Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing about the recent affair of the video of Louis Smith and others that appears to mock Islam. Specifically I wish to comment on the official statement put out by British Gymnastics and widely reported in the media:

“British Gymnastics does not condone the mocking of any faith or religion and is appalled by such behaviours. Gymnastics is an inclusive sport and we are proud of members who portray the inclusive values of British Gymnastics. Members who break our code of conduct can face suspension or expulsion from our organisation. We will be investigating the behaviours reported.”

I am writing about the defensibility of such a statement and what it says about British Gymnastics as an organization, and its support for freedom of expression and belief, and inclusivity.

I appreciate that how to react to media scandals like this involves tricky ethical decisions. On this occasion however, I believe that British Gymnastics may have been in error, and I wish to see if you agree with my reasoning. The statement above is explicitly protective of faith or religion; that is, this is portrayed as unacceptable behaviour by British gymnasts to criticise or mock a faith. I happen to have strong personal views on the merits of faith and religion, but suffice it to say that faiths do not possess morally neutral stances on a range of issues. They, for example, make claims about science and metaphysics, about how knowledge should best be acquired (epistemology), about ethics and how we derive morality, and they prescribe certain beliefs and behaviours. There is no guarantee that these are correct or morally beneficial. Nor are these issues politically neutral either. Views on the merits of faiths and religions are part of the range of ethically important views that people hold. In a country where freedom of thought and expression is vital for the wider freedoms and benefits which we all enjoy, I ask if it is defensible for an organization that is, after all, not a religious one, to hold a specific stance on a specific issue like this that is protectionist of a particular view or set of views? One would not dream of disallowing criticism, nor indeed mockery, of particular political views, scientific views or any other view, so long as it could not be considered aimed at an individual person and therefore deemed harassment. There is no freedom from offense in UK law. Nor could one imagine such a scandal happening if a member or employee of British Gymnastics prayed about a group of individuals on video. Nor would or should it have happened if a British gymnast happened to want to mock atheists. Atheists would just have to put up with it, because people should have the right to express their views. Yet those are also ethically non-neutral actions that are offensive to many. I therefore ask:

Should not British Gymnastics be neutral on grounds of belief? Should it not try to create a secular space where people of all beliefs can be equally valued by the organization? Because at present, in explicitly protecting religious views and condemning contrary views, you are not being neutral on this issue. De facto, you have instituted a blasphemy law in your organization.

Should not the more proper response to have been to say “British Gymnastics is neutral on the merits of different religious views. A range of views are held on this subject, and in this country we have rights and freedoms of belief and expression which we are bound to respect, whatever our personal views of those beliefs are. The proper response to a personal view with which we disagree or by which we are offended is to use your freedom of expression to put across your alternative viewpoint. That is a personal matter which is not the job of British Gymnastics.”

I appreciate that mocking Islam is a dangerous activity in this day and age, and no doubt this was on the minds of the people issuing that statement. No doubt Louis should have known better than to make and release such a video, knowing what would then transpire. But it is still his right as a citizen to do so. Your approach, which no doubt is effective in reducing risk of life and limb, does so at a cost of our freedom of expression; effectively the people in your organization have been bullied into silence on an issue of importance on which they should, as conscientious individuals, be able to hold a personal view. Does this make it an inclusive organization? I submit that it does not; it favours those of one view and discriminates against those of other views.

Who is the winner in all this? It is not freedom, and it is not inclusivity. It is religious organizations who wish to co-opt organizations like British Gymnastics into implementing a de-facto blasphemy law. That is what has happened here. Could British Gymnastics have done something to make it otherwise?

I hope my comments and thoughts may be of some help.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Mayhew

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