Exclusive RMC interview, reported by Amardeep Bassey
Imam Qari Asim, sacked as a government adviser after allegedly supporting a campaign that “encouraged communal tension” over a controversial film about the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, says the government needs to reconsider and retract statements against him.
Speaking exclusively in the Religion Media Centre podcast (interview here), he said he was open to having a conversation with ministers. If they had spoken to him first, he would have been able to discuss his position and explain that some of their allegations were completely unfounded.
The long-time Muslim campaigner accused ministers of using “an excuse to remove me from the role of independent adviser to define Islamophobia and also deputy chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred working group”.
Qari Asim, 44, a lawyer, is an established leader in British Islam, senior imam at Makkah Masjid in Leeds and chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board.
He told interviewer Roger Bolton, how he was stunned and disappointed to discover from a journalist this month that he had been unceremoniously dismissed from an advisory role he took up in July 2019 to help the government to define Islamophobia.
An open letter posted on 11 June on the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities website accused him of leading “a clear effort to restrict artistic expression” and that a campaign to get The Lady of Heaven film banned had “led to street protests which have fomented religious hatred”.
Qari Asim said: “To this date, I have not received a copy of the letter from the government, which is really disappointing given that I have worked with the government for over a decade, a long-standing relationship of working together to minimise hatred.
“I think it goes against British values, dialogue and mutual respect to treat someone like that.”
Mr Asim, who was appointed an MBE in 2012 for building community harmony in his home city of Leeds, said he had been subjected to “anti-Muslim hatred” as result of his public dismissal.
But he remained defiant in repeating his claim that the film “is offensive to the majority of the Muslims” adding: “The overwhelming majority of the leadership of Sunni and Shia sects (of Islam), as well as the communities, have rejected this film. They believe it to be divisive and risks fuelling hatred and extremism.”
The Lady of Heaven was written by a Shia cleric, Yasser Al-Habib, from Kuwait, a controversial figure among Shias in Britain and abroad. It weaves a story of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, into the experience of a present-day Iraqi orphan, with scenes of the Islamic State group in contemporary Iraq.
The allegation in the film, that some companions of the Prophet are linked to the actions and ideology of Islamic State, and that Fatima was the first victim of terrorism, has angered protesters. The indirect depiction of the Prophet using computer graphics, has also inflamed opinion.
Mr Asim hit back at critics who suggested he had organised and attended protests, some of which turned violent and led to the Cineworld company stopping screening the film.
He told the RMC: “I was trying to defuse tension rather than actually create tension. I was exercising my democratic right to express my free speech to say that this film risks fuelling hatred and extremism.”
Mr Asim said he did not call for a ban on the film and instead was calling for its screenings to be postponed. “I was saying that they should postpone the decision to show the film until they’ve heard from those who have concerns,” he said.
“I was saying that a protest is about to happen and that we don’t want that protest to go ahead. And therefore, it will be better to have a dialogue and work with both parties, to sit down, hear each other’s concerns and ultimately, it will be the cinema’s decision whether or not they decide to show the film.
“So, no one should be intimidated or threatened to show the film or not to show the film.” However, free speech, Mr Asim said, “does have its limitations and qualifications”.
He also admitted that a post on his Facebook page, which gave details of a protest outside a cinema, “was poorly worded”. But he insisted that he had neither attended nor organised any protests and had not encouraged people to do so either.
He told the RMC: “Actually, when I learnt that effectively in some of the protests, sectarian language had been used and also, in particular, that anti-Shia statements had been made immediately after the protests happening in Leeds, I publicly condemned it in my mosque.
“I also reached out to the Shia community to say that this is unacceptable, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Shia community against any form of [extra] hatred that might have been expressed.”
As a result of Mr Asim’s dismissal, 120 Muslim leaders accused the government of undermining its relationship with the Muslim community and taking a step backwards in community cohesion.
Dr Stephen Jones, of Birmingham University, an academic who researches government-Muslim relations, has said that the sacking of Qari Asim has brought the government to a point where it has virtually no formal relationship with any Muslim organisation.
He says relations between the government and Muslims had “thinned down” since the days of the Liberal-Conservative Coalition, as the government sought to distance itself from organisations over particular issues or those it defined as “on a pathway to extremism”.
Read a further report on the fallout of the government’s action here.
A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said in a written statement: “Mr Asim’s Government roles, including as an Independent Adviser, have been withdrawn. 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.”
Later, by phone, the spokesperson said that a private letter had been sent to Qari Asim ahead of the public letter posted on its website. In response, he has confirmed that he has not received a letter at any time.