Lady of Heaven protester fired from Government advisory role after claims of spreading 'religious hatred'

Qari Asim insisted he supported people's democratic right to protest in the spirit of free speech

Published

An imam dismissed as a Government adviser for backing calls to ban a film claiming to be about the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter has said an assertion he acted to spread religious hatred is “inaccurate”.

Qari Asim said he learned about a letter from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC) informing him that he had been removed from his roles as an independent adviser and deputy chair of the Government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group through the media.

He added he has still not received the correspondence personally, and that since the Government did not contact him about the matters “at any time”, there was “no opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings”.

The DHLUC said in its letter it had “no option” but to withdraw Mr Asim’s appointment and end his roles with the Government with “immediate effect” due to his encouragement for a campaign to prevent cinemas from screening the film Lady Of Heaven.

Qari Asim
Qari Asim

“Your recent support for a campaign to limit free expression – a campaign which has itself encouraged communal tensions – means it is no longer appropriate for you to continue your work with Government in roles designed to promote community harmony,” the department said.

“You have 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.”

But Mr Asim said the contention made in the DHLUC’s letter that he had acted to undermine democratic values or spread community tension and religious hatred was “inaccurate”.

In a letter to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, he said this was because he did not “personally attend or organise any protests outside any cinemas” regarding the film, adding that his “strong preference is always dialogue”.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove leaving Downing Street in London
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove leaving Downing Street in London

“I did, however, support people’s democratic right to protest in the spirit of free speech,” he said.

Mr Asim said he fully understands and supports the values of free speech, but there is also a “nuanced and complex debate” around when it has “boundaries and limits”.

“I am of the firm opinion that the challenge to and critique of the ‘Lady Of Heaven’ film is part of free speech, though violence and intimidation can never be,” he said.

In its letter, the DHLUC added: “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.

“As you know, anti-Shia hatred is a long-standing and very serious issue, which must be challenged at every opportunity as part of a wider effort to combat anti-Muslim hatred.

“We were disappointed to see that you failed to condemn some of the protests complicit in these behaviours.

“Your actions are incompatible with the role of a Government adviser on anti-Muslim hatred. This country is proud of its democratic values and freedoms, which include tolerance, freedom of expression, and community.”

Mr Asim said that while he continues to be “concerned about the divisive nature of this film”, he remains “fully supportive of open public dialogue and scholarly debate around historical narratives between Sunni and Shia perspectives that does not fuel hatred or division in communities”.

He said the Government’s letter did not take into account his “continued support for responsible free speech around controversial issues”.

He added: “I did unequivocally condemn anti-Shia hatred displayed during the protests in Leeds, that came to my attention, to my own congregation.”

Mr Asim said he therefore “strongly” disagrees with being characterised “as someone who has supported anti-Shia statements”.

The imam at the Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds was appointed as an independent adviser in 2019 to provide expert advice on a definition of Islamophobia to the Government.

But he said in his letter to Mr Gove: “The current Government has not engaged with me at all on the definition of Islamophobia.”

He added that he had not been given “any resources to undertake the work that my role demanded” due to an “apparent lack of political will at the very top level of Government”.

A Government spokesperson said: “Mr Asim’s Government roles, including as an independent adviser, have been withdrawn with immediate effect.

“This Government is firmly committed to tackling the unacceptable scourge of anti-Muslim hatred and promoting community cohesion, while standing up for the values that define our country – including freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship and belief, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights.”