Sectarian cinema?

It may not be easy, but multicultural societies must embrace liberal values if they are to survive

Artillery Row

Religious censorship is a dying art in the West and particularly difficult in England, a country with an established church and a thoroughly irreligious culture. The days when forbidding prelates were television fixtures are a distant memory. These days Conservative MPs censure the Archbishop of Canterbury for offering a Christian view on government policy because “we separated the church from the state a long time ago”. (In constitutional temperament, as in so much else, there is no progressive like a Conservative.) 

Monty Python’s Life of Brian, once regarded as a monstrous orgy of blasphemy, has been rendered tame by four decades of societal and cultural upheaval. Christian groups failed to prevent a 2005 BBC broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which Christ wears a nappy and admits he’s “a bit gay”; their attempt to prosecute the Corporation for blasphemy was thrown out by the High Court. Blasphemy ceased to be a common law offence in England and Wales in 2008, and Scotland has since followed suit.

Islamic reactionaries have turned our liberalism against us

The demise of public Christianity hastened this inevitable, pervasive contempt for authority and tradition in popular culture, while the relentless march of autonomy-maximising liberalism gave it logical heft. The law could hardly enforce piety on a proudly impious country. So the religious lost the censorship war, and among liberals this was agreed to be a good thing. That is until satirists started drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which prompted a lot of handwringing, some doctrinal skirmishes and the occasional dead cartoonist. Now Islam places an even more fraught question before us: what do we do when one faction of Muslims seeks to censor another? 

Cineworld has pulled screenings of The Lady of Heaven, a British historical epic about the life of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, following protests by Muslims. The film was written by Kuwaiti-born, UK-based Shia cleric Yasser Al-Habib and tells the story of Islam’s development from a Shia perspective. The dominant Shia view is that the Sunni caliphs who succeeded the Prophet were usurpers and their authority and teachings illegitimate. UK Muslim website 5Pillars, which reviewed The Lady of Heaven earlier this year, branded it “pure, unadulterated sectarian filth” and warned it was “going to create sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in the UK”. 

The Bolton Council of Mosques wrote to Cineworld, denouncing The Lady of Heaven as “underpinned with a sectarian ideology” and “blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community”. A video posted on Twitter shows a group of Muslim men outside an unidentified cinema chanting “Shia kafir”, or “Shia unbelievers”. Cineworld cited “the safety of our staff and customers” in its decision. There is almost nothing the British won’t do to avoid the words “Islam” and “tensions”.

The mobs succeeded by deploying this heckler’s veto and appropriating the language of equality and human rights. 5Pillars describes The Lady of Heaven as a “sectarian hate film”. A Bradford imam warned of its “creating hate towards our faith”. Protestors could be seen holding placards that read: “Cineworld promotes hate.” When the frame is religious censorship, liberals instinctively take the side of the artist over the enforcer of orthodoxy, but when the frame is “hate”, liberals go wobbly and wonder if the censors are the victims and the targets of their censorship the real bigots. Islamic reactionaries have become adept at turning our liberalism against us.

Liberals of stauncher stomach will brusquely dismiss the framing of “hate”. This is an assault on free speech and artistic expression, they will say. No one has the right not to be offended. Britain is a liberal country, and Muslims who object to artistic interpretations of Islamic history and teaching will just have to practice tolerance and respect pluralism. If you don’t like a film’s content, don’t go see it. All the classic hits of Enlightenment liberalism. But is any of it true? Britain is still more or less a liberal country, but is liberalism our future? The current trajectory gives grounds for serious doubt. Liberalism is being eclipsed on the left by progressive identity politics, and under threat on the right from national populism and common good conservatism. 

Until recently, progressive ideology maintained an uneasy peace between individual and group rights, but the former is rapidly losing ground to the latter. Individual rights are highly problematic because those who think in those terms are more likely to resist subsumption into a collective and to challenge the premises of identity politics. Meanwhile, the right has gone from resisting socialism to resenting the absence of virtuous collectivism, with globalism, societal disintegration and the great moral crack-up that has followed in their wake.

If Britain is to become post-liberal, ordered around either communal rights or communal virtue, how could we object to the clampdown on The Lady of Heaven? What have the film’s denouncers done but asserted their community’s right not to be subjected to “hate speech”? Progressives who are content for trans activists to get gender-critical speakers and books cancelled can hardly cavil when Sunni Muslims get a Sunni-critical film cancelled. Conservatives aren’t well-placed to dissent either. British mosques are 96 per cent Sunni, and the interpretation of Islam contained in The Lady of Heaven gravely immoral in Sunni orthodoxy. Didn’t the protesters do exactly what the post-liberal right counsels: prize cohesion over autonomy by discouraging vice? After all, what is the Islamic principle of hisbah — “enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong” — but a Quranic spin on common good conservatism?

Britain is not an Airbnb with a welfare state

Liberalism may fit awkwardly with a multicultural society, but post-liberalism is incompatible. The uncontrollable cell division of progressive identity politics generates identities at a pace that law and custom cannot match. With every attempt at accommodation, it increases the chances of collision with existing group rights. The interaction of gender self-identification with sex-based rights for women is one such example. The post-liberal right’s goals of restoring national cohesion and promoting the common good are no less doomed. They assume a shared national identity and culture where none exists and proffer no answer for an aggressive and atomising multiculturalism which discourages cohesion. Beyond the meeting of material needs, British post-liberalism has still to supply a definition of the common good that is commonly held.

Multiculturalism and post-liberalism are irreconcilable. At best, they are a recipe for resentment and sectarianism and, at worst, for a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes. Imperfect liberalism stands a better chance of regulating multiculturalism because it has been doing so for some time. Authoritative public Christianity, legal moralism, uncomplicated patriotism and deference to authority are all threads that were severed in the last century. Among them only Christianity has kept pace with societal changes like mass immigration and multiculturalism, though not in ways post-liberals might prefer. 

Liberalism survived its rivals — in part by aligning itself with their demolishers — and has its roots in law, history and tradition. A substantive liberal response to mob pressures imposition of a sectarian blasphemy law would reassert liberalism’s guarantees of liberty, and the meaning of that liberty to the British political tradition. Britain is not an Airbnb with a welfare state. It is a homeland, one generous enough to offer people across the world the opportunity to make it their home, too. With that opportunity comes a social contract and the obligation to accede to British laws and customs, including liberty of thought and speech, democracy, the rule of law, pluralism and tolerance. These customs protect the right to believe as a Sunni or a Shia and to critique either or both. Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience are indivisible. Reject one and you reject the other. This is the British way of life.

Except you may not reject them. They are non-negotiable and observing their letter while working against their spirit is rebellion in the heart. Yearning to undermine liberal democracy, supplant religious freedom, punish blasphemy, import tribal and sectarian divisions, or exploit the protections of British law to attack the same — these are incompatible with UK residency or citizenship. If you cannot reconcile yourself to the British way of life, Britain is not the country for you. 

Muslims have come to Britain from all over and have enriched our national life with their families, public service, charity, entrepreneurship and religious observance. The Britain they chose was not one that permits chauvinists within their number to act like a sectarian mutaween, policing intra-Islam blasphemy and heresy. It is for these Muslims and the rest of us that British liberalism must take a stand. Surrendering to the sectional mob censorship of The Lady of Heaven is not only morally wrong, it will invite more mobs, more censorship and more sectionalism. You needn’t be a post-liberal to be in favour of encouraging morality. Liberty, tolerance and free conscience are liberal virtues, and liberalism should not only encourage but enforce them.

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