Brendan O’Neill

We must have the freedom to mock Islam

We must have the freedom to mock Islam
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How did mocking Islam become the great speechcrime of our times? Louis Smith, the gymnast, is the latest to fall foul of the weird new rule against ridiculing Islam. A leaked video shows Smith laughing as his fellow gymnast, Luke Carson, pretends to pray and chants ‘Allahu Akbar’. Smith says something derogatory about the belief in ‘60 virgins’ (he means 72 virgins). Following a firestorm online, and the launch of an investigation by British Gymnastics, Smith has engaged in some pretty tragic contrition. He says he is ‘deeply sorry’ for the ‘deep offence’ he caused. He’s now basically on his knees for real, praying for pity, begging for forgiveness from the guardians of what may be thought and said.

The response to Smith’s silly video has been so mad you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d been caught snorting coke or hanging with prostitutes. But all he did was have an innocent laugh at the expense of a global religion. He made light fun of a faith system. That’s not allowed anymore? This was a ‘shock video’, yells the press, as if it were a sex tape. Angry tweeters want Adidas and Kellogg’s to stop using Smith in their ads, as if he’d been exposed as a violent criminal. In truth, he has simply been revealed as having an opinion — a jokey opinion, he insists — about a religion. He faces public ridicule and potential punishment for taking the mick out of a belief system. Whatever happened to the right to blaspheme?

Smith’s travails confirm the authoritarian impulse behind the desire to stamp out Islamophobia. Campaigners against Islamophobia insist they simply want to protect Muslims from harassment, which is a noble goal. But in truth they often seem concerned with protecting Islam from ridicule. Indeed, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, says Smith must ‘apologise immediately’ (he did) because ‘our faith is not to be mocked, our faith is to be celebrated’. Excuse me? Mr Shafiq, and a great many other people, should acquaint themselves with the principle of freedom of speech, which absolutely includes the right to mock faiths. Including Islam.

It’s not surprising that Mr Shafiq can casually insist that Islam is ‘not to be mocked’, or that online mobs can demand that Smith effectively be expelled from sporting and public life for being less than cravenly respectful of Islam. Because we live in a time when having a pop at Islam is pretty much the worst thing you can do. A moral forcefield has been erected around this religion. And it is patrolled both by the law, which now arrests people who confront Muslims on the basis that this is ‘inciting racial hatred’, and by various advocacy groups and media commentators who will brand everything from dislike of the burqa to raising questions about mass immigration as ‘Islamophobic’. Indeed, the Runnymede Trust, which popularised the term Islamophobia in the 1990s, describes Islamophobia as ‘the dread or hatred of Islam’. Not Muslims; Islam. It is now wicked, and potentially criminal, to hate a religion. This is really bad.

We’re witnessing the sly resuscitation of the stricture against blasphemy. England and Wales finally dumped the common law offence of blasphemous libel in 2008. Yet through the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006), which forbids the incitement of hatred on the basis of religion, and the rise and rise of Islamophobia policing, we are as restricted as ever in what we can say about religion. Well, about one religion. The demonisation of people who dislike or even hate Islam, the insistence that Islam is ‘not to be mocked’, is an affront to the hard-won right to doubt religious beliefs, to offend against gods, to say certain faiths are wrong, even mad. This might all look like an innocent measure to protect Muslims from offence, but it does serious damage to the very Enlightenment ideal that we shouldn’t have to kowtow to any belief or prophet and should have the right to slam them all as we see fit.

If Smith had been filmed bullying Muslims on a bus or something, I wouldn’t have the slightest problem with his being called before British Gymnastics to account for himself. You shouldn’t attack people. But their faith? Their ideas? Their belief system? We must be free to attack those, and even laugh at them if we like. Think about the message this latest clampdown on mocking Islam sends to radical young Muslims in particular. It surely fortifies them in their belief that any criticism of Islam is unacceptable and might deserve punishment. We often wonder why radical Islamists are so tetchy, so determined to smack down, sometimes literally, those who take aim at their faith. Well, wonder no more — they’ve grown up in societies that do precisely the same, which demonise and criminalise criticism of Islam, and which in the process give a green light to Islamist intolerance of the ‘enemies’ of Islam.