When the ever-offensive creators of the popular Comedy Central cartoon “South Park” recently featured the Prophet Mohammed in a bear costume, they provoked a veiled death threat from some Islamist fanatics in New York and set off a firestorm about free speech in the process. The cable network’s cowardly response to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s perfidy – namely, censoring the show and bleeping out any reference to the prophet – unintentionally triggered the kind of backlash that radical, fascist, jihadists should have earned a long time ago. It’s ironic that it took a cartoon to spotlight the issue so brightly.
As a Catholic, I have often been offended by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The same can be said by anyone who practices Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or just about any other “ism” under the sun. The difference is that “South Park” could poke fun at Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Joseph Smith, David Blaine, or practically any other religious or cult figure, without any fear of repercussion. There is, of course, one exception. Muslim fundamentalists can’t abide it when the prophet Mohammed’s teachings are questioned, much less when the prophet himself is mocked. For a religion as certain that it has a direct pipeline to the absolute, unalterable Word of God as Islam is, too many Muslims are awfully – and too often violently – insecure about that point.
Parker and Stone believed that it was their duty to call out the hypocrisy inherent within a society that purports to champion freedom of expression, but whose mainstream media outlets simultaneously refuse to criticize – or even gently make fun of – a murderous cult that would extinguish that very freedom. Through the voices of Cartman, Kyle, Stan and (the unintelligible utterances of) Kenny, Parker and Stone place the issue that CNN, MSNBC, Fox and their media brethren and their political supporters are unwilling to face squarely on the table: not one involving the merits of Islam per se, but rather something more basic: freedom of speech.
Parker and Stone didn’t criticize the religion of Islam in any substantive way during their two-episode send up. That was a touch of genius, for what they did – without attacking any Muslims directly – was to mock the countless people of other faiths who refuse to question the tenants of Islam in even the mildest of ways, out of fear of what might become of their own skins should they dare to do so.
The supposedly edgy powers-that-be at Comedy Central dutifully assumed the posture of good, subservient dhimmis when Parker and Stone submitted their part two of their tribute to free speech, censoring any purported image of the prophet and bleeping away every mention of Mohammad’s name. The latter is rather remarkable. There is nothing in Islamic scripture that prohibits mentioning the name of the religion’s founder, but the executives at Comedy Central were so thoroughly cowed that they couldn’t bring themselves to allow cartoon characters to utter that name, which, if I didn’t mention it before, is “Mohammed.”
A subsequent exchange between Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane and comedian Penn Jillette on Larry King Live was sadly representative of the contrast between the mainstream media’s hands-off policy towards Islam and the courage that Parker and Stone displayed. McFarlane is always ready to take a swipe at other religions, but then there’s nothing risky about poking fun at people who aren’t going to do anything more than compose an angry letter in response. But would McFarlane make a joke about Islam? Heavens no. In McFarlane’s world, you don’t take the risk of insulting an enemy sworn to kill and subjugate you because there are plenty of other groups to insult who will do nothing more than write an angry letter or two. Penn Jillette’s response to McFarlane was right on the money:
“I think you cheapen Matt and Trey’s morality, strength and courage when you say ‘is the joke worth it?’ Because the question is: what is morally right?”
The public’s response to “dhimmigate” has been both swift and heartening. Had Comedy Central been less appeasing of the Islamist bullies, it would have taken even more time for a great many otherwise disinterested people to notice the appalling, violent bigotry that consumes too much of the Islamic world. Who could have imagined that the names Trey Parker and Matt Stone would ever be mentioned alongside that of Thomas Paine?
Yet, the parallels are there. When Paine penned Common Sense he shone a spotlight on British tyranny so brightly that the colonists found it impossible to ignore and, as a result, discontent with His Majesty’s government reached critical mass. This, in turn, left the British government with two equally unpalatable choices. They could ignore the movement and thus embolden the malcontents across the pond, or they could come down hard on the colonies, a policy which would simply serve as a recruiting tool for the rebellious faction in America. Lord North and George III ultimately chose the latter course, but it really didn’t matter. Once a matter of principle was transformed into a popular cause, courtesy of Thomas Paine (and, it must be admitted, others, but Paine spoke to the common man better than anyone), British colonial rule was doomed, no matter what the government did. William Pitt the Elder, Edmund Burke and other British stalwarts saw that coming, and urged the King to cut his losses, but pride ever goeth before a fall.
Pride is again on the table more than two hundred years later, courtesy of Parker and Stone, but it’s Muslim pride at issue this time around. Among the liberties Americans cherish is the right to make fun of anyone, anything and any system of belief. “South Park” censorship made it clear that there is one system of belief that believes itself to be off-limits, and this episode has created the critical mass of public opinion that will again prove impossible to ignore.
We’re already seeing the effects. Jon Stewart, bless his liberal heart, rose to defend Parker and Stone’s right of freedom of expression. Sunday night’s episode of The Simpsons began with Bart using the chalkboard to write “South Park – we’d stand behind you if we weren’t so scared” however many times Bart has to scribble his punishment of the day. Reason Magazine declared May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” More of the same, we can be sure, will be coming.
That leaves radical jihadists with the same uncomfortable, impossible choice that the British government faced in 1776 when Paine’s pamphlet first hit the streets. They can ignore the “make fun of Mohammed” movement, which will do nothing but embolden more Americans to do the same. Alternately, they can attack the growing number of Americans who dare to crack a joke at the expense of the founder of Islam, but doing so would simply outrage even more citizens who heretofore have stood silently on the sidelines, hoping that radical Islam might somehow fade away. It really doesn’t matter. The intolerance and insecurity that permeates Islam is plainly out there now and it’s impossible to ignore. Whatever those Muslims who would kill untold number of innocents in order to further their aims do going forward, they will lose – at least in America, if nowhere else.
Here’s hoping that the trend continues and that more and more Americans come to realize that there is no way to reconcile the demands of Sharia law with the inalienable rights of free peoples. How ironic that it took two irreverent, blasphemous cartoonists to make that happen.
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