The Book of Mormon, an award-winning musical by the creators of “South Park,” has opened in Salt Lake City. As ABC news put it, “The biting satirical musical that mocks Mormons received a rousing reception Tuesday in its first-ever showing in the heart of Mormonlandia, kicking off a sold-out, two-week run at a Salt Lake City theater.” So as in New York and Los Angeles, The Book of Mormon is a smash hit, contrary to what some expected.
“Despite the jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs,” ABC news explains, “there were no protests outside and no mass walkouts during opening night. The playbill did include three advertisements from the Mormon church, including a picture of a smiling man with the words, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”
In similar style, during the Los Angeles run, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, released a statement: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
Clearly, the Mormons, whose six million American members include 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, can take a joke at their own expense. This marks a stark contrast to Muslims and Islam, by some accounts the fastest growing religion in America. When it comes to satire of their religion, Muslims respond in a rather different way. Consider, for example, what happened in January at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which published caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.
As the BBC noted, two masked gunmen dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles got out and approached the offices. They shot dead caretaker Frederic Boisseau, bodyguard Franck Brinsolaro, editor Stephane Charbonnier and four other cartoonists, plus three members of the editorial staff and a guest at the meeting. Witnesses said they had heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic while calling out the names of the journalists.” The two Muslims also killed a French policeman. “One of the attackers then walked up to the injured officer on the pavement and shot him dead at close range.”
This carnage was all over a few cartoons, but films on Islam draw a similar response. In 2004, as the New York Times reported, “Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker and writer who had recently made a television film critical of Islam, was shot and stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street on Tuesday.” The attacker, a Muslim, left a note with passages from the Quran.
In his 1983 novel The Marrakesh One-Two, Richard Grenier noted the difficulties of making a movie about Mohammed, too holy to be shown or even to speak. Grenier’s model was The Message (1977) by Moustapha Akkad, starring Anthony Quinn and subtitled The Story of Islam. Akkad, a Syrian who had worked with Sam Peckinpah, suggested the presence of Mohammed with a shadow. Orthodox Muslims denounced the film and the Nation of Islam took hostages. In 2005 in Jordan, a terrorist bomb claimed the life of Moustapha Akkad.
Producers were not eager to buy the film rights to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which drew a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie managed to escape the death sentence but as Vanity Fair recalled, “bombs exploded in bookshops in the U.S. and the U.K.; the book’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Turkish translator was attacked, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and two clerics in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia who spoke out against the fatwa were shot and killed.” In total, “more than 60 people died in the controversy.”
Meanwhile, there is no Islamic equivalent to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which also became a movie. There is no Muslim equivalent to Mel Brooks’ History of the World in which Moses manages to drop five of the original 15 commandments. Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, said he had heard every Moses joke. As David Steinberg had it, God urges Moses to take off his shoes and approach. Moses burns his feet and God gleefully shouts “Aha! Third one today!”
Comics, novelists, filmmakers and dramatists can satirize Judaism and Christianity, in all their variations, in complete safety and with great financial reward. As the record shows, those who try that with Islam may wind up dead. So while The Book of Mormon sells out in Salt Lake City, a musical comedy on Islam won’t be opening any time soon. Scholars of comparative religion, along with the rest of the nation, might note the contrast.