We must be free to mock religion

Published by Spiked Online on 2/11/16


It’s pretty risky being a gymnast these days. As Louis Smith discovered last month, the stringent rules of British Gymnastics, the official governing body for the sport, don’t stop applying when an athlete’s routine is over. Say one wrong word and you’ll be banned faster than you can say ‘pommel horse’.

So, when a video emerged of Smith laughing at fellow gymnast Luke Carson’s attempts to mimic a Muslim call to prayer, British Gymnastics handed him a two-month ban. As a result of the video, Smith has also received a number of death threats.

A quick glance at the video reveals how overblown the backlash against Smith is. There was nothing extreme about his antics – the incident took place after a wedding and both athletes are clearly pissed. (Smith almost spills his pint midway through the video.)

Since the clip was made public, Smith has repeatedly apologised. He even missed Team GB’s Olympic parade in London to visit a few mosques and learn more about Islam. One would think he’d been caught burning the Koran in his free time.

The decision to ban Smith sets a dangerous precedent for infringements on freedom of speech. Regardless of whether his actions were insulting, Smith was punished for expressing an unpopular opinion. The mere fact that some people find it disagreeable isn’t a sufficient reason for punishment. Of course, a disciplinary response might be appropriate if Smith was the chief executive of the Friends of Islam Society. But he’s not. He rides pommel horses for a living.

From David Hume to John Stuart Mill, the authors of our allegedly liberal society continually fought for the right to criticise religion. Intolerance of unpopular opinions was viewed as a sign of a backward society that didn’t take ideas, and people, seriously. The banning of Smith should leave all who hold the values of tolerance and freedom in high regard with a sense of unease.

When Charlie Hebdo was attacked by terrorists in 2015, the world responded with a resounding cry of indignation. We didn’t care that the magazine had recently taken the piss out of Muhammad, let alone chose to depict him. No, we recognised that freedom of expression – including the freedom to ridicule Islam – was more important than the right not to be offended. Almost two years later, however, we’ve forgotten that no religion should be beyond criticism or mockery.

The UK is hosting the World Cup of Gymnastics next April. It’s time for British Gymnastics to stop endorsing censorship, and start focusing on that.


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