A cinema chain has been forced to pull a film about the prophet Muhammad’s daughter over fears for the safety of its staff.
Cineworld told The Independent it had removed The Lady of Heaven from schedules across the UK following protests by Muslims who accused the firm of “promoting hate”.
Demonstrators outside branches in Bolton and elsewhere claimed the work was blasphemous and that freedom of speech should not apply to the subject of Islam. In response, filmmakers decried the suggestion that people offended by a film should be able to dictate what Britons can watch at the cinema.
The movie opens with the invasion of Iraq by Isis and features a graphic jihadist murder. It then goes on to document the life of Fatima, daughter of the founder of Islam, during the seventh century.
Islamic tradition forbids the direct portrayal of religious figures and the film’s director Eli King depicts Fatima as a faceless character, shrouded by a black veil.
Protesters have accused the film’s authors of inaccurately depicting religious history and negatively portraying three of Islam’s most important figures. Demonstrations took place in Bradford, Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield.
On Monday, protesters claimed they were “offended” by the film and the way it illustrated the life of revered religious figures.
One person in Bradford, West Yorkshire, said: “We are very offended. We have a right not to be insulted.
“You talk about freedom of speech but where does your freedom of speech go when it goes to criticising your policies, when it goes to making critical analysis of your version of history.
“You have no right to tell us our history. We will not let this film go on further.”
Others carried signs saying: “It’s not ok to offend 1.8 billion #handsoffoursuperheroes” and “Stop the screening”, while using megaphones to get across their message.
In Bolton, the local chair of the Council of Mosques, Asif Patel, wrote a letter to his local branch of Cineworld in which he called the film “blasphemous”.
He said: “You many well be aware of the recently released film Lady of Heaven which has caused much distress to Muslims across the globe.
“It is underpinned with a sectarian ideology and is blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community. It grossly disrespects the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in many ways and is deeply disturbing to every Muslim.
“It also misrepresents orthodox historical narratives and disrespects the most esteemed individuals of Islamic history.
“The storyline begs the question to what extent the producers had considered the huge impact of this film upon the Muslim community and notions of sacredness dearly held by them.”
“In Bolton, we are a very diverse community and are very respectful of each other’s culture and honour on community cohesion.”
The protests were reminiscent of religious outrage in previous decades, such as the reactions of Christians to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Jerry Springer: The Opera. Similar claims that freedom of expression ought not to extend to religious topics have been advanced during violent protests against cartoons of Muhammad.
Last year Imran Khan, the then-prime minister of Pakistan, demanded Western nations criminalise blasphemy amid deadly demonstrations in the south Asian country.
A spokesperson from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for “respectful dialogue” between protesters and supporters of The Lady of Heaven.
They said: “The MCB, which proudly represents affiliates from across the different schools of thought in our faith, supports those scholars and leaders who are advocating for greater unity and for the common good, as commanded by our holy prophet (peace be upon him).
“The MCB has always advocated for respectful dialogue of intra-faith relations. There are some – including many of this film’s supporters or those engaging in sectarianism in their response – whose primary goal is to fuel hatred. We must not let them succeed.”
A spokesperson from Cineworld told The Independent the chain had pulled all screenings of The Lady of Heaven for fear of violence.
They said: “Due to recent incidents related to screenings of The Lady of Heaven, we have made the decision to cancel upcoming screenings of the film nationwide to ensure the safety of our staff and customers.”
Following suggestions Vue cinemas had done similarly, a spokesperson for that company told The Independent: “Vue takes seriously the responsibilities that come with providing a platform for a wide variety of content and believes in showcasing films of interest to diverse communities across the UK.
“Vue will only show a film once the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has assessed and rated [it]. The Lady of Heaven has been BBFC-accredited and is on show in a number of our cinemas. Decisions about how long a film remains on show are taken on a site-by-site basis and based on a variety of commercial and operational factors.”
London-based Malik Shlibak, executive producer of The Lady of Heaven, called the decision to pull the film by the cinema chain “unacceptable”.
He said: “We think that the protests have brought a lot of newfound attention to the film that did not exist before from people who hadn’t heard about the film, and we are okay with the fact that people protest.
“But I believe it’s actually unacceptable in this country what they are calling for – that is the removal from this film from the cinemas due to them being offended.
“That is something quite silly, because everyone has the ability to share their thoughts and enact their freedom of speech.
“I genuinely believe from all sides, from the cinema perhaps [to] the Muslim Council of Britain, that there is this succumbing and bowing down to these radical extremists and their demands.”
He added: “I think this is more than The Lady of Heaven as an individual film, this is about our British values and how much these mean to us. These groups have now been given the power to dictate what the British public can and cannot watch at their local cinemas.”
Additional reporting by SWNS