OPINION: Iran’s Role in Protests Against ‘The Lady of Heaven’ Movie

By Potkin Azarmehr

The cinema chain Cineworld canceled the screening of “The Lady of Heaven” after Muslim activists living in the UK protested outside its theaters last week.

Threats by angry Muslim mobs and the absence of police to protect theater employees frightened Cineworld’s management.

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A spokesperson for Cineworld 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.”

The film depicts the life of Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima (also spelled Fatemeh).

While pulling the film from movie theaters is a win for the British Muslim activists, many media outlets consider the event a defeat for freedom of speech and democracy in the UK.

In the June 9 issue of The Telegraph, Dame Sara Khan wrote: “Religious Mobs Are a Threat to British Democracy.”

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail reported on June 12 that the UK government had fired Qari Asim, the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on Islamophobia after he allegedly urged cinemas to cancel the film’s screening. Mr. Qari is the lead imam at the Makkah Mosque in Leeds and deputy chairperson of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.

The British media is yet to realize the Islamic Republic’s role in organizing and inciting “religious mobs” to protest against the film’s screening.

Also, opposition groups to the Islamic Republic outside Iran either have not grasped the gravity of this development or prefer to ignore it completely.

The Islamic Republic’s opposition to the release of “The Lady of Heaven,” a story about the life of the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter Fatemeh, began right after the news about plans to make the film was made public.

In December 2020, the Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral Upper Half Ali Shamkhani, claimed that the film was in line with the political aims of the “Western, Arab, and Jewish Axis,” comparing it to the creation of Daesh (ISIS).

“The secret of pure Islam’s supremacy lies in its unity of and proximity to all religions,” a tweet by Admiral Shamkhani said. “The Western, Arab, and Jewish Axis policies revolve around generating discord by creating Daesh one day and making ‘The Lady of Heaven’ another day.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, five reportedly pro-Islamic Republic “Shia Muslim scholars in the UK” released a statement in English, saying that although they knew little about the film, they condemned it all the same.

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“In recent weeks, it has come to our attention that some people have made a film of her life.” The letter said. “Although we are unaware of the contents and detail, we wish to inform all of our community members that anything that causes friction and disunity between Muslims is against our faith and not in line with the fatwas [religious decrees] of our honorable Marja [sources of emulation].”

On Feb. 1, 2021, a year after the completion of “The Lady of Heaven,” former Iranian Ambassador to the UK Hamid Baeidinejad tweeted in English: “In a letter to the Shia and Sunni Islamic Centers in the UK, I categorically condemned the film ‘The Lady of Heaven’ produced in the UK as a divisive action, and expressed our concern over the attempts to create division and hatred among Muslims at this sensitive time.”

The film is based on the official Shia version of Fatemeh al-Zahra’s life story. Therefore, it is unclear why the Islamic Republic has opposed the making, release, and distribution of this film and joined Sunni Muslim activists in the UK to protest its screening, especially since Tehran had previously welcomed the idea of making a film about the Prophet Mohammad’s life.

The Islamic Republic’s objection to the production, distribution, and screening of “The Lady of Heaven” could stem from the fact that the film’s screenplay was written by Yasser Al-Habib, a Shia Muslim and follower of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Sadegh Hossein Shirazi. The film was reportedly made with the help of institutions affiliated with Ayatollah Hossein Shirazi.

Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Sadegh Hossein Shirazi is a Shia Marja, a staunch critic of the Islamic Republic, and an opponent of the absolute authority of Velayat-e Faqih (the guardianship of Islamic Jurist), established by the founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ayatollah Shirazi’s maternal grandfather and his paternal grand-uncle was the famous Mirza Hassan Shirazi, who in December 1891 issued a fatwa declaring the use of tobacco “tantamount to war against [Shia 12th Imam] Muhammad al-Mahdi.”

However, Islamic Republic officials regard Ayatollah Shirazi and his followers as “British Shia.”

Several television channels founded by followers of Ayatollah Shirazi are very popular with religious audiences, especially in Iran and Iraq. Islamic Republic officials are threatened by media outlets promoting Ayatollah Shirazi’s ideas, so much so that they have joined forces with Sunni activists in the UK against the screening of “The Lady of Heaven,” even though the film is based on the official Shia version of Fatemeh al-Zahra’s life story which is taught in schools and promoted by the state media.

Footage of some protests reportedly shows Sunni Muslim mobs shouting “apostate Shias.” However, Iranian state-owned English-language Press TV has covered the protests extensively.

One report shows Robert Carter, a British national who converted to Shia Islam, surrounded by a mob that shouts ant-Shia slogans. Mr. Carter does not appear to be perturbed by the chants. He is a regular guest on Press TV.

Joining forces with groups that regard Shias as “apostates” shows that the Islamic Republic prioritizes its political aims over religious beliefs.

As Velayat-e Faqih, the ultimate religious authority and source of emulation, the late Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the survival of the Islamic Republic was the “top priority.”

Fulfilling that decree has become a sacred mission for the Islamic Republic regime, even to the detriment of religious laws.

Link to the Farsi page

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