Freedom of expression should not be at the expense of that right of others - opinion

A new British film about Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, caused many protests and demands it be removed from cinemas.

 THE WRITER is interviewed on Egyptian television. One of the key challenges to promoting tolerance and dialogue in the Muslim world is the double standards targeting ethnic and religious minorities, reformist Muslims and atheists, he says. (photo credit: KHALED HASSAN)
THE WRITER is interviewed on Egyptian television. One of the key challenges to promoting tolerance and dialogue in the Muslim world is the double standards targeting ethnic and religious minorities, reformist Muslims and atheists, he says.
(photo credit: KHALED HASSAN)

The controversy surrounding The Lady of Heaven, a British film that depicts Fatimah (the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s daughter), is neither shocking nor surprising. It was a “here we go again” moment ahead of its release.

Here in the UK, 134,063 Muslims signed a petition calling for the film to be removed from UK cinemas, while Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran banned the film.

We saw seemingly aggressive protests outside cinemas in Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham, resulting in the world’s second-largest cinema chain, Cineworld, canceling all viewings in the UK “to ensure the safety” of their staff and customers. In other words, to avoid a terrorist attack.

As a born and bred Egyptian and native Arabic speaker, I write this article to present you with crucial facts that will enable you to understand the wider context of this predicament. There are three key points that the wider public in the West is missing, as follows:

Empty hall of cinema (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)Empty hall of cinema (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

Double standards

One of the key challenges to promoting tolerance and dialogue in the Muslim world is the double standards targeting ethnic and religious minorities, reformist Muslims and atheists. While blasphemy laws are meant to safeguard the three Abrahamic faiths from acts that are perceived to be “disparaging,” (the term used by Qari Asim – the UK government’s sacked Islamophobia adviser – to describe the film), they disproportionately target non-Muslims.

Egypt is to the Muslim world what Hollywood is to the West. It is home to the most popular films and TV series. Alas, most of these productions often promote antisemitic tropes. A successful Egyptian TV series aired in Ramadan this year, featuring a traveling imam and exorcist.

The ghostbuster imam invites the wrath and vengeance of the worst kind of Jinn (a spirit with powers in Muslim beliefs) after killing one of their senior leaders. In retribution, they kill his brother, possess his mother and haunt him wherever he goes. And every time they do so, they leave a mark, perhaps like their own business card to remind him who’s boss. This mark is none other than the Jewish menorah.

The show literally demonizes Jews and arguably the most ancient Jewish symbol. No one, however, accused the producers of the drama of stirring up racial or religious hatred. Not a word of condemnation was heard from any Muslim authority anywhere in the world. No protests were organized and there were no calls to ban the series. In fact, some Muslim commentators even claimed that it “exposes Jews” and shows that the menorah belongs to an evil, Satan-worshipping people.

Misled or misleading?

Several statements made by Muslim leaders and senior imams indicate that they are either misled or deliberately misleading the public. Their arguments, however, went unchallenged due to the fact that they were in the presence of non-Arabic speakers who understandably know little about Islam.

In an interview with broadcaster Nigel Farage, imam and politician Ajmal Masroor claimed that “I don’t think blasphemy exists within Islam,” after repeatedly evading Farage’s question on whether the film is blasphemous.

Al-Azhar, Egypt and the Sunni-Muslim world’s oldest and highest religious educational authority defines blasphemy as “offending faiths [in reference to the Abrahamic faiths since other religions are not acknowledged], their symbols, icons and leaders.” Almost every predominantly Muslim country has a law that enforces this concept.

Al-Azhar sued one of Egypt’s Muslim thinkers, Islam al-Behairy, under the country’s Contempt of Religion law. Behairy, a reformist who accuses traditional religious institutions of promoting radical ideologies, was sentenced to five years in prison and later pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi. Likewise, tens of thousands of British Muslims who signed the petition to ban the film seem to disagree with Masroor, arguing that the film is indeed blasphemous as it “directly disrespects Prophet Muhammad.”

Imam Shahid Ali of Bradford who organized protests against the film similarly asserts, “we don’t go around insulting others. And we expect mutual respect from others as well.” This is the radical imam who repeatedly describes one of the key British and democratic values – freedom of speech – as “A tool for the West to insult Islam.” He virtually demanded society’s approval for denying the Holocaust during one of the protests against the film.

“If you look at certain countries in Europe, it is forbidden to criticize the Holocaust or to even make a critical analysis as to whether this event actually occurred in the way that they portray it or whether there are discrepancies in the version of this story,” he proclaimed outside a cinema in Bradford.

This attempt to suggest that European legislation that challenges and prevents antisemitism and Holocaust denial represses Muslim freedom of expression is grotesquely misleading as used by senior Muslim leaders. (Masroor made the same argument with Farage.)

Moreover, Ali claims that “we [Muslims in the UK] don’t go around insulting others.” The past year alone saw numerous high-profile cases where Muslims – including prominent activists and community leaders – physically and/or verbally assaulted Jews. On one occasion, May 23, an angry mob led by Ali Dawah – a prominent British-Muslim activist and speaker – surrounded Joseph Cohen – a leading Jewish Zionist activist – spat at, attacked him and called him “Zionist scum.”

Qari Asim – a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Asim, a senior British imam, was sacked from his role as the government’s Islamophobia adviser over his support for the protests. Asim’s involvement in interfaith dialogue, representing the Muslim community in meetings with the chief rabbi and other faith leaders, suggests that he values social cohesion and dialogue.

Thus, his association with suspected radicals and support for the protests was surprising. Not only did he support this campaign, he proclaimed, “in some places, we have been successful and those cinemas will no longer be showing the movie”.

It is frightening, albeit not surprising, that Asim sees the suppression of our rights as a success. I grew up in a Muslim community that demands you to live by their rules; the teachings of Islam demand Muslim intervention to prevent a perceived evil.

In a hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), he demands of Muslims “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that [the latter] is the weakest form of Faith.”

Asim later explained that he merely supported the protesters’ right to freedom of expression. While the protesters were indeed exercising their right to freedom of expression, they were robbing us of our own.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, taught that faith is one’s foundation of morality. It can be a person’s moral compass. However, if that compass points more than 134 thousand Muslims and their leaders towards a direction that challenges and contradicts our collective, national British identity and values, something is wrong.

An honest, constructive debate is often a good starting point to address these differences. This includes scrutinizing Muslim leaders by someone who, like myself, speaks their language and understands the teachings and traditions of the Koran and hadith.

The writer is a political risk and intelligence analyst with over a decade of experience. His research interests include the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, conspiracy theories and propaganda, radicalization and terrorism. Follow him on Twitter at @Khaledhzakariah.