Louis Smith’s ban for mocking Islam sets a dangerous precedent

When people make fun of Christianity in this country it rightly turns the other cheek. When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, makes fun of another religion widely practised in this country he is hounded on Twitter, by the media, and suspended by his association.

For goodness sake Mr Speaker this man received death threats and we have all looked the other way. So my question to the PM is this – what is going on in this country, because I no longer understand the rules?

So spoke Charles Walker MP in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Theresa May’s answer did little to clarify ‘the rules’ and very much to undercut her claims to defend freedom of expression.

The background to the story can be read here. The pertinent details are that Louis Smith, Olympic silver medalist, appeared to mock Islam in a video that was leaked to the media. In reality, Smith merely laughed as a friend mimicked Islamic prayer practices. Upon the news breaking, Smith apologised profusely and made clear he regretted his actions. He also missed the Manchester Olympics celebrations in order to visit two mosques and speak to Islamic leaders in an effort to “educate himself”. Despite all of this, he has been handed a two-month ban by British Gymnastics.

So Charles Walker’s intervention at PMQs today was welcome. As was this piece in the Independent. Mr Walker is surely right that if Christianity were mocked in this way, nobody would give two hoots. One struggles to believe that Louis Smith would have been handed a two-month ban for laughing at his friend mocking rosary prayers or clowning around in a dog collar and mitre. And he is also correct that when Christianity faces such mockery it ‘rightly turns the other cheek’. For it is both right for Christians to do so and factually accurate that they tend to do. Why, then, is Islam afforded such special privilege?

It surely cannot be right that there are beliefs – religious or otherwise – that are beyond criticism. Why should death threats from supposed Muslims have a blind eye turned while even a squeak from Christians about unjust treatment is roundly closed down? Why not, just for a laugh, attempt a comparative study of the abuse received by David Robertson for daring to state traditional Christian views on his blog The Wee Flea to the treatment afforded when Muslims get upset. Perhaps compare how the media treated Dan Walker, Tim Farron and Andrea Leadsom on discovering their Christianity with that of Fatima Manji,  Sayeeda Warsi and Sajid Javed.

Here in Oldham, my own church has embarked upon regular cultural dialogue evenings with local Pakistani Muslims. On a local level, we have specifically come together – not to pretend we agree where we clearly do not – but to discuss our respective faiths and permit open criticism and investigative questioning. Though both sides are keen to respect each other as people, we are all very clear that we are not on the same page but maintain it is possible to remain friends whilst disagreeing robustly. But what is working at a local level is not being reflected in the national conversation.

It does nobody any good to inoculate particular groups and beliefs from criticism. As Paul Renteurs rightly points out in the Independent:

We cannot make exceptions for religion – we can respect the people who practice it, but when our freedom of speech is eroded and our athletes are openly stating that they deserve abuse because they mocked a religion in a slightly tasteless manner, we have lost something central to civilised society.

Whilst Charles Walker may no longer understand the rules, the fact is that the rules are manifestly clear. Christianity can lump it while we all pussyfoot around Islam.

Louis Smith’s ban is a travesty because he should be free to mock, laugh at or ridicule whatever beliefs he likes, irrespective of whether we find it tasteless. Those being mocked have every right to stand up and demur. What nobody has the right to do is bandy around death threats and expect the establishment to lend your stupidity credence by banning somebody from something utterly unrelated – swinging in circles on suspended rings and doing handstands on a pony with handles – simply because your sensibilities have been offended.

What we need is a level playing field. If we don’t want to offer every belief under the sun guaranteed protection from upset and offence (something I hope all right thinking individuals would recognise is utterly unworkable and highly dangerous) no such status can be afforded to anybody. If the rest of us rightly turn the other cheek, Muslims must surely be expected to do the same. After all, it’s not as if the suggestion came from one of their own prophets, is it?

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