 1.8 billion,’ proclaimed one placard brandished outside the venue — referring to the estimated number of Muslims worldwide.
A bearded man shouted into a microphone that ‘the most important thing in our life been attacked, which is our Prophet’.
So how did Cineworld react? By cancelling the film. Not just in Bradford, but across the entire country.
Other cinema chains have followed suit. Vue Cinemas is showing it in only a few selected branches. Showcase has also pulled the film entirely.
Controversy: Poster for the film The Lady Of Heaven
Some cinemas made the decision to pull the film from theatres following the backlash. Pictured: Cineworld in Birmingham
Cineworld has said it has cancelled all showings of the film nationwide ‘to ensure the safety of our staff and customers’. Pictured: A crowd of protesters gathered outside the Cineworld in Birmingham on Sunday, June 5, to protest the film’s release
Thankfully, however, some cinema chains do still refuse to be intimidated by mobs of angry protestors.
And, as is the way of these things, controversy only inflames a desire to see it for yourself. So yesterday I headed to a West London cinema to see what the fuss was all about.
The Lady Of Heaven is a sweeping British-made epic that travels from the birth of Islam in the 7th century AD to Iraq a few years ago, as it suffered under the monstrous terrorist group ISIS. It tells the fascinating story of an Iraqi boy who is orphaned after his mother is executed by militants.
The child is adopted by an elderly woman who comforts the youngster by telling the story of saintly Fatima, daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
Many female Muslims see Fatima as the ultimate archetype: her name remains a popular choice for girls throughout the Islamic world.
Like her father, she is a deeply revered figure.
And, controversially, The Lady of Heaven does depict the Prophet Muhammad — but in a computer-generated image, often shown in dazzling sunlight, and with no actors credited for portraying him or any other ‘holy’ character.
All told, it’s difficult to see what has got the protesters so upset.
Cinemas have seen protests from Muslims claiming the film The Lady of Heaven is ‘blasphemous’. Pictured: Birmingham
The real controversy in the film is, in fact, a split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Lady Of Heaven is told from a Shia perspective, portraying the first Sunni caliph as a tyrant.
For Sunnis, this could well be offensive. But this is nothing new — the portrayal of Muhammad, whatever those protesters claimed, is not the real issue here. In fact, there’s only one thing that really matters. If people find this film provocative or even insulting, nobody is forcing them to watch it.
But that has not stopped groups of exclusively male Muslim protesters assembling — not just in Bradford, but also in Bolton, Sheffield and Birmingham, intimidating cinema staff, claiming the film attacks their religious beliefs.
In Bradford, a man screamed: ‘We are insulted. We have a right not to be insulted… these people cry “freedom of speech”, but we will not let this film go on further.’
Well, yes as a matter of fact: we do cry ‘freedom of speech’. It is a rallying cry for which many have died — as well as the cornerstone of our democracy. And it is not up for negotiation.
In another chilling video, a different man openly issues what sounds like a threat.
‘Birmingham will not tolerate the disrespect of our prophet,’ he warns. ‘There will be outcomes from your actions [sic]. You will have repercussions for your actions. We have been trained from birth that we must defend the honour of our prophet and we will lay our life on the line.’
In the end, in the face of warnings like this, it was all too predictable that Cineworld cancelled all showings of The Lady of Heaven to ‘ensure the safety of our staff and customers’.
Executive producer Malik Shlibak, pictured here at the Cannes Film Festival last year, blasted the decision to drop the film
Predictable, yes. But also cowardly and shameful. It is up to audiences to decide what films to watch, and for cinema bosses to meet their demands — and not surrender to a bunch of male bullies who will almost certainly have not even bothered to see the film.
The Lady Of Heaven’s British producer, Malik Shlibak, has defended the men’s right to express their displeasure. But, he adds, it is ‘silly’ and against the UK’s values for the film to be pulled completely.
He is right. Britain, thank goodness, no longer has blasphemy laws. But there has been a consistent effort by Muslim hardliners to bring in de facto blasphemy laws, by presenting any criticism of Islam as a form of ‘Islamophobic’ hate speech.
And so it is alarming that a largely liberal and democratic society has allowed a few religious zealots to determine what the rest of us can watch.
It is disastrous for our institutions, for the arts and dangerous for freedom of expression. For once you capitulate to the mob, it’s only a matter of time before more demands are made — to which we must acquiesce or face the frightening consequences.
Protesters gathered at cinemas to voice opposition to the Lady of Heaven, which was officially released in the UK on June 3
And if anyone was expecting Muslim organisations to provide any clear leadership or guidance, and tell the protesters to go home, then they were sadly mistaken.
The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organisation that claims to represent large numbers of UK Muslims, issued a vacuous statement calling for ‘respectful dialogue of intra-faith relations’.
No outright condemnation of zealots trying to impose their medieval views on society. No defence of freedom of expression. As expected.
For, as we have seen time and again, the staunchly British values of freedom and tolerance are under threat — trumped by the supposed right not to be offended. Our institutions have for years been far too quick to cave in to intolerant mobs whenever they claim that their feelings have been hurt by one thing or another.
Sadly, those who have been objecting to The Lady Of Heaven know this tactic works.
Video on social media appears to show the manager of one cinema addressing a crowd of protesters gathered outside
Though I am too young to remember the Salman Rushdie affair, its chilling legacy can still be felt today and its echoes resound in the protest dogging the film. When Rushdie, a British novelist, published The Satanic Verses in 1988, Muslim protests and threats swelled both here and abroad.
On February 14, 1989, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict (fatwa) declaring the book to be ‘against Islam’ and calling on Muslims everywhere to murder Rushdie.
With a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head, the mild-mannered author was forced into hiding and needed police protection for many years.
Today, the demand for censorship by intolerant minorities continues.
In 2015, 12 journalists working for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by terrorists after publishing cartoons of Muhammad.
More recently, a school teacher in Batley, West Yorkshire, was forced into hiding over fears he might be murdered after showing a cartoon of Muhammad during a religious education lesson.
Left to right: Producer Hussein Ashmere, Mehpe Al Hussaini, executive producer Jawad Salah and executive producer Malik Shlibak from Enlightened Kingdom attend the premier of The Lady of Heaven at the Cannes Film Festival last year
There are countless more examples and — alas — there will be more, as long as our political elites give extremists a free pass and do not stand up for liberty.
Politicians believe they are speaking for all Muslims when they take offence on their behalf. But they aren’t. The baying mobs don’t speak for the majority.
Outside the West London cinema where I saw the film, Imane, a Sunni Muslim in her mid-30s, told me that she believed the film could potentially stoke sectarian divisions.
But, she added, ‘everyone has their own view and if the other side disagrees with this, then they can make their own film and tell their side’.
Quite right. Similarly, Shia Muslim Syed Husain told me: ‘I hope people will watch this movie and understand the real message, which is about spreading peace and that we should speak out against the evil things done in the name of our religion, by the likes of the Taliban and ISIS.’
Judging by the demonstrators, I highly doubt that.
It never surprises me that religious zealots wish to impose their dogmas and blasphemy codes on others.
They have a long tradition of doing so. But it is one we should — and must — continue to fight.