Offending a small minority is no justification for censoring a film
Protesters have spent the last week calling for a film to be pulled from cinemas in the UK. These were not blue-haired students upset over a new Dave Chappelle biopic, but Muslim activists calling for Cineworld to remove what they labelled a “blasphemous” film.
"Birmingham will not tolerate the disrespect of our prophet (pbuh). There will outcomes from your actions. You will have repercussions for your actions. We have been trained from birth that we must defend the honour of our prophet & we will lay our life on the line." #chilling pic.twitter.com/fnLP9T9JI3
— Muslims Against Antisemitism (MAAS) (@MAAS_UK) June 7, 2022
The Lady of Heaven is part biopic of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah, and part commentary on the violence of Islamic State and its historical origins. Focusing on the split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims following the death of the prophet Muhammad, the film moves between seventh-century Arabia and modern-day Iraq. A young boy, Laith, serves as the film’s vehicle for morality, refusing Islamist extremism after the execution of his mother by jihadists (an act which the film claims mirrors the attack on Fatimah — the lady of heaven).
Let’s be clear: The Lady of Heaven is not a good film. Reviews from December 2021 point to the biopic’s reliance on cliché, with grand battle scenes and wedding ceremonies ensuring that all “boxes of the historical epic genre are ticked”. The contrast between the cherub-like Laith playing with fidget spinners and the spitting, gruffness of ISIS fighters makes a violent reality seem almost pantomime.
But the protesters outside Cineworld are not film buffs angry at the quality of the script or accents. Instead, these critics argue that the film’s portrayal of the story of Fatimah is an insult — “pure, unadulterated sectarian filth”, as one review put it. Though the film’s director promised to honour the Islamic belief in aniconism by portraying Muhammad with CGI and keeping Fatimah swamped in cloth and out of focus, protesters argued that his face was still clearly visible. A petition to have the film pulled from cinemas claimed that it “spread false information on Islam”, arguing that the film had “been created to cause heartache for all Muslims”. Protesters turned up outside cinemas across the UK, including Sheffield and Birmingham, holding signs which said “Cineworld promotes hate” and “say no to extremism”.
What distinguishes these protests from others is that the activists got their way. Further still, they included threats of further action, with one activist in Birmingham claiming that “we have been trained from birth that we must defend the honour of our prophet & we will lay our life [sic] on the line”. In response, one Cineworld employee in Sheffield was even sent out to address the crowd with a loudhailer, shouting “at a local level it wasn’t our decision to show this film, it came from above, we totally agree with what you’re saying and we’re not prepared at this cinema to show this film”. It is unclear what the employee was agreeing with — that the film was blasphemous (he didn’t look Muslim), or that arts institutions should bow down to those claiming offence.
God, in any of his or her religious iterations, should not be sacralised in a secular society like ours. Of course, huge numbers of moderate Muslims will be as bemused by Cineworld capitulating to 100 or so loudmouths as those of us who don’t believe in God. But these groups of extremist Muslim protesters have been building on the terror created by the Islamist murder of Charlie Hebdo employees in 2015 and the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty in 2020 to censor any discussion of Islam — and even Islamism — in the UK. In other words, we still don’t have courage to stand up to religious extremism.
Arts institutions are making a habit of surrendering to the cries of the perpetually offended. At some point, we must rediscover our ability to say “get over it” to those who claim they are offended. Perhaps some brave cinema lover in Bolton will hook up a projector and screen The Lady of Heaven in protest against this insult to artistic freedom. Not because it’s worth watching, but because even bad films don’t deserve to be censored.