Imam Qari Asim MBE

The censorious self-righteousness of Imam Qari Asim MBE

Imam Qari Asim MBE (for services to inter-faith relations and the community in Leeds) was sacked last week by Michael Gove as a Government advisor on Islamophobia. The principal reason given was his support for the censoring of ‘The Lady of Heaven’. The letter from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities explains:

Imam Qari Asim sacked letter

Firstly, it needs to be acknowledged that this letter treats Qari Asim rather shoddily: not only is not signed personally (or even dated), but it wasn’t even delivered to him personally. He only heard about it when it was broadcast to the media via the DLUHC website. Whether one agrees with a religious community leader or not, the basic courtesies in communication ought not to be dispensed with — even if one is seeking to dispense with a person’s services in haste.

That aside, Michael Gove (for presumably it was he), the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, deserves some credit for this. It is increasingly rare for politicians (of any party) to give such a robust defence of the freedom of expression over censorious demands for the offence of ‘blasphemy’. The impulse now is to bury their heads in the sand and opine insipidly about ‘mutual respect’ and ‘tolerance’, before ultimately giving way to the mob (as invariably happens when it comes to assertions of ‘Islamophobia’).

Yesterday, Qari Asim issued his response to Michael Gove, which is revealing:

Imam Qari Asim letter Michael GoveImam Qari Asim letter Michael Gove He is right to point out that protests against ‘The Lady of Heaven’ are firmly “in the spirit of free speech”: those Muslims protesting against the film are perfectly at liberty to exercise their freedoms of assembly and expression, within the limits of the law. But he goes on to assert some sort of religious orthodoxy test by which the film should have been judged fit for release. He apparently believes that if a film causes “tension” in “communities” or might “undermine cohesion”, it should be censored.

This is why Michael Gove was wholly justified in sacking him as a Government advisor: it is not for an Imam or ‘community leader’ to demand that cinemas take down ‘The Lady of Heaven’ because of “the way in which is the film was made”. The only body in the United Kingdom which should determine such things is the British Board of Film Classification. In short, the writing, producing, shooting and screening of ‘The Lady of Heaven’, and allowing people to see it, are freedoms which Qari Asim appears not to believe in. He may sincerely think the film is “divisive and sectarian”, and he may take great offence from it, but, in the words of Stephen Fry:

Those who decide to be offended by artistic expression are free not to expose themselves to it. If you believe ‘The Lady of Heaven’ to be sectarian and divisive, then don’t go and see it. If you believe it to be an expression of ‘religious hate’ (which the law acknowledges is wholly subjective), then report it to the police and let them take the matter up with the BBFC. But in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland people are free to make their own judgments of artistic merit and religious orthodoxy, and for Qari Asim to side with the ‘offence’ of the censorious mob over the freedom of reasonable people to produce and see the film makes one wonder how he ever came to be appointed a Government advisor at all.

Writing in yesterday’s Observer, Kenan Malik illuminates the question: ‘Film bans are less about offence, more ‘community leaders’ showing who’s boss‘:

Debates about the giving of offence are rarely about offence. They are mostly about gatekeeping: that is, debates over who has the right to police communities and determine what can be said about a community and by a community. That is why so many disputes over “offence” involve minority writers or artists, from Salman Rushdie to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, from Hanif Kureishi to MF Husain.

Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to guard certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and shield some beliefs from challenge. They protect not the marginalised but the powerful. In minority communities, gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians who appropriate for themselves the authority to determine the boundaries of acceptable speech and conduct. They are not shy of claiming “blasphemy” or “hate speech” to censor ideas they find intolerable.

He goes on to explain how the film became an opportunity “for certain leaders and organisations to flex their muscles”, and Qari Asim has a particular muscle he wants flexed: a binding definition of ‘Islamophobia’. And no doubt in his world of Islamophobic censoriousness ‘The Lady of Heaven’ would never be passed for screening by the BBFC, and so we have a sharia blasphemy law by the back door. But it is one which asserts the blaspemy code of the Muslim community to which Imam Qari Asim belongs, leaving the Shi’a schismatics and sectarian dissenters who made ‘The Lady of Heaven’ to face prosecution for the crime of ‘religious hate’.

Kenan Malik challenges this prospect head-on:

..there are many different Muslim perspectives, even on the most contentious issues. Nor should we unquestioningly indulge protesters who shout “racist” or “Islamophobic” or “hate speech” in an attempt to censor views they dislike; such critics are part of a debate and should be treated as such. To close down a film on the say-so of such protesters is to concede to the most conservative voices in that debate and to betray more progressive Muslims. The more that society gives licence for people to feel offended, the more people will seize the opportunity to be offended. And often in the deadliest of ways.

Perhaps Michael Gove ought to invite Kenan Malik to replace Qari Asim as a Government advisor on Islamophobia?