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Muhammad on South Park

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When South Park is censored, then things are a lot worse than we thought they were. Here’s an extract from an Op Ed piece that appeared in The New York Times on April 26th written by Ross Douthat.

You can’t portray Muhammad on American television anymore, as South Park’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, discovered in 2006, when they tried to parody the Danish cartoon controversy — in which unflattering caricatures of the prophet prompted worldwide riots — by scripting another animated appearance for Muhammad. The episode aired, but the cameo itself was blacked out, replaced by an announcement that Comedy Central had refused to show an image of the prophet.

For Parker and Stone, the obvious next step was to make fun of the fact that you can’t broadcast an image of Muhammad. Two weeks ago, “South Park” brought back the “super best friends,” but this time Muhammad never showed his face. He “appeared” from inside a U-Haul trailer, and then from inside a mascot’s costume.

These gimmicks then prompted a writer for the New York-based Web site revolutionmuslim.com to predict that Parker and Stone would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 for his scathing critiques of Islam. The writer, an American convert to Islam named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, didn’t technically threaten to kill them himself. His post, and the accompanying photo of van Gogh’s corpse, was just “a warning … of what will likely happen to them.”

This passive-aggressive death threat provoked a swift response from Comedy Central. In last week’s follow-up episode, the prophet’s non-appearance appearances were censored, and every single reference to Muhammad was bleeped out. The historical record was quickly scrubbed as well: The original “Super Best Friends” episode is no longer available on the Internet.

In a way, the muzzling of “South Park” is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions’ cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. It’s no worse than the German opera house that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because it included a scene featuring Muhammad’s severed head. Or Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet’s third wife. Or Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the controversial Danish cartoons … in a book about the Danish cartoon crisis. Or the fact that various Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians — the list includes Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Michel Houellebecq in France, Mark Steyn in Canada and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands — have been hauled before courts and “human rights” tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam.

But there’s still a sense in which the “South Park” case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren’t allowed to cross. But because it’s a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.

South Park, as anyone under the age of fifty who watches television knows, has made fun of everything and everyone, including most religions. When this iconic TV program capitulates, two things are clear to me. One is that any religion that cannot live with being made fun of is in decline. It may take as long as it took for the Ottoman Empire to collapse, but it will. The second is that any society that doesn’t tolerate making fun of any religion is also doomed intellectually. Compromising intellectual freedom leads to ossification if not numerical collapse.

European intellectual society has betrayed itself. Some argue it did it when Jean-Paul Sartre ostracized Albert Camus for daring to distance himself from USSR communism. American academia is in danger of going that way too.

I subscribe to the New York Review of Books in spite of its flaws, such as Tony Judt writing about being Jewish. He might be an excellent historian, but what he calls Jewish and what I call Jewish have absolutely nothing in common. When he writes about his version, I cringe. But the good in the NYR far outweighs the bad. Something I cannot say for the London Review of Books, a kind of intellectual Amnesty International, pretending to be objective but not.

The attempt at a new Jewish Review of Books strikes me as infelicitous and farcical unless the quality of its writing far exceeds that of the NYR. It is another example of how to throw money away tilting at the wrong windmills. It is only going to preach to the choir.

The real drive needs to be to ensure that at universities, from where the next generation of intellectual opinion-makers will come, are exposed to libertarian, objective, and contrarian opinions, so that they will not become the cowardly failures who kowtow to bullying like Comedy Central, Yale, etc., etc.

I used to enjoy watching Comedy Central irreverence–Bill Maher’s demolition of silly religion. Now I know they are cowards, only going for soft targets but chickening out in the face of bullies. In the long run, as I have said before, any religion that tries to suppress criticism or objects to a little harmless satire has lost it. For this reason alone, I say long live Dawkins, Hitchens, and their nutty crew. At least they have guts. The only way to stop fundamentalism from winning is to keep on pushing back at the bullies.

13 thoughts on “Muhammad on South Park

  1. very well said Jeremy. wonder what Gordon would say about your "bigoted" comments. Now that was true comedy! Shabbat shalom from Yerushaliyim.

  2. If you think it's bad in the US, you should come over here where all parties toady to the Muslims. What makes me laugh is that they talk of fundamentalists and moderates in the Islamic population but the so-called moderates never criticise the crimes of the fundamentalists. BUT they are a large minority in this country and they have the vote so everyone is very careful not to offend them. Oh! Perfidious Albion.

    What is most pressing at the moment in the UK are the "winning ways" of Nicholas Clegg and his mainly grotty party who are anti-Israel to the point of anti-Semitism (which they deny vociferously). They enjoy considerable financial and verbal support from noted Jew-hating arabs which, thank goodness, has received some publicity in the Daily Telegraph. Having said that, the left of the Labour Party and the right of the Tory Party are not much better and as I've said before, it's time to watch the clock with regard to being Jewish and moving on.

    Thank you for your insightful article, Jeremy, and Shabbat Shalom.

  3. True that that Comedy Central behaved in a cowardly way, but I feel about South Park and Bill Maher (who is, by the way, on HBO), as well as John Stewart and Steven Colbert as you do about Hitchens and Dawkins. We need them, and Colbert and Maher still go where no others dare.

  4. Anonymous:
    Yes, I agree, as indeed we need Rowan Atkinson in the UK who seems the only entertainer willing to stand up in public against creeping fundamentalist censorship of the media there too.

  5. Leila:

    It's a sad fact that you cannot win political power in the UK without the inner-cities, and they are dominated by ex-Commies or "The Loonie Left" and Muslims. Therefore, no party that wants power will fail to court the Muslim vote and appease them.
    The only difference between the three parties is this.

    The Conservatives try to avoid the issue, but certainly would never at election time say anything pro-Israel or Pro-Jewish, but they have more Jews and pro-Jews in senior positions than other parties.

    Much of Labour is at core now anti-Israel and anti-Jew, even though some of its leadership is sympathetic. But it allows its candidates to court Muslims and to make anti-Israel speeches and distribute anti-Israel pamphlets.

    The Lib Dems are, except for Clegg, riddled with anti-Israel fanatics and actively encourage virulent anti-Jewish, anti-Israel campaigning, as the recent pamphlets distributed in Liverpool by the party candidates attest.

    What's left? The Fascists? Sadly, if no one else is actually saying there is a problem that must be addressed they will win votes!

    East or West, my dear, but one way or the other!

  6. >very well said Jeremy. wonder what Gordon would say about your "bigoted" comments. Now that was true comedy! Shabbat shalom from Yerushaliyim.

    See my reply to Leila. But you, my friend, are in the right place! Shabbat Shalom

  7. Jeremy, I don't know why you absolve Nick Clegg. Nile Gardiner's article in the Daily Telegraph of 21st April, tells a different and very unpleasant story.

  8. Jeremy,

    I can't find any ex-Commies or "The Loonie Left" in inner city London. The Muslims I know live in places like Chelmsford but aspire to Stanmore or better still, Hendon. They are fundamentalist about accountancy exams and trying to move to areas with good state secondary schools. That must be the problem with fundamentalist Muslims, even though for the most part they are brown skinned, they blend in with everyone else so it's very difficult to distinguish them but before you know it they'll be running the media, the banking system and the Tory Party while still being fundamentalist, secretly.

    For a different perspective, see the enormous number of comments generated by this light-hearted report on living in Tel Aviv published by that bastion of fundamentalist Islam, The Lawyer,
    http://www.thelawyer.com/postcard-from-tel-aviv/1004038.article

  9. Leila:
    Quite the contrary to what you suggest, I believe Clegg IS the worst of all for what he allows his party to do!!! I absolve him of nothing. I expected better and am therefore all the more disappointed.
    J

  10. News from Nowhere:
    Thank you. I am glad for that alternative viewpoint, though I suspect it is as far to one extreme as mine to the other, probably the truth lies half-way between.
    Jeremy

  11. Jeremy – I only wish you are right when you say that "any religion that cannot live with being made fun of is in decline". Surely most religions at the height of their power were intolerant of parody as are most regimes in the world. Perhaps, and sadly, the reverse is true, that tolerance of parody and teasing is a sign of religion in decline, at least in terms of secular power.

  12. simon.freeman:
    Yes, but religions grow and thrive usually with initial idealism. Later they revive when reformations try to return to earlier "purity". Rigidity is almost always a symptom of being under assault. Take Papal Infallibility, only introduced after the threat from Darwinism and secularism. Similarly, excessive strictness in orthodoxies is a reaction to excessive liberalism, etc.

  13. Personally I find this disgusting, religion is a human construct anyway, so who gives a damn what some deluded people think about what is basically a character. When will people accept religion doesn't mean anything and focus on something important.

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