Yes – Michael Everett
“A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Pagan and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop…and they talk, laugh, drink coffee and become good friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not an asshole.” – Anonymous
It seems like every week there is a different celebrity tending on Facebook because they have said or done something that has caused offence. This time it was the turn of Louis Smith, star of Strictly Come Dancing and, apparently, also a sportsman of some kind. He was filmed mocking Islam; the footage went viral and he was promptly banned from competition for two months.
First of all, let us get our facts straight. Louis was already on thin ice following his inappropriate behaviour towards a sixteen-year-old female gymnast. This means that he had twice breached British Athletics’ code of conduct, and it was with this in mind that the decision was taken to impose a ban. There can be no question that the ban was entirely justified. When you join any organisation, which has a code of conduct, you consent to be punished if you breach the terms of that code. If you disagree with the code, then you should not have joined the organisation in the first place. It really is as simple as that.
The question as to the morality of his actions is a different one. Free speech is a privilege, not a right. To think otherwise is to allow the likes of Donald Trump to spout abuse to their heart’s content. Does this stifle our freedom of expression? No, it does not. You are legally and morally obligated not to walk into a shop and help yourself to what is on the shelves without paying. Likewise, you are legally and morally obligated to treat other people with respect. If you want absolute freedom, go and live on a desert island. It really is as simple as that.
Satire, it is worth saying here at the end, is a special case. At its very best, it can humble the mighty and empower the meek. What is in the Louis Smith video is not, even by the most generous definition, to be called satire. It has nothing meaningful to say about the Islamic faith and the place it has, or should have, in our society. The purpose of satire, like the purpose of a newspaper article, is to make a point.
That icon of religious satire, The Life of Brian, is a good example of a very different beast. It actually goes out of its way to respect the beliefs of Christians. The reason it qualifies as justifiable satire is that it has a worthy target, that of blind and ignorant fanaticism. Just because mocking the actions of a Muslim at prayer draws a laugh from a few drunk idiots does not make it satire. Such humour is no more satirical, no more valuable to society, than pointing out that a cloud formation is shaped like a knob.
No – Liam Kerrigan
The problem with living in an open, tolerant, liberal democracy is that sometimes we have to tolerate things that we dislike or find distasteful. Certainly, I have to tolerate Piers Morgan’s continued existence, as much as I may often wish that it were otherwise. But tolerance would not be tolerance were we not made to put up with something we do not necessarily like. Given that we pride ourselves on being an open, tolerant, liberal democracy, it seems strange that Louis Smith was handed a two-month sentence by British Gymnastics for appearing in a video in which he and a friend drunkenly ‘mock Muslims’ whilst at a wedding. In the clip, should you not have seen the footage yourself, Smith’s friend removes a rug from the wall of a lobby and starts pretending to pray – kneeling, bowing and saying ‘Allahu Akbar’. Nothing derogatory is said about Islam or Muslims, the two just appear to mock Islamic prayer. And for this Louis Smith is being punished? It is disgraceful and seems to send a strange, if not dangerous, message.
Why should religion not be subject to ridicule and satire? Well, the answer is, of course, that it has been subject to this repeatedly. I’ve lost count of how many times I have watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I still find myself occasionally shouting “drink!” like Father Jack in the comedy series Father Ted. I have tried to memorise Alice’s ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ monologue from The Vicar of Dibley, but I’m yet to succeed. In all these, is religion not mocked and satirised? Are religious practices not ridiculed? Why is it that we find it acceptable in these cases, but not in the case of Louis Smith? Is it simply because in this case it is Islamic practice being ridiculed, and that in a time where Muslims are increasingly subject to hate-crimes we have subsequently overcompensated (to put it mildly)? It is incredibly dangerous to conflate mockery with hatred, and the practice with the people. Not only does this trivialise the harm caused by actual xenophobia and bigotry, it infringes upon the rights of people to laugh at authority, the foundation of any democratic society. You have the right practice your religion and I have the right to laugh at it; you have the right to be offended but I have the right to find things funny – in each case the two must coexist if society is to be in any way considered tolerant. And that Smith is punished simply for mocking prayer says that offence trumps tolerance. Again, we must ask whether Smith would have received this sentence if he had recited Monty Python’s mockery of the Lord’s Prayer from The Meaning of Life: “Oh Lord! Ooh you are so big…”
The ban should never have been handed to Louis Smith. Apart from the fact that a number of Muslims have said that they found the video quite funny, or were not bothered by it, even if they were Smith should still be allowed to compete. Just as we would protect the right of anyone to practice their religion and be upset if it is mocked, we must also defend the right to mock it in the first place against any threat of punishment.
(Image courtesy of IB Times UK)