Islam - No Mockery Allowed: A New Case

November 3, 2016

In the UK, a well-known athlete, Louis Smith, has been disciplined and suspended by British Gymnastics - the UK body governing the sport - for having engaged in some private drunken mockery of Islam which he recorded on his phone and which was subsequently leaked to the Press. A British Gymnastics spokesperson commented 'British Gymnastics does not condone the mocking of any faith or religion.'


This action was taken after Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, called on Smith to 'apologise immediately', insisting 'our faith is not to be mocked'. Other, similar, demands followed.


British Gymnastics has made a serious error here, in my view.


Whether what Smith did was reprehensible, wrong, etc. is certainly a question with many facets, but I think the verdict is clear on whether he should have been disciplined by British Gymnastics. He should not.


I have heard well-meaning people say about this case that religion should be treated like race. We wouldn't allow Smith to take the piss (as we say in the UK) out of some ethnic minority. But then we shouldn't allow him to take the piss out of the religion of such an ethnic minority either.


But a religion is not a race. Mocking a belief system may not always be wise, nice, etc., but it is not something anyone should be disciplined for. Unless, of course, you think that religious belief systems are 'special' and merit special treatment compared to e.g. political belief systems more generally (and make no mistake religious belief systems invariably are political belief systems).


But I do not think there is anything 'special' about religious beliefs that requires we give them a privileged status that we don't extend to other belief systems. If you think there is, I'd be interested to hear your suggestions. And note that if all religious belief systems are to be privileged in this way, then Monty Python's Life of Brian can no longer be shown - not even in private.


However, I guess you could argue that Smith's real intention was to mock, not so much a belief system, but a race or ethnic minority, in much the same way it's often suggested that attacks on 'Zionism' are really veiled attacks on Jewish people. But I see no evidence for that being Smith's intention here (indeed his reference to 'sixty virgins' seems to be part of mockery of a certain sort of violent Islamic fundamentalism). The onus would be on Smith's accusers to provide that evidence before any disciplinary action would be merited.


And in any case, what Shafiq and other Muslims were complaining about was very clearly Smith's mocking of Islam the belief system. As Stephen Evans - head of the UK's National Secular Society, points out - Shafiq previously threatened to 'notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries' when Maajid Nawaz said online that, as a Muslim, he was not offended by a Jesus and Mo cartoon of Mohammad. Some of those notified would of course have likely responded with threats of violence. Nawaz did receive death threats. So did Smith.


It is those making such threats that are the real villains in this piece. Smith, who drunkenly took the piss out of Islam in private, is being used by religious authoritarians as a pawn in their much larger game of getting Islam made immune to mockery - through fear, if not through legislation.


It is a shame when a body like British Gymnastics capitulates. By so doing, they encourage still more 'offence' taking and veiled threats (which are now seen to be successful). Such capitulation also increases the danger to those us who are prepared to mock ludicrous beliefs that happen also to be religious beliefs. And it effectively sidelines moderate Muslims like Maajid Nawaz, who are then seen not to represent 'real' Islam. 


Through our capitulation, the power of religious authoritarians is increased even within their own Muslim communities.


Photo creative commons from:


#1 Coel (Guest) on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 3:47am

Are you sure that “he then ... posted video of [it] on line”? Reports I’ve read said it was “leaked” to the media.

#2 Stephen Law on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 4:13am

ah, in which case I stand corrected.

#3 Stephen Law on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 4:22am

Thanks - I corrected the text.

#4 Jason Buckley on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 1:47pm

I agree about Shafiq’s odious intentions and that his is by far the worse conduct, especially since Smith has received death threats. But I also think that you are painting an unfair picture of British Gymnastics here. The media coverage in general seems to be fomenting a controversy about a straightforward disciplinary procedure which doesn’t have much bearing on either freedom of expression or religious intolerance.

When you look at the detail, within the Standards of Conduct, he was required to avoid:

c) Failing to display high personal standards and a favourable image that is befitting to their role in the sport
d) Endangering the reputation of the sport of gymnastics… through inappropriate practices or behaviour
e) Failing to display moderate and responsible behaviour at all times

He also has form, having had two warnings in April and May for other indiscretions, it being made clear to him that another breach would have serious consequences. The ban is symbolic in any case, since he is busy gallivanting around the country in a dance production and is on a break from the sport.

So the standards he is required to uphold are professional standards to which he has subscribed, not moral or legal standards which have been imposed upon him. It’s no doubt onerous to have to maintain those standards in private as well as public life, but it would be very difficult to claim that this is a “favourable image”, so he is “bang to rights”. British Gymnastics has a PR job to do with the whole population of the country, including Muslims, and it is hardly helpful to them to have this happen. It’s no different to the stern words that any employer would be having with an employee if a video of their indiscretions went viral.

The point here is that the internal codes of conduct for professional and other groups are distinct from general morality. You have to argue that there is some element of coercion in order to trump the additional obligations that individuals take on (e.g. perhaps Sharia courts), such that protection of general morality that they have voluntarily abrogated reasserts itself.

A clearer case: an RAF technician refused to get on a plane urgently needed for a bombing raid because he thought it had a fault that could be catastrophic. The plane took off without him, and his prediction was correct - except that the fault became evident so quickly that the plane was able to return to base safely. He was later court-martialled for failing to obey a direct order - in defiance of general principles of fairness but in accordance with forces discipline. You can;t sign up to a code of conduct and not expect to be bound by it.

It seems to me that British Gymnastics has acted wisely while being caught between an impulsive idiot, religious bigots and defenders of secularism. There’s also an implication in this article that the British Gymnastics decision was in response to Shafiq’s rant, rather than merely after it chronologically. Perhaps that is the case but I haven’t read anything to that effect, so it seems to be unfair.

#5 Seanna Watson on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 1:53pm

Re Monty Python, it’s interesting to note that the last time a charge was laid under Canada’s Blasphemy law was in 1980, when an Anglican priest made a complaint against a theatre showing Life of Brian. (

Hopefully, Canada will soon be rid of this antiquated law, which leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy when we try to champion cases such as that of Bangladeshi bloggers, and Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia.

(More on CFI vs Canada’s Blasphemy Law:

#6 Christopher (Guest) on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 3:41pm

On the contrary, ALL religions MUST be mocked, and religious people must also, suffer constant mockery for believing in fairy tales.

No belief is safe from mockery - and ALL belief must be mocked ceaselessly, tirelessly and with dedication.

Only by mockery can we expose religious people, and religion for the intolerant idiots they truly are. Mockery is a time-honoured tradition, applied to all stupid beliefs, and all religions, by all right-thinking people.

Banning mockery is a slippery slope to theocracy and the evil it ALWAYS leads to.

#7 Mario (Guest) on Thursday November 03, 2016 at 9:44pm

“...and ALL belief must be mocked ceaselessly, tirelessly and with dedication.”

Including your belief that ceaseless mockery actually accomplishes anything?

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