The new Jesus and Mo strip, called “pure”, came with this information:
“This week’s strip is inspired by the depressing story of a young gymnast who made fun of the wrong religion and is now being punished for it.”
The “depressing story”, first published in The Sun, shows British gymnasts Luke Carson and Louis Smith, clearly drunk at a wedding, mocking Islam in a hotel room, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) and pretending to pray to Mecca by bowing down on a rug. Have a look at the footage, please.
The UK’s National Secular Society, in a link that inspired the cartoon, notes that Smith was instantly castigated by Muslims as well as secular organizations, and then draws a continuum between Smith’s behavior and the severe punishments meted out to blasphemers in many Muslim countries:
Condemnation came swiftly from Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadan Foundation, who asserted “our faith is not to be mocked” and called on Smith to “apologise immediately”.
Or else what? One wonders. Because Mohammed Shafiq has form when it comes to whipping up hostility against people lawfully exercising their right to free expression. Back in 2014 when Maajid Nawaz tweeted a Jesus & Mo cartoon with a message saying he wasn’t offended by the depiction of Mohammad, Shafiq threatened to “notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries.”
Following Shafiq’s lead, other condemnation of Smith soon followed. A Muslim councillor in Peterborough withdrew his support for the four-time Olympic medallist to receive the Freedom of the City. Sponsors distanced themselves from the athlete. British Gymnastics, the official governing body for the sport, threatened Smith with expulsion. “British Gymnastics does not condone the mocking of any faith or religion”, said a spokesperson.
For his part, Smith issued a swift apology and a statement in which he recognised the “severity” of his mistake.
Again, here’s the screenshot (click on it to see the behavior at issue), and it would behoove you to watch the drunken antics (only 1.5 minutes long) before passing judgment:
Now there’s no doubt that Smith had every legal right to say what he did, and probably wouldn’t have done this when he was sober. And there’s no doubt that what he did was blasphemy, and would (and did) suffer more for a display of anti-Islamic sentiment than of, say, anti-Christian sentiment.
But I’m not sure that he’s really mocking religion rather than the religious. In other words, is this simply mockery of a faith, or is it true Islamophobia—bigotry against Muslims? It seems to me that it’s close to the latter. An equivalent would be this: Smith dons a yarmulke, a big plastic nose and beard, and then pulls out a wad of cash, pretending to be a grasping Jew worshiping money. Is that criticism of Judaism or of Jews? Granted, the latter doesn’t include religious behavior like Smith’s praying toward Mecca, but throw in a bit of broken Yiddish and some davening (Jewish bowing during prayer), and you have what many would call anti-Semitism.
What I see here is not mockery of faith alone, but of those who follow the faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll defend Smith’s behavior vigorously, and will decry Islam’s incessant tendency to punish that kind of behavior not with counter-speech, but with physical attacks and death. But there’s a big difference between a drunken mockery of worshiping Muslims and sober, reasoned criticism of Islam of the type purveyed by Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali—or of a discussion about the contribution of blind religious faith to terrorism.
So here, for once, I have to differ with the Jesus and Mo artist and with the National Secular Society’s conclusion:
However well-intentioned, over-reactions like those we’ve seen this week to Louis Smith’s mockery of religion have a disastrously chilling effect on free speech. It plays into the hands of the Islamic world’s professional offence takers who would like nothing more than to see all criticism of Islam silenced once and for all.
Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free country. If religion expects to be tolerated it needs to be tolerant and robust enough to withstand mockery. Let’s insist on respect for people’s rights, but not their beliefs. Bigotry and hatred need to be called out, but there should be no shame in mocking religion. So let’s be assertive in defending our liberal values and in doing so cut Louis Smith some slack.
Note: Smith was not threatened (although perhaps such threats are implicit), but simply criticized with counter-speech. (The threats of expulsion from the British Gymnastics society are a different issue, and debatable.) And he’s mocking religious behavior, not religious belief. Yes, mockery is a tactic useful in calling attention to religious malfeasance, but Charlie Hebdo’s mockery is surely more incisive than Smith’s boorish cries and prayers, or Mr. Deity’s videos making fun of Christian beliefs and the Abrahamic god.
While many might not see a difference here, I do. But maybe readers don’t. I ask you to weigh in below and see if the Secular Society and Jesus and Mo artist are overreacting to criticism of a behavior that, if it was mocking other faiths, might arouse equally strong offense.