In June, Britain was rocked by Islamist anger about a new movie telling the story of Fatima, the daughter of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. In response to angry protests across the country, and death threats issued to those involved with the film’s production, many British cinemas cancelled screenings of the film.
Islamists, from both Sunni and Shia networks, claimed the film was “blasphemous,” and that freedom of expression should not extend to discussion of Islam. The movie has reportedly now also been banned in Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.
Speaking to Iranian regime outlet Press TV, one British protestor chillingly declared: “Birmingham will not tolerate the disrespect of our prophet … There will outcomes from your actions. You will have repercussions for your actions. We have been trained from birth that we must defend the honor of our prophet and we will lay our life on the line.”
Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum’s Islamist Watch project, spoke with Malik Shlibak, produced of “Lady of Heaven,” to discuss his recent film and the international Islamist politics behind the campaign to silence him.
During the 35-minute discussion, Shlibak discussed a broad range of points and a number of fascinating claims:
- The Islamist protests against “Lady of Heaven” and the threats made against its producers and writers are the product of powerful radicals’ fury and offence over unflattering portrayal of Islamic figures important to the Sunni tradition.
- Shlibak and the writer of the film, Sheikh Yasir Al-Habib, believe that Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was murdered by Abu Bakr and Umar, companions of the prophet who later became the first Caliphs of Islam, and vitally important figures within Sunni Islam.
- Because the protestors are “offended,” Shlibak notes, these “radicals” feel they have a prerogative to censor and to intimidate – to be “demanding and bullying.”
- Shlibak blames a “deep rooted self-entitlement” among certain sections of Islam, who “feel like they own the religion of Islam. They think they own the world.”
- This is just the latest act, Shlibak explains, following centuries of anti-Shiite persecution within the Muslim world, with Shiites across the world living in a “deep state of fear.”
- Shlibak is a Shia Muslim himself, although from a Sunni background. He argues, “Most Muslims are decent” and so are “scratching their heads” at the “bigotry” of those within British Islam who are calling to censor or refusing to support free expression.
- Deobandi groups and other Islamists behind many of the protests in the UK are part of the problem: “We are seeing intense bigotry from some of the biggest Muslim names in the UK.”
- Shlibak claims that it is important to recognize that “this radical rabbit-hole goes as deep as Abu Bakr and Omar [founding figures within Sunni Islam].” Nonetheless, he argues this is not a “sectarian issue.” This is about “fair-minded Muslims versus a fringe minority radical group of Muslims who are trying to push this bigotry.”
- The solution for Muslims in the West, Shlibak, concludes, is to “be fair about things, to allow different parties to express their views openly.”
- There are some within the Shia world who also oppose the film. Shlibak thinks Shia clerics in the West might be opposing the film or refusing to condemn the protests in a vain attempt to avoid fanning the flames of anti-Shia persecution. Shlibak summarized the argument of Dr. Sheikh Ramzy, director of the Oxford Islamic Information Center and a vehement opponent of the film as: “Be silent about these things or there will be violence.”
- Others are apparently manipulated into speaking out: “There are hundreds if not thousands of new imams graduating every year from the Middle East. Half of them are shipped over here. These days, [radicals] can get any group of imams to say anything you like.”
- Addressing the ban on the film in Iran, a Shia Islamist regime, Shlibak argued the regime’s actions have “nothing to do with theology.” Instead, Iran is a “political entity, nothing more than that. … They are in the game of preserving their authority in the region, and expanding their authority in the region.” The proscription on Lady of Heaven, Shlibak argues, is part of the regime’s foreign policy.
- Shlibak notes that Islamists in the UK, as well as foreign regimes such as Iran, are trying falsely to paint the film’s writer, Sheikh Yasir Habib, as an “extremist.” In fact, Shlibak claims, Habib is a “man of criticism,” who is attacked by a “Muslim community averse to criticism. They don’t have much tolerance for criticism from internal parties in Islam, and certainly not external parties.” Instead, Shlibak claims, “criticism is a fundamental thing … without criticism, we can’t navigate into the future to correct our wrongs and ills.”
- “The government, the British public, any fair and rational British person, is on our side … We’re not saying anything other than let’s stick by our principles and values of freedom of speech, let’s discuss Islamic history openly, no side gets to bully the other side to enforce their positions on anyone else.”
- In Britain, protestors against the film, Shlibak explained, have “held up [posters of] heroes of ISIS, they were chanting ‘Infidel Shi’ite, Infidel Shia’, chanting ‘Death to Yasir Habib,’ the writer of the film. … And then you have pro-Taliban organizations like 5 Pillars, which is an official … supposedly-Muslim news outlet in this country, backing these supporters also.”
- Given this violence and threats, Shlibak said, “Hats off to the government of the United Kingdom for sacking their advisor on Islamophobia,” who had supported the protestors.
- Notwithstanding, the Western world is still “failing to tackle” the problems of radicalism and terrorism. The threat “needs to be solved ideologically.” Only a “frank, open, honest discussion” can help us do that. But “how can we if there is one side shutting the door for this discussion to even take place.”