This essay, on attempts to ban the film The Lady of Heaven, was my Observer column on 12 June 2022. It was published under the headline “Film bans are less about offence, more ‘community leaders’ showing who’s boss”.
“Birmingham will not tolerate the disrespect of our Prophet… You will have repercussions for your actions.” So claimed a leader of a Muslim protest against the film The Lady of Heaven. There were similar protests in cities from Bradford to London. Fear of “repercussions” led the cinema chain Cineworld to withdraw the film from all its outlets; another chain, Showcase, soon followed.
But who determines that a film is “disrespectful”, and to whom? Who speaks for Muslims? The Muslims who made the film? Or those who feel offended by it?
Whenever there is a protest about a film or a book or a play deemed racist or disrespectful to a particular community, many, particularly on the left, take those claims at face value, especially if that community happens to be Muslim. They take at face value, too, that the protesters are in some sense speaking for “the community” or the faith. Yet what is often called “offence to a community” is often a debate within those communities. And nowhere is this clearer than in the row over The Lady of Heaven.
Written by Shia cleric Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, The Lady of Heaven tells the story of Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. Fatimah is a revered yet disputed figure within Islam. Both Sunnis and Shias regard her as an ideal of womanhood, but her death is a source of controversy. Sunnis believe that Fatimah died from heartbreak after the death of Muhammad. Shias hold her death attributable to the injuries she suffered during a raid on her house ordered by the first caliph, Abu Bakr. For Shias, Fatimah’s husband, Ali, was the rightful successor to Muhammad and they refused to recognise the authority of Abu Bakr.
The Lady of Heaven uses Fatimah’s death to make provocative claims about both early and contemporary Sunnis. Intertwined with the tale of a young child in contemporary Iraq, the film describes Fatimah as “the first victim of terrorism”, comparing Abu Bakr’s followers to Islamic State supporters today.
The question is not whether the film is historically accurate or whether it is offensive. It is a polemical take on a live debate within Islam that many Muslims (and not just Sunnis) find distasteful. The question rather is why the protesters’ view of Islamic history, and their sense of being offended, should be taken more seriously than the right of the film-makers to present their historical and theological views?
Debates about the giving of offence are rarely about offence. They are mostly about gatekeeping: that is, debates over who has the right to police communities and determine what can be said about a community and by a community. That is why so many disputes over “offence” involve minority writers or artists, from Salman Rushdie to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, from Hanif Kureishi to MF Husain.
Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to guard certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and shield some beliefs from challenge. They protect not the marginalised but the powerful. In minority communities, gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians who appropriate for themselves the authority to determine the boundaries of acceptable speech and conduct. They are not shy of claiming “blasphemy” or “hate speech” to censor ideas they find intolerable.
The Lady of Heaven has already had a five-week run in the US without protest. In Britain, however, the film was seen as an opportunity for certain leaders and organisations to flex their muscles. Much of the campaign for its banning has been organised by the Muslim news website 5Pillars, its editor Roshan Muhammed Salih describing the film as “shocking and disgusting” and as “pure, unadulterated, sectarian filth”.
Salih has long been a propagandist for both the Iranian regime (he was head of news for Press TV, Tehran’s English language broadcast service) and the Taliban. As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year after the American withdrawal, Salih tweeted, “Sooner Taliban win the better” because they “will ensure more peace”. He supports traditional hudud punishments which include the amputation of hands for theft, the public stoning to death of adulterers and the execution of apostates. He describes Muslims who are “embarrassed about some of the harsh punishments” of sharia law as “sell-outs”. “How can you be embarrassed by Allah’s law?” he demands.
Salih should not be censored, odious though his views are, and offensive to many. They throw shade, though, on his claim that he opposes The Lady of Heaven because it is sectarian and he fears disharmony within Muslim communities. Those protesting about the film outside cinemas have the right to make their views heard. What they do not have the right to do, however, is to prevent anyone else from expressing their views, or from challenging their version of history and theology, or to ban a film they find offensive. There is no right not to be offended.
Figures such as Salih do not represent “the” Muslim community – there are many different Muslim perspectives, even on the most contentious issues. Nor should we unquestioningly indulge protesters who shout “racist” or “Islamophobic” or “hate speech” in an attempt to censor views they dislike; such critics are part of a debate and should be treated as such. To close down a film on the say-so of such protesters is to concede to the most conservative voices in that debate and to betray more progressive Muslims. The more that society gives licence for people to feel offended, the more people will seize the opportunity to be offended. And often in the deadliest of ways.
The tenets of one religion are often offensive to believers of another, and to non-believers. There can be no freedom of religion without the freedom to give offence. It is the freedom that allows Salih to declare support for hudud punishments and sharia law and to laud the murderous theocrats of Tehran and the Taliban. It is also the freedom that allows The Lady of Heaven to be shown, for The Satanic Verses to be published, for teachers to discuss Charlie Hebdo cartoons, for cartoonists to mock any religion.
Those of us without a stake in the debate over Fatimah’s death or the Sunni-Shia divide nevertheless have a stake in keeping debates as open as possible. Freedom is not just for gatekeepers.