In a June 20th Middle East Forum (MEF) Webinar (video), Sam Westrop, director of MEF's Islamist Watch, interviewed Abdul-Malik Shlibak, producer of the new film The Lady of Heaven and chairman of the Rafida Foundation, a Shia organization in the United Kingdom.
The film has sparked widespread protests in the United Kingdom, where accusations that it blasphemes Islam's prophet have led to death threats and caused some movie theaters to cancel showings. Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt have banned the film entirely.
Asked about the "ideological forces behind the campaign," whose proponents claim it blasphemes Muhammad and other Muslim figures, Shlibak responded that protesters are, "to be very frank, radical extremists." The Lady of Heaven is, rather, a "historical narrative" dramatizing the life and death of Fatima, Muhammad's daughter that offers a lesson about "how to oppose radicalism and terrorism."
Although most Shias believe Fatima's death stemmed from a miscarriage caused by injuries she suffered in a raid by Umar, an ally of Muhammad's successor, Abu Bakr, The Lady of Heaven claims that Abu Bakr and Umar murdered both Fatima and Muhammad.
Fatima is among "the most beloved figures in Islamic history," an "icon" and role model for all Muslims, Shlibak said. Despite bullying and threats, he believes she stood by her principles, for which her opponents ultimately murdered her. It is "hugely ironic" that history is repeating itself via "mobs and thugs" now threatening him because they are "offended" by the film's depiction of the historical Islamic figures Abu Bakr, Umar, and Aisha as "criminals ... thugs and bullies."
The film was in pre-production for a year while Shlibak and his team collected and researched historical texts consistent with Sunni Islam, which "cherish[es]" Abu Bakr, Umar, and Aisha." Shlibak, who has a Sunni background but became Shia six years ago, dismisses the historic split between Sunni and Shia as a "sectarian issue," claiming the Shia, who are equally offended that Sunnis praise the three "radical extremists," are not taking to the streets to protest Sunni beliefs. Instead, Shlibak frames it as an issue "of the fair-minded Muslims versus a very fringe minority [of a] radical group of Muslims that are trying to push this bigotry in the Muslim community."
The British government's response in firing its "Islamophobia advisor" who "endorsed the cries of blasphemy" against Shlibak's project heartened him. Yet, Sunnis are not Shlibak's only opponents. Asked why a country like Iran, with its Shia rulers, banned his film by claiming the narrative in the film is not "mainstream Shia," Shlibak charged the Iranian regime with being a "political entity" that has "nothing to do with theology."
According to Shlibak, there are two possible reasons Iran banned the film. First, its Shia population, which is generally "quietist," fears opposing the regime.
Second, he blames the "Batri sect," a term used by Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, the "spiritual father of the Mahdi Servants Union" who wrote The Lady of Heaven, to describe Shia Muslims who fail to denounce the actions of Abu Bakr, Umar, and other early Muslims. It is "pushing propaganda online" to portray Al-Habib as a "hate preacher," Shlibak said. The Batri have conducted a "smear campaign" against Al-Habib, Shlibak asserts, by posting a video they "mistranslate" by claiming that he "calls for violence against other sects of Islam."
As ISIS began "bombing holy shrines" and occupying Iraq, Al-Habib produced The Lady of Heaven as a clarion call for the people to rise up against ISIS. Shlibak maintains that Abu Bakr, Umar, and Aisha are "the origins of groups like ISIS that has nothing to do with the general population that refer to themselves as Sunni."
Shlibak believes Tehran opposes the film and labels Al-Habib a hate preacher because the sheikh "is a man of criticism" in a community "very averse to criticism." Ye, without the ability to criticize, he said, "we can't maneuver through into the future to correct our wrongs and ills" by those who misinterpret the "perfection" of Muhammed's words.
Westrop noted the connections between many of the U.K. protestors and two Sunni South Asian sects, "the Deobandis and the Barelvis," who between them control a majority of British mosques. Shlibak said "the Taliban are Deobandi," and while "the majority of Muslims are rational, fair people," there is "intense bigotry" among many of their leaders in the U.K. "This radical rabbit hole is a lot deeper than the British public, or the wider world know," Shlibak said, adding that an example of the "disastrous" situation that exists in the U.K. is that one of the backers supporting protestors chanting death threats against Al-Habib is the "pro-Taliban" organization, 5Pillars, which Shlibak said is "an official regulated ... supposedly Muslim news outlet" there.
Shlibak claimed "Shia genocide is a real thing" that goes on "behind the scenes" and has been going on for "centuries." He cited the example of a "prominent scholar" in Egypt, Sheikh Hassan Shehata, who converted to Shia Islam and criticized Abu Bakr and Umar as Al-Habib has done. A mob killed Shehata "because he was a Shia expressing his views about history."
Remaining silent in the face of threats "will never solve the issue of radicalization globally," Shlibak said. His position is to "stick by our principles and values of freedom of speech." Cowering before radicals who bully those with whom they disagree would be a "preposterous future" that would mean "goodbye to our British values, goodbye to any type of democracy, goodbye to everything."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.