Sunday, April 25, 2010


As a fan of South Park going all the way back to its debut in '97, I just have to sort of shake my head at the dust-up that's been working its way through the news cycle since last Wednesday. When the banner 200th episode of Comedy Central's signature series poked at the notion (erroneous, in my opinion) that any depiction of Islam's Prophet Muhammad is disallowed in the media for fear of backlash by extremist-types, it inevitably led to a backlash by some extremist-types. Ah, sweet irony.

Said a posting on the website of the NY-based "Revolution Muslim" (which I'd never even heard of before last week, and is apparently like six guys) aimed at creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker: "We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh." Van Gogh, FYI, is the Danish filmmaker who was murdered in '04 over his controversial film Submission (which, while offensive, in no way justified what happened to him). The post continued, "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."

We're not going to kill you, but you might end up dead. Subtle.

In response to that threat (er, warning), Comedy Central bleeped and blocked the second half of the two-parter until it was barely comprehensible, in the process prompting further outcry against the network's perceived caving. When the guy who made the posting, one Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee (née Zachary Chesser), was finally tracked down -- by Fox News, of all people! -- he turned out to be exactly what I initially thought: a confused twenty-year old. Said Chesser to Fox, regarding Parker and Stone: "They're going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It's just the reality."

No, Zachary, it's really not.

Not many Muslims are spending much time thinking about a show that traffics in offense taking aim at them too. Also, for a series that's had Jesus hosting a call-in talk show, a talking poo as a recurring character, and earlier this month a book that induces spontaneous, sustained vomiting in its readers, you're a little late hopping on the outrage train.

Of course, his little tirade predictably had the opposite reaction, with various websites galvanizing around a planned "Draw Muhammad Day" on May 20th, in solidarity with the Parkers, that I'm confident will make their approach seem positively kid-gloved by way of comparison. This signals just one more fusillade in this ever-escalating onslaught of mutually-assured stupidity.

Needless to say, this whole ridiculous story irks me on several fronts, foremost among them being this guy Chesser, little more than a kid with a keyboard and a persecution complex, becoming the de facto voice of a religion because he happens to conform to the media narrative of the Angry Muslim. Then there's the reaction to the reaction, culminating with this amazingly wrongheaded "Draw Muhammad Day." Way to lose any and all sense of perspective, guys.

First, let's talk about the Islamic prohibition on depicting Prophet Muhammad. This is something that's rooted in respect for the man and his teachings, and is thus something that those outside the religion wouldn't understand unless explained to them. Second, let's talk about satire. It serves the crucial role in a society of freeing up the discourse and allowing an open back-and-forth on certain topics that wouldn't otherwise be discussed. Of course, the messy side-effect is that sometimes satire takes aim at you, or things close to you.

For the last twelve years, whether Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, the Church of Scientology, or the Church of Latter-Day Saints, there's no institution so sacrosanct that Stone and Parker couldn't make merry sport of it. In a sense, it's the great equalizer -- no matter who you are or what group you belong to, you've probably had reason to be righteously indignant upon receiving the South Park treatment during the show's lengthy run.

They say youth is a kind of insanity, so maybe with the passage of time Chesser will get his head on straight and understand that fear and respect aren't synyonymous concepts. Forcing people to knuckle under (veiled) threats and (verbal) intimidation might satisfy your ends momentarily, but all you're doing is fostering resentment in the longer-term. This in turn ends up giving people more of a reason to show you disrespect, making the whole thing a net negative.

As a Muslim, I did think the way Stone and Parker framed their story was inappropriate, but I voted with my remote, choosing simply not to watch the second part. Nonetheless, the broader point of the episode is a valid one about free speech in the face of intimidation. This is a message that anyone -- Muslim, non-Muslim, religious, areligious -- should be able to applaud, even when disagreeing with the manner in which said message is delivered.


Omar A. said...

Nice post!

The Mad Swede said...

Small factual correction: Theo Van Gogh was Dutch, not Danish.

Excellent post in all other regards.