Ayaan Hirsi Ali has this to say about the South Park episode entitled “200.”
The “South Park” episode “was not just funny, it wasn’t just witty” she said, but it also addressed what she called the essential issue that “one group of people, one religion, that is claiming to be above criticism, and I hope that in the aftermath of this, that we discuss that.”
The central premise of South Park is that no one is above criticism. It is one thing to abstain from depicting the Prophet Muhammad because of one’s own faith. It is quite another thing to abstain from depicting the Prophet Muhammad because the topic is off limits to everyone. That latter resolution is not the result of faith, but of fear–namely, the fear that radical Muslims will commit acts of physical violence in “response.” As I explained in my last post, it is irrational to blame the violence on the insult. Even if the violence is a response to the insult, the one does not follow inevitably from the other as a matter of cause-and-effect. There is at every step the vital element of free and rational choice.
Enter Revolution Muslim, the Internet community that got some attention for warning (and according to some, implicitly threatening) Matt Stone and Trey Parker against depicting the Prophet. In a recent post, Revolution Muslim called for “a deeper and more productive dialogue” on this matter. If they mean that earnestly, then I would like to contribute to the project of open, productive dialogue. So let’s go through their argument.
Revolution Muslim cites as its antithesis “the cloud of American debauchery.” Revolution Muslim refers to “American imperialism and its coincident culture of pagan hedonistic barbarism” as “a cancer which bites at the root of global injustice.” (Wouldn’t “biting at the root of global injustice” be good for global justice?) In other words, Revolution Muslim has no trouble handing out insults even as they declare their own faith gravely insulted. And after having said all of this, Revolution Muslim goes on to say:
This past week South Park aired an episode which insulted three of our beloved prophets: Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. Not only did they do this, but within the episode the makers of South Park made it very clear that they knew how the Muslims would feel and potentially respond to their show. In an effort to cover their actual intention to incite, the creators of South Park carefully contrived a plotline that they believed could only stump those Muslim extremists that may arise to defend the honor of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). They wished to degrade and mock a man who is held in highest regard by Muslims and many Non-Muslims alike, and indeed many have categorized Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the most influential human being that ever walked on Earth.
It is curious that this paragraph claims offense against Moses and Jesus as well as Muhammad, but sees that offense as being directed exclusively at Muslims. Indeed, the point of the episode was not to “mock” Muhammad, but to point out that we freely allow any religion but Islam, and any religious figure but Muhammad, to be publicly mocked. In this two-part episode of South Park, Siddhartha Buddha does lines of cocaine in front of children; Jesus Christ watches Internet pornography; Moses acts as a befuddled supercomputer; Joseph Smith breathes ice; Krishna transforms into Niel Diamond; and Lao Tzu reads minds and speaks in an outrageously stereotyped Chinese accent. And how is Muhammad “mocked?”
By placing the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a bear suit, the creators of South Park sought to insult the sacred, and show their blatant and general disregard for religion. By insulting our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) without the outright depicting of his image, the creators of South Park thought that they had found some loophole in the Muslim faith for them to mock.
The “loophole” in question is this one: After much deliberation, the people of South Park decide that the Prophet Muhammad can walk about in the open, so long as he is covered from head to toe. The only suitable and available costume, it seems, is a bear costume. This is (for some reason) the most offensive loophole, but it is not the only one that the show’s creators employ: Earlier in the episode, Randy Marsh shows his own rendering of Muhammad, which takes the form of an unrecognizable stick figure; just before the bear costume sequence, the Prophet is concealed inside a U-Haul, unseen and barely heard. Each time one of these workarounds is tried, the townspeople wince, expecting a violent attack at any moment and asking, “Was that… OK?”
Muhammad, then, is the only religious figure who is quite conspicuously not mocked in this episode. That’s the point. This is a satire of militant extremism, and of the cowardice of the Western media, not a gesture of American imperialism or some sort of attack against Islam.
The people of South Park spend the whole of this episode in a desperate attempt to appease whichever group is currently threatening them with physical violence. The satire, then, is not directed at any particular religious group, or even at religion generally, but at the self-congratulatory faux-morality of folding to terrorist threats. For indeed, anyone who threatens violence if such-and-such a thing is said, who inflicts his will and ideology on others by force and intimidation (i.e., terror), is by definition a terrorist.
To put it simply: Revolution Muslim, these recent South Park episodes are not an insult to you specifically, and in fact are not directed toward you at all–unless you are threatening violence against Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in which case the episodes are speaking directly to you, and in which case you should be utterly ashamed of yourselves.