A blurry, drunken video taken on a mobile phone in June has seen British Olympic medal winner Louis Smith banned from the sport for two months.
Filmed at a friend’s wedding, the champion gymnast laughs alongside retired teammate Luke Carson, who sings “Allahu akbar” whilst miming Muslim prayer practices.
The two have been accused of “mocking Islam”. While British Gymnastics was so abhorred at his actions that they decided to ban them, the rest of us should be defending them.
I can’t say I – or many people for that matter – would rush to imitate Smith’s actions. It was in pretty poor taste, not to mention miserably unfunny.
However, I also wouldn’t rush to uphold the values of religion I don’t practice, the practices of a religion I don’t believe in. Nor any religion for that matter.
The issue isn’t solely with Islam. Whilst it may have been the butt of Smith’s “banterous” joke, the events only scratch the surface of a wider issue: our freedom to offend. Or importantly, our increasing lack of it.
All religions should be able to withstand mockery, and we should all be free to mock them.
What happened to Smith is a grave insult to the freedom of speech, as well as our personal capacity to say, think and act as we please. Whilst there’s no doubt it wasn’t his finest hour, the video is no reason for severe punishment.
A healthy disregard for religious dogma is one of the cornerstones of British culture – and that of much of the developed world.
It’s a feature that enables us to live the way that we do; in one big, morally diverse and religiously assorted society.
What Smith demonstrated – apart from a pretty poor sense of humour – were these values that are inherent to a Western way of life.
The freedom of expression, and the right to shrug off religious conventions. The right to laugh at what we want, think how we please and act as we desire.
A fan of free speech? Then you should complain about Louis Smith's ban. Email British Gymnastics now: firstname.lastname@example.org https://t.co/A7YBlKnczJ
— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) November 1, 2016
In banning him from the sport and extracting a public apology, British Gymnastics has pandered to the superiority of religion, the idea that it is untouchable, delicate and never to be challenged, questioned, or laughed at.
And while Smith hardly questioned Islam in the most graceful or articulate of ways, he did it nonetheless.
Speaking in the aftermath of the video’s exposure, the British gymnast apologised for being “ignorant to people’s religion”. He added that it was his responsibility “as someone of sporting influence” to exercise freedom of speech “in good taste”.
It’s time we stop muddying the waters of free speech and accept that it’s an absolute. No religion, gender, ethnicity or social belief should be exempt.
It’s a vital fibre of our society and should be defended at all costs. In good taste, and in bad.