OPINION - These film protests are worryingly effective censorship

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 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

The subtitle to the controversial film The Lady of Heaven is “the untold story” and it looks as though it’s going to remain untold, at least in Britain, now that Cineworld has pulled the film out of concern for the safety of its staff. The latest outbreak of censorship is in Stratford, where a crowd is protesting outside the Vue cinema, demanding to speak to the manager.

So here we go again. Shades of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which I still haven’t got round to reading, and the French cartoons of Muhammad.

Both occasioned deaths on the part of those involved; Rushdie spent years in hiding, translators of the book were murdered. Same with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who depicted Muhammad offensively.

The stakes aren’t so high now. The protesters in Bradford — the new City of Culture — are merely declaring “we have a right not to be insulted”. And in the case of Stratford, they’re claiming that the film is not just blasphemous but also offensive to the BAME community. But it was fears for the safety of staff that led the cinema chain to pull the film. The thing is, the film, by all accounts, is rubbish.

It featured at Cannes, where they are more robust about these things, and got two stars from The Guardian, whose review notes its “suffocating sense of orthodoxy”. The New York Times review notes the “shoddy script and an overwhelming reliance on cliché”.

It depicts the daughter of Muhammad veiled, focusing on her husband, Ali. It was written very much from a Muslim perspective. A sane response to the film would be to let it sink without trace.

There are two obvious points here. One is that we should be sensitive to the religious feelings of others. I am a Catholic and I have yet to bring myself to watch that undoubted comic masterpiece The Life of Brian, though I can quote from it with the best.

But where we should be troubled is in the effective censorship of even bad films because of the threat of violence. It’s not just bad art that is affected; as the historian Tom Holland makes clear, even rational academic investigation into the origin stories of Islam are circumscribed at every turn.

It is dangerous to make truthful observations about the life of Muhammad. The Lady of Heaven is a bad film but it raises important questions of principle about our ability in a free society to discuss Islam.

The film will probably do terrifically well on streaming. The irony.

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