Voices: The film on the prophet Muhammad’s daughter offends me too, but the protesters are wrong

·4-min read
Protests were held in Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham (@bob_cart124/SWNS)
Protests were held in Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham (@bob_cart124/SWNS)

In 1990, the African American filmmaker and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr described censorship to art as what lynching was to justice. His statement was published during the uproar over Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses. More than 30 years later, that statement remains a harrowing reflection of the inability of some to understand what freedom of speech exactly is.

Today, the uproar that faced Rushdie has been rekindled: a film called The Lady of Heaven, which centres around a refugee child being told about the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, has been pulled from cinemas across the UK. Though the film did not cast any actor to play the roles of the sacred figures, they did use CGI. It immediately prompted widespread criticism in the Muslim-majority world and was banned in countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt. The film, incidentally, was made by Muslims of the minority Shiite background and many Sunni Muslims felt the film’s depictions of sacred figures were deliberately negative.

In the UK, protests were held in Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham. Eventually, Cineworld succumbed to the mounting pressures and pulled the films from all their cinemas. Many claimed that these protests were peaceful, but in one such protest in Birmingham, an attendee warned that there would be consequences from showing the film and that Muslims were trained from birth to defend their prophet’s honour.

It is important that people push back against this as fiercely as possible. Many have found the film to be offensive and distasteful – but that cannot be a reason to have it withdrawn. Art cannot simply be that which never takes us out of our comfort zones but rather seizes and challenges every idea and custom held dear. And until it directly incites violence, it cannot be withdrawn.

Defenders of blasphemy culture will frequently cite these aggressive reactions as reasons why we should not criticise or mock. This is in effect admitting that people are violent and cannot be rational, so we should instead live in fear because to speak out is essentially asking for it. It is depicting Muslims as angry dogs who must be leashed by a blasphemy culture otherwise they will become violent. It’s a masterful method of gaslighting people into silence by making it seem as though these warnings are in their interests, when rather they’re in service to an ideology that is deeply fragile to any kind of criticism.

Some might align those against showing the film with the modern-day march of intolerant progressivism, but this has longer roots within south Asia. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is common for religious minorities, secularists, atheists and others to be killed if they were perceived to have insulted Hinduism or Islam. And it will be over anything. In Pakistan, last year, a Sri Lankan manager was killed by his employees because he was deemed to have insulted Islam. His actual crime? He took down a poster that was inscribed with Islamic verses. He was dragged, beaten to death and burnt by a several-hundred-strong mob.

In India, Muslims are being killed by Hindutva extremists on a horrifyingly frequent basis in the name of protecting cows, which are holy to Hindus.

Most people will condemn such violence, but in the same breath insist that historic and sacred figures should be respected. The problem: the blame for the violence will always fall on those who criticise or mock religion. If they had kept their mouths shut, perhaps they would still be alive. There is a teacher in Batley who is still in hiding because he showed a cartoon of Muhammad. He is alive but his livelihood has also been permanently impacted by the pressure.

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What will happen the next time a supposedly inflammatory film is released, and someone decides to take their anger beyond the remit of the law? By allowing these films to be withdrawn, by catering to the insecurities of religious conservatives, a social precedent is established. It becomes almost a moral law to not mock or insult any beliefs because the punishment would be whatever the mob deems fit.

Freedom of expression has become more of a right-wing talking point recently but it’s one progressives should not abandon either. The freedom to speak your mind without being violently set upon should be to democracies what water is to a fish.

More than 30 years ago, when Salman Rushdie published his Satanic Verses, we witnessed a culture of religious intolerance spread like wildfire. You would not be a coward for wishing to avoid that by wanting a simple and untroubled society. But you would always be one innocent mistake away from going into hiding like the teacher in Batley.

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