The culture war reaches a suburban Sheffield cinema, between a bowling alley and a tyre shop
What's really going on in the Lady of Heaven movie fiasco?
Our weekend read is by Harry Shukman, a former Times reporter who has been helping us part-time as an editor for the past six months and who makes his Tribune writing debut today. Harry also runs Scout, a fascinating newsletter that tracks the far-right, publishing investigations and analysis about a loose movement that is now considered this country’s fastest-growing terrorist threat.
By Harry Shukman
A fractious mood prevailed outside the Cineworld. Underneath a giant banner of the new Top Gun movie, a crowd had gathered — voices were getting louder and people were jostling each other. One stocky man wearing glasses psyched himself up to run inside the cinema.
“Let’s just go inside bro! Come on man!”
He ran towards the entrance, gesturing for people to follow him. A speaker appealed for calm.
It wasn’t the rugged good looks of Tom Cruise starring in his latest blockbuster that had drawn the crowd’s ire, but rather an obscure movie called The Lady of Heaven. Made by a controversial Shia cleric, it sparked protests by Sunni Muslims when it was released in English cinemas last week. Sheffield Cineworld saw one of the largest protests last Sunday, when according to an imam organising the event, up to 600 demonstrators gathered to speak out about the film.
What began as a dispute over religious differences has metastasised into a full-blown mess invoking claims about free speech, radical Islamism, and to judge by some reactions, the end of the civilisation as we know it. One of the battlegrounds for this epic fight is a suburban cinema in the Valley Centertainment complex, sat between the Hollywood bowling alley and the Euromaster tyre shop.
So what’s this film about? The Lady of Heaven is a historical drama set in two timelines: ISIS-era Iraq and 7th century Saudi Arabia. The reason why it has caused such as a fuss is not just that the movie depicts the Prophet Muhammad, which is prohibited in Islam. It casts black actors in the role of evil characters while bathing holy Shia figures in blinding white light.
It also shows a contentious incident in early Muslim history. Shias believe that Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, was attacked by her husband’s political rivals. Sunnis disagree that this ever took place. The Lady of Heaven portrays the attack on Fatima twice: once as a historical reenactment, and again when ISIS fighters barge into a woman’s home to harass her.
This, says Imam Abdul Kabir of Al-Huda faith school in Darnall, is why he organised the protest outside the Cineworld. Although he has not seen the film — just clips, a trailer, and read blogs about it — he tells me that he sought to get its release cancelled at a meeting with the cinema’s management team last Saturday. After raising his concerns, he organised a rally for the following day. Similar demonstrations would take place in Bradford, Leeds and Birmingham, and a petition calling for the film’s cancellation was signed more than 120,000 times.
“We said we were going to protest peacefully and that’s what we did,” says Abdul Kabir. “Freedom of speech is there but this film was going to cause violence and hatred toward others. That’s not allowed. It shouldn’t have got to the cinema in the first place.”
The analogy Abdul Kabir uses to explain the film’s offensive content is if Cineworld decided to distribute a pro-Russian picture that mocked the Ukrainians for being invaded. “Forget the cinema, that wouldn’t even reach the internet,” he says.
Abdul Kabir says a couple from his congregation bought tickets for the movie without knowing its content. They left after ten minutes feeling “disgusted” and complained to the manager. “The film is of the utmost offence to Muslims,” he says.
He claims that up to 600 people gathered outside the cinema on Sunday evening (in clips of the event that have flown around social media, the numbers don’t look quite that big). Around 8pm, a manager, identified by Abdul Kabir as Alistair Taylor, can be seen stepping out of the cinema to address the crowd with a megaphone.
“We have cancelled this film and will not be showing it again,” he says. Cries of “Allahu Akbar” erupt from the demonstrators.
The manager continues:
We value you all as our customers, we’re in the heart of this community. 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 are not prepared at this cinema to show this film.
The chain has now dropped the film from all of its cinemas. Meanwhile, at other rallies across the country, the atmosphere was a little more querulous. At a protest in Leeds, demonstrators shouted the words “Shia kafir”, insulting the sect as unbelievers or infidels.
Cineworld’s decision clearly raises important questions about free speech. Everyone has the right to protest peacefully about films or books or cartoons they don’t like, but in a free society, it would be concerning if a business bowed to pressure because they feared the threat of physical violence. The health secretary Sajid Javid told the new right-wing TV channel TalkTV that he is “very concerned about cancel culture in the UK” after the Cineworld decision, adding: “There’s people out there who think they have a right not to be offended and of course, no one has that right.”
But I’m also interested in how this film was distributed in the first place. It was only ten years ago that the release of a trailer — not a film, just a trailer — for an Islamophobic movie called Innocence of Muslims sparked attacks on US embassies in Egypt, Yemen, India and Tunisia. The riots resulted in 50 deaths and hundreds of injuries. How on earth did executives at British cinema companies think the similarly incendiary Lady of Heaven would make a good summer flick?
It seems obvious that the film was made to inflame sectarian tensions. It’s not as if it contains coded messages that, if considered in a certain light, might be offensive. The film’s writer is Yasser Al-Habib, a firebrand Shia scholar who has been imprisoned in his native Kuwait for “abusing a religious sect”. His Twitter account is filled with denunciations of Sunni ideology, saying it was “created by corrupt figures”, and claiming its traditions are not “worthy of reliability and reliance or trust”.
Al-Habib says that his film “conveys a message of love and peace”. However, this claim is belied by the very organisation he represents. He runs a Shia charity called the Rafida Foundation alongside The Lady of Heaven’s executive producer, Abdul-Malik Shlibak.
Since protests about the film began, Rafida has become the go-to source of anti-Sunni videos online. On Rafida’s official YouTube channel, there are a slew of viral videos presented with images of bearded Sunni Muslims looking angry and unreasonable. And they have splenetic titles like:
Islamist Protestors RAMPAGE Across London Cinemas To Take Down ‘Lady Of Heaven’
Radical Islamists Force Cineworld Manager To Remove The Lady Of Heaven Film
British Woman Harassed By Lady Of Heaven Protestor
Shlibak, in TV hits about the movie, has also suggested protesters were “pro-Taliban, pro-ISIS groups”.
The Lady of Heaven seems designed to cause uproar, prompt demonstrations from Sunnis and thus make them look unreasonable. And this is exactly what it has achieved.
But it’s not just Shia agitators who have benefited from this debacle. Footage of Muslim crowds cheering the cancellation of a film has played into the hands of far-right extremists who believe Britain is under threat from an Islamic invasion. Nick Griffin, former head of the BNP, spoke out against the protests. As did Tommy Robinson, who railed against “mob rule” and likened the demonstrators to grooming gangs.
Britain First, the far-right party, said the footage was an example of “barbarous behaviour in a Third World country” coming to England. Jim Dowson, a far-right activist with a large following, shared the video and said: “Why are we caving into them? Why aren't we telling them to eff off? They will kill you. They will come to your home and kill you. They will murder you in front of your family.” The story was even picked up by extremist French blogs as evidence of Muslims destroying Western civilisation.
On Scout, my newsletter where I write about the far-right, I’ve noticed how extremist groups and influencers are able to capitalise on events like this to grow their audiences. Like a political party’s rapid response unit, they have jumped on The Lady of Heaven fiasco. It reminds me of the concept of “reciprocal radicalisation” in which far-right and Islamist extremists feed off one another, both believing that the West and Islam are at war.
Julia Ebner, an expert on radicalisation, writes:
Our society’s drift towards extremes is effectively validating the claim that we are facing a global cultural war between Muslims and non-Muslims, which extremists on both sides are propagating. This further strengthens extremists’ credibility and appeal; we see that the war between far-right and Islamist extremists is increasingly turning into a war between the West and Islam. This is the vicious circle that we need to interrupt.
Clips from outside the Cineworld and angry reactions from protesters on social media are continuing to circulate in far-right groups online. The story has been covered by GB News, the other right-wing TV channel, and an exchange between Nigel Farage and a Sunni imam who protested the film has gone viral. You get the feeling that, as they watched Farage berating his interviewee for the intolerance of his faith, Al-Habib and Shlibak must have grinned and thought: this couldn’t have gone better.
If you liked this story, try following Scout, Harry’s brilliant newsletter about the re-emergence of the far-right.