Mental gymnastics over Olympic star’s blasphemy

This is not a trick question: Why does the governing body for gymnastics in Britain resemble the regime of Saudi Arabia? Answer: Because they both think they are entitled to punish people for blasphemy.

In Britain, unlike Saudi Arabia, there is no law against blasphemy — except, apparently, for gymnasts. Yesterday, British Gymnastics imposed a two-month ban on Olympic silver medallist Louis Smith over a leaked video in which he and a fellow gymnast, Luke Carson, were seen mocking Islamic prayer. Carson wasn’t banned but received a formal reprimand which will stay on his record for two years.

The video, filmed during a wedding party, showed Carson kneeling on a mat, pretending to pray and calling out “Allahu Akbar!” while Smith laughed.

The slogan of British Gymnastics is “More than a sport” — something which the would-be Wahhabis who run it seem to take very literally. The organisation’s Standards of Conduct lay down all sorts of rules about how gymnasts should behave when not doing gymnastics. The intention, obviously, is to protect the sport’s reputation but preventing its members from expressing views about religion is an infringement of their basic rights.

Unfortunately, instead of telling British Gymnastics to mind their own business, Smith accepted that he had broken the rules and issued a grovelling apology:

“I am deeply sorry. I am not defending myself, what I did was wrong. I want to say sorry for the deep offence I have caused and to my family who have also been affected by my thoughtless actions.

“I recognised the severity of my mistake and hope it can be used as an example of how important it is to respect others at all times. I have learnt a valuable life lesson and I wholeheartedly apologise.”

One of the principles established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that everyone has a right to believe (or not), as they see fit. They are also entitled to express their thoughts or beliefs — and that includes expressing disbelief.

The disciplining of Smith and Carson seems to be the result of some muddled — but increasingly common — ideas about the nature of Islamophobia. Avoiding Islamophobia is (or should be) mainly about treating Muslims as normal human beings, about not discriminating against them because of their religion, not pre-judging them as terrorists, etc. It doesn’t mean you are not allowed to disagree with Islamic beliefs and practices, to openly criticise them or even ridicule them.

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Another blasphemous gesture? Louis Smith at the Rio Olympics

Efforts to counter prejudice against Muslims have led to a kind of hypersentivity regarding Islam — to the point where it is now often regarded as a special case among religions. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, that British Gymnastics would have given a moment’s thought to punishing Smith had he turned up at a fancy dress party dressed like the Pope. And today’s Guardian has a photo of Smith at the Rio Olympics in a pose that might be considered reminiscent of the Crucifixion, though it appears that no Christians were offended. In Muslim countries mockery of religion is at least as old as Islam itself; poets, philosophers and others have been doing it for centuries (see my book, Arabs Without God). More recently, repressive Islamic regimes have introduced laws against “defaming” or “insulting” religion which basically are intended to silence dissenting views and impose an interpretation of scripture that suits them politically. They have also been working through the UN and other bodies to extend this principle worldwide.

The usual justification given for this is that religious believers — unlike, for example, believers in non-religious ideologies such as Communism — need to be protected from anything that might offend them. Aside from the question of why religious ideas should be treated differently from other kinds of ideas, accepting this would open the door to arbitrary censorship. Had it been applied in the past, it would have required the imprisonment of many of the most important thinkers and writers in Islamic history.

In the view of the European Court of Human Rights, the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are so great — at least, in democratic societies — that freedom of expression should be protected even when it causes offence. In a landmark ruling in 1976, the court decided that freedom of expression applies not only to ideas “that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”.

This is not to suggest that anyone should be gratuitously offensive but the right to “offend, shock or disturb” has to be a basic ingredient of free speech — and, indeed, freedom of religion. If permissible speech depended on not upsetting anyone, there would soon be people pointing to “offensive” verses in the Bible and the Qur’an and demanding to have them banned or bowdlerised.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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