Louis Smith: I want to apologise directly to the Muslim community

Olympic gymnast Louis Smith has told 5Pillars that his behaviour in a video where he is shown mocking Islam was “inexcusable,” and that he wants to make amends by learning more about the religion.

Speaking to Roshan Muhammed Salih, Smith said his comments weren’t racist but acknowledged that he is ignorant about religion and that he had let a lot of people down.

The video, leaked by The Sun newspaper, showed Smith with fellow gymnast Luke Carson laughing while pretending to pray and shouting “Allahu Akbar.”

Smith is shown giggling and holding a drink as Carson takes a hanging rug off the wall. He then says “Six o’clock prayers” as the friend repeatedly says “Allahu Akbar”. Carson then kneels on  the rug, bowing in mock worship.

At that point a female wedding guest enters the frame and says to Carson: “Actually, you are taking the p***, actually.” But Smith retorts: “No, no he’s not, he’s doing his six o’clock prayers.”

Carson yells out, “The Prophet Muhammad,” before Smith says: “Sixty virgins.” It continues as the woman says: “You are not funny.” Smith insists: “Yes it is.”

British Gymnastics has announced it is investigating the incident.

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Louis Smith has represented Team GB in the past three Olympic games and won Strictly Come Dancing in 2012.

Roshan Muhammed Salih: We’ve all seen the video, what’s your message to the Muslim community?

Louis Smith: Just a sincere apology. I have to face up to what I did…. My message is just sorry for letting everyone down. My behaviour was inexcusable. I’m ignorant of religion as a whole, not just Islam, and what started out in the evening as just fun and games progressed into something very offensive. And I’m trying to right some wrong decisions and rebuild some respect that’s been broken.

RMS: Was there a specific reason why the joke was on Muslims and Islam? How did it happen that way?

Smith has appeared at three Olympic Games
Smith has appeared at three Olympic Games

LS: We were in a bar at 4am, it was a wedding party and the bar had finished… the music had stopped and we were our own source of entertainment. And we were singing old school classic songs … and just having a laugh amongst friends…. We then went onto singing Disney songs … so we started singing Lion King and we were up on our feet prancing around the bar… and doing all the actions. Then we went onto Jungle Book and I picked up a chair and was pretending to scratch my back like Balloo with a big old palm tree and we were in hysterics… And then we went onto Aladdin and I said: “you know, what would be perfect is if we had a Magic Carpet,” and Luke went and got that tapestry off the wall and that is when things went too far over the edge. And that’s how we ended up getting in that situation.

RMS: You looked pretty drunk in the video, did that contribute to it?

LS: It’s definitely not an excuse for my actions, the only thing I can say about the alcohol in my system is that it definitely didn’t give me a barrier. It’s the kind of thing when you wake up the next morning cringing at what’s happened and everyone’s had those regret feelings before. At the time I just wasn’t able to see a line that I was crossing. And given the momentum we had beforehand – you know laughing and joking around – it just snowballed and I wasn’t able to think about the actions I was doing.

RMS: And then it was shared on that Whatsapp group, did that happen straight away?

LS: I think people feel from watching the clip that was put online that I started filming just to capture the moment of us mocking Islam when really it was a 19 minute video of the whole thing so we didn’t set out to mock Islam or to offend the Muslim community , that’s not how it started at all.

RMS: You’ve come out and apologised and said “I was an idiot” etc; Luke Carson hasn’t done that. Do you know how he feels?

LS: I’ve been in the brunt of public abuse before and at this point I know I have to accept the actions that I’ve caused. This is all very new to Luke, he’s a normal guy and he’s caught in the crossfire of someone I think who’s trying to get at me. Luke’s been receiving a lot of threats, a lot of attention and its very new to him, it’s very scary. So what he did was apologise, he put out a public statement saying that he regrets his actions and then he put his profiles on private just to limit the kind of messages that he was receiving. Luke is in a position where he has a normal job and that is on the line now, he’s having to go through disciplinary hearings. He’s got a baby being expected in December, but he did apologise and he is very remorseful like I am.

RMS: Louis, what do you know about Islam?

LS: Not too much at all to be honest, I don’t know too much about Christianity, I don’t know much about Judaism, I’m quite ignorant about religion. My upbringing has been school, my mum would pick me up from school and take me to the gym, I would train until 8 o clock at night and I’ve done that all my life. Since leaving school I’ve been training twice a day and everything has been focused around making sport my career. I’ve not been in tune with religion and what I do pick up is either from movies, comedies things like that. In the video when you see me causing offence, I’m saying things that I’ve got no clue about.

RMS: I know there’s a large Muslim community in Peterborough where you’re from so you must have had contact with Muslims?

LS: Yes, I have come into contact with Muslims but I’ve never had the time or given myself the time to understand the religion or any other religion

RMS: Do you have any Muslims that you’re close to and how have they reacted to this?

LS: I’ve had a few people that I know personally who’ve said: “I know that’s not you, I’m a little bit disappointed if I’m honest but I’m going to stand by you. I’ve spoken to people in my community and tried to explain to them this isn’t who you are… So I’ve had a lot of local support but at the same time they have been disappointed. A lot of people have said we’ve followed you from being a Peterborough boy, we’ve followed you your whole career and you’ve let us all down.

Smith was speaking to Roshan Muhammed Salih

RMS: Do you want to learn more about Islam and do you feel you have a responsibility to do that now?

LS: Yes because I want to rebuild that trust and I want to prove to people that I’m not as ignorant as I come across in that video. It’s not a clear representation of who I am, it doesn’t reflect how I’ve been brought up and what I believe in. And there’s a bigger message, there probably are people out there like me who are ignorant of religion and who will be in a similar position, and they will slip up one day… so I want to get a message to them to take a step back… There’s a local mosque in Peterborough that’s invited me down … so there are plans to get involved and open my mind a bit because I have been very offensive.

RMS: Do you think you’ve been a bit remiss that you haven’t learned more about this stuff given that you’re in the public limelight?

LS: It’s definitely opened my eyes. I do live in a very closed world and my life up to this point has been sport and then when things progressed in sport it’s been very sport and entertainment focused. And apart from that nothing else has really crept in at all. But I’m 27 years old now and I definitely need to start looking at the world in a bigger picture.

RMS: You say what you’ve said was offensive but not racist. But you’ve mocked Arab voices, you said “Assalamalaikum” in a funny voice, you’re laughing as Luke is mocking the prayer, you talk about 60 virgins, when the lady said “it wasn’t funny” you said “it is.” You don’t necessarily have to refer to someone’s race to be racist, do you still feel that what you said wasn’t racist?

LS: Yes, I wasn’t making fun of where Luke was pretending to be from. I wasn’t taking the mick out of a country where the state religion is Islam, I wasn’t condemning skin tone. I was being very offensive to the religion.

RMS: The vast majority of Muslims are black or brown people, is it so easy to differentiate race from religion? Do you really know what racism is? It isn’t just about criticising someone’s skin colour, it could be their religion or culture.

LS: I think “racism” is a very strong word and when you’re causing offence to something so sensitive I think it’s quite easy to attach the racism word to that. I’ve been on the receiving end of racism all my life growing up and I know what it’s like to not be able to change something about yourself and other people still pick that as a problem.

RMS: In a way it’s even worse when a black person or a brown person picks on another ethnic minority, you must know what it’s like to suffer racism.

LS: I didn’t feel at the time and I still don’t feel that I was directing my jokes at an ethnic minority in terms of skin tone, it was just religion and at the time I wasn’t laughing at Islam, I was laughing at what Luke was doing.

RMS: Some people on social media are saying that we shouldn’t over-react to your video and some of it was actually quite funny. What would you say to that?

LS: It’s not funny. But I don’t know anything about Islam so it’s hard for me to say who’s overreacting and who isn’t. People are entitled to their own opinion and my opinion is that I was very offensive.

RMS: I’d like to read you some of the 100s of comments we’ve been receiving on our Facebook page. One lady said: “As a Muslim Islam teaches me to forgive so you are forgiven from my side but not forgotten.” Another man said: “He should be sent on a course to learn about Islam to target the ignorance in him.” And another said: “He’s been forced to apologise, it’s not sincere.” So is this a sincere apology or are you just doing it to avoid punishment and because your career and endorsements are on the line?

Louis Smith's apology
Louis Smith’s apology

LS: This is 100% a sincere apology… The thing that I’m most upset about is the personal messages I’ve received saying we followed your whole career, my children look up to you, my children started gymnastics because of you … I grew up in a council estate from a single parent mum, she’s grafted and worked her life and soul to put every ounce of energy into me achieving my dream, and what I’ve tried to do my whole career is make her proud and try to inspire others in a similar situation to me to change their life for the better.

RMS: Why did it take you so long to apologise? This story broke on the Saturday morning but you didn’t actually apologise until the Sunday evening.

LS: I was working up until Saturday night… and there was lots going on, there was lots of hatred and the hatred messages were overriding the more rational ones. And what I didn’t want to do when everyone’s flared up, everyone’s tensions are high, other news articles are picking it up, the word “racism” is being thrown around – it was a very vicious time – and I didn’t want to put a statement out that antagonized the situation. So I tried to let things calm a little bit and I spoke to my agent to ask him if I could put something out and he said it’s a very sensitive topic and if you do apologise it needs to be sincere, to be worded so that you don’t cause any further offence.

RMS: Do you think you should be punished?

LS: I am being punished. I’ve been punished from the Saturday. I’ve hardly left my home, the only time I have been leaving is to try and put this situation behind me. I’ve had meetings with sponsors who’ve wanted to know what’s been going on, I’m being investigated by British Gymnastics, I could be expelled from the sport for good.

RMS: Would you complain if you were?

LS: It would be a very sad way to go out having spoken to you about what I’ve tried to do with my career, how I’ve tried to inspire people, how I’ve tried to turn other people’s lives around… to be expelled from the sport for something that for the time was very stupid of me to have done, it would be a very sad way to go.

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