I’m dubious about the claim that British values rather than British institutions have shaped British culture. The monarchy, the Chuch of England and Parliamentary government are institutions, not values.
Free speech within the rule of law is a value – or, to use a more accurate word, a practice. The Czech Republic, say, has freedom of speech; it doesn’t have the Church of England (or the Church of Scotland, for that matter).
In short, free speech is a western product – now flourishing to various degrees in Europe, the United States, the Anglosphere, Latin America, Japan and the tip of Southern Africa. But not in most Muslim-majority countries and not, in most cases, when it comes to Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. Which brings us to Qari Asim.
There is a category of Islamic thought leader who is moderate both in political and religious terms but, because of the background I set out above, isn’t committed to free speech – or at least to the showing of films that irk the sensitivities of Muslims.
Asim is the Imam of a mosque in Leeds, a former Chairman of the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board and was, until yesterday, a Government adviser on Islamophobia – appointed the day before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.
Now Michael Gove has fired him. The Levelling Up Secretary says that Asim has “encouraged an ongoing campaign to prevent cinemas screening the film Lady of Heaven, a clear effort to restrict artistic expression, and the campaign you have supported has led to street protests which have fomented religious hatred”.
“You wrote on Facebook on 6 June that “We have been working with many brothers and Imams across the country to liaise with the cinemas….Some Imams have taken a view to protest and others are in dialogue with the cinemas trying to resolve the situation”.
“Resolving the situation, as you made clear, meant cancelling screenings. You wrote that “in some places we have been successful and those cinemas will no longer be showing the movie”. Your support for further action was made clear. You advertised “a protest [that] has been organised in Leeds” and provided details of its timing and location”.
Gove’s letter wades into another aspect of the Lady of Heaven contremps, having grasped that it is as much about different Muslim beliefs as the depiction of its prophet: “you will have no doubt seen reports of the scenes outside different cinema venues. These included deeply disturbing videos of sectarian chanting and anti–Shia hatred.”
To communicate the flavour of what the Levelling Up Secretary is going on about, here is a clip of a protester denouncing Yasser Al-Habib, the Shia cleric who wrote Lady of Heaven, as a “pig of hell” a “dog of hell” and “rat of hell”, as voices in a Sunni crowd chant “Kafir Kafir Shia Kafir”.
I should add that Al-Habib is not exactly a mainstream Shia figure, since his virulent views about key figures in the Sunni tradition aren’t shared by most Shias, and that Asim himself has stood up for Shias at risk of violence in Pakistan. But neither point is connected with Gove’s central charge. Asim has not yet responded on Twitter.
He and Gove seem to have engaged in tit-for-tat briefings earlier this year: Asim, that Gove was snubbing him and stalling about a Government position on anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice; Government sources, that Asim was not properly committed to free speech.
The Levelling Up Secretary has a long record of wading into these troubled waters, having published Celsius 7/7 in 2006, the year after the 7/7 atrocity in London in which 56 people were killed and about 700 injured. (I agreed with almost all its domestic policy sections though less with some of its foreign policy ones, for what it’s worth.)
By the way, Asim was right to suggest that Government policy on anti-Muslim prejudice is going nowhere. Part of the reason seems to be that Ministers are looking for expert advisers, but aren’t satisfied that those put up are fully committed to “British values” – i.e: free speech.
I report this latest story for the simple reason that some claim there’s no difference between this Government, led by Boris Johnson, and a future Labour one led by Keir Starmer, assuming that Durham’s police don’t fine him. When it comes to tax and spend I’ve begun to think that they have a point.
But my intention isn’t to toil over the Government’s faults and Johnson’s future: that’s all for another day. Rather, it’s to point out that the charge I cite above isn’t true. Were Labour to be in power now, Asim would undoubtedly still be a Government adviser – and Gove’s equivalent not be making a public pitch about free speech.