If you thought the public shaming and punishment of people for ridiculing religion was a thing of the past — a dark past when you’d be put in the stocks, or worse, for failing to bend your knee to certain gods and beliefs — then think again. Just look at the treatment of Olympian gymnast Louis Smith. Since a video of him taking the mick out of Islam was leaked in October, he’s been pilloried in the press, pressured to recant his heretical humour, dragged on to TV to repent before the Loose Women (the new guardians of public morality, apparently), and now he’s been suspended from his job for two months. All for having a laugh about a religion. There have been no rotten tomatoes or licking flames, but Smith’s treatment nonetheless echoes that time when ‘blasphemers’ were made to suffer for their thoughts and words.
Everything about the Smith case stinks to the high, empty heavens, where, I’m sorry, there are no virgins or Allah. In the leaked vid, filmed at a wedding, Smith is shown laughing as his fellow gymnast Luke Carson pretends to pray and chants ‘Allahu Akbar’. He then mocks the idea of heavenly virgins. For doing this — for joking about a religion at a private party — he was today suspended by British Gymnastics. Smith failed to ‘use [his] profile to have a positive impact on… communities,’ said BG (I thought his job was to master the pommel horse not be a guardian of community cohesion?). That a public figure can be punished for something he did in private is bad enough; that his crime, or sin, was merely to mock certain beliefs is worse. The message sent by British Gymnastics is that you will be cast out of polite sporting society if you fail to respect Islam; you will be punished for questioning a religion.
Smith’s suspension follows some pretty extreme harassment. He’s been demonised online. He’s received death threats. Media people have grilled him with questions like ‘What were you thinking?’, as if he’d shot someone rather than having made a joke. The saddest thing is that Smith has been encouraged to believe he deserves all these threats and flak. ‘I have to take the abuse because I was the one that messed up; I have only myself to blame,’ he said. How awful. So intense is the modern PC stricture against mocking Islam, against being ‘Islamophobic’, as it’s always called, that Smith has come to think that the hatred coming his way is warranted. So he has now fully repented: he has confessed to having been ‘ignorant to people’s religion’ and has promised that from now on he will exercise his freedom of speech ‘in good taste’. And so the metaphorical tomato-throwers, the new crushers of blasphemous thought, have won. Smith has been remade as an Islam-respecting robot who’ll never speak out of turn again. Job done: a bad man’s mind has been tamed, his humour neutered, and the rest of us have been implicitly instructed that disrespecting Islam will land us in hot water. What an intolerant, censorious, nasty spectacle.
British Gymnastics has done something very stupid: it has implicitly sided with Smith’s harassers and in the process it has surely emboldened their backward belief that no criticism of Islam should go unpunished. This is what it comes down to: should people be free to mock religion, including Islam, without losing work or being cast out of decent society or being punished in any other way? I say yes, we must be free to do this. Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, and many others, including, it seems, British Gymnastics, thinks otherwise: ‘Our faith is not to be mocked, our faith is to be celebrated,’ he said in response to Smith’s leaked video. No, no, no. No idea or belief or god or prophet is above mocking. This is the nature of a free society. You have the right to believe whatever you want, and everyone else has the right to ridicule what you believe. And those ridiculers should never be dragged to the stocks or turned into the media’s latest moral leper simply for speaking their minds.