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Brendan O’Neill

Shame on Cineworld for cancelling The Lady of Heaven

Why do some radical Muslims believe they have the right to crush culture?

Shame on Cineworld for cancelling The Lady of Heaven
The Lady of Heaven (Credit: YouTube)
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Bradford was chosen last week as the UK’s City of Culture for 2025. This week, Bradford Cineworld – as well as a number of other cinemas around the country – announced that a new movie called The Lady of Heaven was being pulled from schedules following protests by angry Muslims. So is this what we can expect from a City of Culture in 21st-century Britain – the creation of all kinds of culture, except for anything that might offend some adherents to the Islamic faith?

The fuss and fury over The Lady of Heaven has been incredibly revealing. This is a British-produced epic historical drama about Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. It was written by the Shia cleric Yasser Al-Habib. The film has been slammed by some Muslim observers. Some say it will whip up Shia/Sunni sectarian tensions. Others condemn it for depicting Muhammad. Iran has banned it for being ‘divisive’.

There were protests outside cinemas in the UK following its release last week. It all brought to mind the Christian protests outside cinemas that showed Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. (Though, entirely predictably, the high-minded liberals and leftists who would have condemned that 1970s Christian touchiness as backward and ridiculous have been quiet as mice over the Muslim fury that has greeted The Lady of Heaven.)

What is most striking about the noisy protests outside the cinemas showing this supposedly sinful film is how much the protesters sound like the godless woke mob.

‘It’s not OK to offend 1.8 billion’, declared one placard. At the protest outside the Cineworld in Bradford, one man said through a megaphone: 

‘We are very offended. We have a right not to be insulted.’

This may be a sternly religious individual but he sounded for all the world like one of those blue-haired radicals who is forever chasing off his/her/their campus any speaker that dares to go against the grain and cause offence.

Radical Muslims who believe they should have the right to crush culture that offends their religious sensibilities have clearly learned a thing or two from the secular cancel-culture brigade. They’ve dispensed with the fire-and-brimstone case for punishing those who blaspheme against their faith. Instead they've embraced the very modern idea that we all have the right to be protected from offence. Which we don’t, by the way.

This confirms that today’s censorious culture, in which everyone from gender-critical feminists to pro-life societies on campus are being cancelled for causing offence, has emboldened regressive elements in society. The cancellation frenzy has resuscitated ideas that really ought to have died out in the 20th century, if not earlier. This includes the idea of blasphemy, the notion that it ought to be a punishable offence to mock or simply just depict gods and prophets.

Alarmingly, cinema managers have capitulated to the theocratic mobs that have gathered outside their premises. In one of the most disturbing video clips I have seen so far this year, a cinema employee in Sheffield uses a megaphone to tell protesters that the film has been withdrawn from the schedule. ‘Allahu Akbar!’, the crowd yells in victory.

This is chilling. Call me an old-fashioned secular democrat, but isn’t it completely wrong, and morally perverse, to allow small numbers of religious hotheads to determine what the rest of us can see and watch? This grants a veto to fundamentalists, allowing them to shape public culture to their own tastes and prejudices. It is profoundly illiberal.

It is cowardly too. Cineworld has cancelled all screenings of The Lady of Heaven, saying it did so to 'ensure the safety of our staff and customers'. Shame on them. These are meant to be arenas of culture, spaces for audiences to watch all kinds of movies, from the twee to the controversial. And yet they have now capitulated to an angry mob and allowed protestors to dictate what can and cannot be shown in cinemas in 2022. What an extraordinary dereliction of duty.

It isn’t The Lady of Heaven that is shocking (and anyway, moviemakers should be perfectly at liberty to shock as much as they please). No, it’s the fact that in modern Britain, small numbers of Islamic activists can compel an entire cinema chain to dump a movie that they don’t like. This suggests our culture is being held hostage to intolerant minorities. And people say cancel culture is a myth.

To that protester who said ‘We have a right not to be insulted’ – no you don’t. None of us does. Muslims, Christians, Scientologists, trans activists, Remainers, Brexiteers, whatever: none of us has the right not to be offended. Occasionally feeling offended is the price we pay for living in a free society. And what a tiny price it is! To feel slighted or wounded every now and then is an infinitesimally small levy for living in a society in which all of us – yes, including angry Islamic protesters – enjoy the liberty to express ourselves in public.

The Lady of Heaven controversy hasn’t caused much media or political traction yet, but it really should. This feels like a sequel to the Salman Rushdie affair. Cinemas ditching a film at the behest of furious theocratic protesters? What have we become? More importantly, what has become of freedom?