The National Secular Society (NSS) has said Muslims are creating a “special category” to protect Islam from criticism in the UK, and the press and British institutions have “internalised [a] de facto blasphemy law” after a gymnast was banned from competition after “mocking” the religion.
“We need to challenge this cultural taboo against mocking religion – but let’s be clear, I say religion, but really Islam is trying to put itself into a special category – that’s what the problem is,” the communications officer for the NSS, Benjamin Jones, told talkRADIO.
“Other religions broadly in the country, particular Christianity, accept the hard fought wins of the enlightenment, that religion is not in a special category that can not be criticised or mocked,” he added.
This Tuesday, British Gymnastics banned Olympic champion Louis Smith from the sport for two months because he had breached the institution’s code of conduct and supposedly failed to “use [his] profile to have a positive impact on… communities”.
In a leaked private video, Mr. Smith was seen drunkenly pretending to pray in an Islamic style at a friend’s wedding reception, whilst saying the Muslim phrase and war cry “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
Mr. Jones slammed British Gymnastics’ code of conduct, which forbids athletes from making any “offensive or abusive remark or joke”. “That’s obviously such a broad category, that could include absolutely anything,” he said.
However, the Louis Smith incident is “just one episode in a much bigger problem that we have”, he added, pointing to an ICM poll release this year, showing that 78 per cent of British Muslim believe there should be no right to publish images of Muhammad in the UK.
“There is a fundamental divide between this large number of Muslims and the rest of society,” he said. “I think Islamists have realised that they can not have an outright blasphemy law… so instead they’re trying to have their next best thing, which is a cultural taboo.
“And unfortunately, we’re seeing institutions like British Gymnastics helping them with that project.”
The UK’s last remaining blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 protects “discussion, criticism, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuses of particular religions… [and] practices…”
Mentioning the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Mr. Jones said: “It is about fear, and people are afraid. And there’s a whole spectrum of people who are trying to shut down criticism and mockery of Islam… and there is this real danger that everybody, including the press… have internalised this de facto blasphemy law.”
On Wednesday, Charles Walker, a Conservative MP, challenged the prime minister on the persecution of Mr. Smith, accusing politicians of “looking the other way” when the athlete was sent death threats.
“When people make fun of Christianity in this country, it rightly turns the other cheek,” he said.
“When a young gymnast, Louis Smith, makes fun of another religion widely practised in this county, he is hounded on Twitter, by the media, and suspended by his association.
“For goodness sake, Mr. Speaker, this man received death threats and we have all looked the other way. So my question to the prime minister is this: What is going on in this country because I no longer understand the rules?”
Mrs. May said she “understood the level of concern” but claimed that those exercising freedom of speech had to take responsibility for their action.
“This is a balance that we need to find,” she said. “We value freedom of expression and free speech in this country – that is absolutely essential in underpinning our democracy.
“But we also value tolerance in relation to others; we also value tolerance in relation to religions. This is one of the issues that we’ve looked at in the counter-extremism strategy that the government has produced.
“I think we need to ensure that, yes, it is right that people can have that freedom of expression, but in doing so that right has a responsibility too and that is a responsibility to recognise the importance of tolerance to others.”