Not to be mocked

Stephen Evans at the National Secular Society on the punishment of Louis Smith.

The very public castigation of the British gymnast is illustrative of the troubling return of blasphemy. As the former Strictly Come Dancing winner has discovered – and to his immense cost – Britain’s bourgeoning ‘culture of offence’ is ensuring that any action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities, but particularly Muslim sensibilities, is strictly taboo.

The ‘offending’ footage, published by The Sun, shows him with fellow gymnast Luke Carson drunkenly goofing around yelling “Allahu Akbar” and mocking aspects of Islamic belief.

Condemnation came swiftly from Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, who asserted “our faith is not to be mocked” and called on Smith to “apologise immediately”.

Or else what? One wonders. Because Mohammed Shafiq has form when it comes to whipping up hostility against people lawfully exercising their right to free expression. Back in 2014 when Maajid Nawaz tweeted a Jesus & Mo cartoon with a message saying he wasn’t offended by the depiction of Mohammad, Shafiq threatened to “notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries.”

Mohammed Shafiq is a bully, and public policy should not be shaped by bullies.

However well-intentioned, over-reactions like those we’ve seen this week to Louis Smith’s mockery of religion have a disastrously chilling effect on free speech. It plays into the hands of the Islamic world’s professional offence takers who would like nothing more than to see all criticism of Islam silenced once and for all.

So let’s everybody stop doing that.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian on the same subject.

Perhaps, like me, you imagined gymnastics to be much as other sports, even if you do hold almost similar reservations about sports with human judges as you do about sports in which you can drink a pint while playing.

Leaving those debates for another column (a column which I myself have written at least twice), sports are commonly agreed to be competitive physical activities. Capable of being inspiring, certainly, and frequently places where great spirit and whatnot is on display. But above all: sports. Not established value systems, and certainly not a forum for creating pseudo‑case law on free speech. To pretend otherwise is a dangerous category mistake.

It’s not up to sporting organizations to impose blasphemy laws on their members.

It goes without saying that there is an even higher authority for their actions – namely, UK Sport, the high‑performance agency whose rulebook states that athletes may be ineligible for funding if they are “derogatory about a person’s disability, gender, pregnancy or maternity, race, sexuality, marital status, beliefs or age (this is not an exhaustive list)”.

Isn’t it? Because once it put “beliefs” in, it pretty much covered any possible base. What if an athlete was of the belief that The Life of Brian was an excellent movie, or that Father Ted was hilarious? Naturally, something tells me mocking mass would be rather less frowned upon than mocking the call to prayer. But why on earth can’t athletes be derogatory about people’s beliefs?

Because some Beliefs are Sacred, and Sacred Beliefs must be protected from the profane mockery of mere human beings, especially mere human beings with large biceps.

As for British Gymnastics, it doesn’t appear to be anywhere near learning any useful lessons – but then, it takes its lead from the benighted fools at UK Sport, who bang on about the privilege of representing a country at the same time as cravenly denying that country’s essential freedoms. In many ways, it’s an old hypocrisy. Governing bodies have long come down like a ton of bricks on any athlete who gets political – yet I can scarcely think of anything more absurdly political than British Gymnastics operating a blasphemy law.

Maybe I’ll blaspheme about gymnastics for awhile. Gymnastics is silly. Gymnastics forgot where it put its keys. Gymnastics wears its underpants on its head. Gymnastics butters no parsnips.

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