Over the 50 years of our existence, Index has consistently supported the artistic freedom of those whose work may cause offence. While we recognise people’s religious beliefs are deeply held – and protect their right to practise their faith without fear – we do not have blasphemy laws in this country for good reason.
This is why we backed Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses affair, it is why we backed Martin Scorsese when his Last Temptation of Christ caused offence to some Christians; it is why we backed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. And it is also why we back the makers of The Lady of Heaven, a film which has offended some Muslims and provoked demonstrations across the UK.
The Lady of Heaven, which is about the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and depicts his image, has seen hundreds protest in Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield. In an email to Cineworld Bolton Council of Mosques chairman, Asif Patel, said the film was “underpinned with a sectarian ideology” and “misrepresents orthodox historical narratives and disrespects the most esteemed individuals of Islamic history”, as reported by Bolton News.
That might be the case but these should not be grounds for pulling a film. No one is, after all, forcing anyone to watch this film. Nor is offence a defence. As the Turkish writer Elif Shafak wrote in Index on Censorship following the Charlie Hebdo attacks:
“It is perfectly human to be offended in the face of mockery, opprobrium or slander. That is understandable. Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Christians or agnostics, we can all feel offended by something someone says, writes or does. But that is where the line must be drawn. What is inhuman and unacceptable is to resort to violence and shed blood in response.”
While no blood has yet to be shed in the case of The Lady of Heaven, Cineworld have cited protecting their staff out of concern for their safety as their motivation.
We fully respect the impulse to want to keep people safe. Indeed Index work with a network of people around the globe who are at grave risk because of their speech. Their safety is always our primary concern, above getting a story out. But what we aim to do is both – protect the person and tell the story. There is usually a way and we try to find it. Because without stories humanity is all the worse, not the better. And not all stories please all people.
Ultimately we don’t want to live in a country where no offence is caused. We want to live in a country of robust debate and artistic freedom, where the offence can be explained and lessons learned. None of that happens when we threaten people into silence.
The activist Aisha Ali-Khan wrote on Twitter:
We hope that Cineworld reverse the decision and allow her that right.