It’s good to see free speech advocates vigorously fighting back against the ludicrous suspensions imposed on Olympic gymnasts Louis Smith and Luke Carson for mocking Islamic prayer.
A petition has been launched calling for the ban to be lifted, and yesterday in parliament Tory MP Charles Walker, above, accused politicians of having “looked the other way” over the reaction to Smith’s conduct.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, he told MPs:
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, this man received death threats and we have all looked the other way.
My question to the Prime Minister is this: what is going on in this country because I no longer understand the rules?
In response, Theresa May said a “balance” needed to be found between “freedom of expression” and “tolerance” for religions, but the Prime Minister reminded Mr Walker of the “responsibility” that comes with free speech.
I understand the level of concern that you have raised in relation to this matter. This is a balance that we need to find.
We value freedom of expression and freedom of speech in this country – that is absolutely essential in underpinning our democracy.
But we also value tolerance to others. We also value tolerance in relation to religions.
This is one of the issues that we have looked at in the counter-extremism strategy that the Government has produced.
I think we need to ensure that yes it is right that people can have that freedom of expression, but in doing so that right has a responsibility too.
And that is a responsibility to recognise the importance of tolerance to others.
The petition described Smith’s ban by British Gymnastics as “utterly absurd”.
Firstly, regardless of whether he was mocking Islam or not, why does that constitute a ban? It is not illegal nor is it wrong to criticise or mock any religion, especially since this is meant to be a democratic country. Not to mention, he and his friend were clearly joking and meant no harm or offence by his actions, something that was reflected by how he subsequently apologised for his behaviour.
As such, it seems ridiculous to ban Smith after such actions, especially considering all he has contributed to British sport throughout his career. This is an injustice and it’s time we act against it.
The issue was also raised on Talk Radio UK yesterday when Benjamin Jones, Communications Officer for the National Secular Society said that Muslims are trying to put themselves into a “special category” where they can’t be mocked.
Jones said he believes the code of conduct mapped out by British Gymnastics needs to change, as they are “bowing down” to a “large number of Muslims” who are trying to make mockery a “cultural taboo”.
Jones also believes this cultural taboo suggests “Islam is trying to put itself into a special category,” whilst other religions in this country:
Accept that religion is not in a special category that can’t be criticised or mocked.
The NSS has also written an open letter to British Gymnastics calling it to reverse the Smith’s two-month suspension.
NSS President Terry Sanderson said in the letter British Gymnastics “has contributed to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views” of religious extremists.
Rather than defending free expression, one of the most precious pillars of our liberal democratic society, you have chosen instead to side with extremists and patronise British Muslims by assuming they will take offence at the trivial actions of these two athletes.
British Gymnastics’ condemnation and punishment of Louis Smith and Luke Carson will only serve to embolden the religious extremists who reject free speech and religious tolerance by demanding that Islam must not be mocked.
We urge you to consider whether by taking the actions it has, British Gymnastics has further endangered the safety of these two athletes by giving succour to those who seek to silence all criticism and mockery of their religion.