South Park, Mohammed, and the First Amendment
This past weekend was the fake, pushed-ahead “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”
In response to a threat made against the creators of South Park for depicting Mohammed in their 200th episode, a Seattle-based artist, Molly Norris, sketched a cartoon titled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” It was her way of supporting the show’s creators and the First Amendment. In the cartoon, Norris had drawn teacups and pasta boxes, among other household products, that claimed to be Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. She jokingly wrote that May 20th would be the day everyone draws Mohammed. It was a fictitious event. She never intended people to actually draw Mohammed. And she never intended the cartoon to go viral. But it did and she panicked. In a frightened apology to the Muslim community, Norris posted an edited version of the cartoon on her website. It said “Nobody Draw Mohammed Day” and the cartoonist pushed the made-up event forward, writing, “Let’s make it May 2nd and get it over with. I can’t take this any mnore [sic].”
Ms. Norris’s message was about tolerance (for humor) rather than intolerance (of Muslims), but she got scared and distanced herself from her creation.
Let’s take a look back and see why she felt fear.
It all began in 2001, two months before 9/11. The creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, introduced their lead tot, Stan, to a group of “Super Best Friends” This ironic league of deities and religious figures consisted of Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-tse, Joseph Smith, and Mohammed, who was featured with flame-throwing abilities.
“So you mean to tell me that even though people fight and argue over different religions, you guys are all actually friends?” Stan asks.
“More than friends, young boy. We are Super Best Friends,” Mohammed responds to Stan.
There was no publicized outrage from viewers or fanatics.
In 2005, a number of Danish cartoonists depicted Mohammed in drawings. These images prompted worldwide riots. When Parker and Stone tried to include Mohammad in a 2006 episode, Comedy Central censored the appearance.
But for the 200th episode, which aired last month, Parker and Stone tested the network’s limits and brought back Mohammed: first as a stick figure drawn on paper, then hidden in a U-Haul, and finally disguised in a mascot’s costume as a bear.
The Website Revolution Muslim, attempting to browbeat the creators and Comedy Central, posted a pseudo-death threat on their page: “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show.” The warning was posted alongside a graphic photograph of Van Gogh’s corpse, who was killed in 2004 by an Islamic militant over a film he directed that accused Islam of condoning violence against women. The Website also listed the addresses of Comedy Central in New York as well as Stone and Parker’s production studio.
The intimidation worked, and episode 201, which was also set to feature Mohammed, hid the prophet behind bleeps and blackouts. On South Park Studio’s website, the creators noted that Comedy Central cowered in fear and censored more of episode 201 than was even necessary. For instance, “Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear,” they wrote. “It didn’t mention Mohammed at all but it got bleeped too.”
After the controversial 200th episode (though they’re all controversial), fans and foes of the show flocked to Facebook. Some thought the show was hilarious. Others were outraged. One viewer wrote that he had found all the shows “very fun,” but thought it “ridiculous” to insult another’s beliefs.
This point illustrates a classic double standard, which we as a society need to shed. All of South Park’s episodes insult someone’s beliefs or values whether blatantly (like having Buddha snort cocaine) or through crafty set-ups (like when a male South Park teacher has a sex change and believes he’s pregnant, begging the doctor to “vacuum [the fetus] out or scramble its brains” since “a woman can do whatever she wants to her body.”)
But religion-bashing on South Park is often obvious. Stone and Parker have magnified the Jewish stereotype, parodied concentration camps and the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. They have transformed Jesus into a talk show host and had him take a dump on Bush and the American flag. They’ve also chalked up Scientology as nothing more than a money-making scam and lampooned Mormonism.
“Science H. Logic,” shout South Park characters in the episode where religion ends and even atheism is shown to ruin society.
The list of those who feel wronged rises with each new episode. But satirists have the right to tread a little harder on the sacred than the rest of us because it’s excusable in context, as I discussed last year when Larry David urinated on a painting of Jesus. Like it or not, through their apostasy, Parker and Stone are actually creating equality.
In a Boing Boing Productions interview, just before the airing of their 200th episode, the show’s creators shared their thoughts on sticking firm to their comedy and their message by discussing the Danish cartoonists who depicted Mohammed.
“If [news organizations] would have… just printed the cartoons…” Matt Stone began to say.
“Everyone would rally together,” Trey Parker interrupted.
“Everyone kind of left [the Danish cartoonists] out to dry.” Stone went on to accuse the New York Times, Comedy Central, and Viacom of “basically just pussying out…”
This latest South Park incident did, however, prompt columnist Ross Douthat of the Times to chime in. He wrote, “[O]ur culture has few taboos that can’t be violated,” going on to say, “Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.”
This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.”
Sadly, this is the way many Muslims are perceived in America, and it appears that this is how the folks at Comedy Central generalize the faith. Why else would they have censored the episode? Consider this: If a Catholic or a Jewish fundamentalist blogger had threatened the show’s creators, would Comedy Central have brought out the bleeps and cover-up?
I assume this type of prejudice was the reason Ms. Norris was one of the first to speak up for Stone and Parker, while the mainstream media waited to react, for fear that they would also become a target. On the O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly noted he would have advised Parker and Stone to not draw Mohammed, and said, “You have to deal with reality, these people are killers and they will kill you.” Suggestions like these, I also assume, were enough to terrify Ms. Norris, causing her to censor her own cartoon.
The media has done an awful lot to pigeonhole Muslims and portray them to xenophobes as dangerous. But, Muslim extremists are also responsible for perpetuating the media’s fearmongering. Muslims should exercise their best option and use the media to denounce these threats. It’s not to say they must agree with Parker and Stone, but it shows the intolerant that Islam is not all about extremism.
After the threat against South Park, Aasif Mandvi, a self-described “liberal Muslim” and The Daily Show’s “Senior Islamic correspondent,” said it best. He admitted that having Mohammed depicted in a cartoon would upset him, but added, “Here’s what’s more upsetting. Someone, in the name of a faith that I believe in, threatening another person for doing it.”
In that same episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart used less controversial language than Douthat and more critical speech than Mandvi. With a church group choir and words aimed only at the extremist Muslim group who had made the threat, he sang “Go fuck yourselves,” over and over again.
Just as everyone has the freedom to practice their religion without feeling threatened, Parker and Stone should be able to create comedy under the same circumstances.
Was the episode blasphemous? Yes. But this is America where free speech has always been protected, whether it’s blasphemy or neo-Nazi rallies in Jewish neighborhoods. There are two truths to remember:
Firstly, the majority of Muslims do not share the animosity of the fringe group who made these threats. Most devout Muslims might be insulted, but they’re not calling for heads.
Secondly, this is not a country of censorship. If it were, we may find ourselves barring four foul-mouthed schoolchildren that tend to follow a trail of heresy, and wind up censoring characters like Burt and Ernie for suspected homosexuality.
It’s not a crime to parody religion in America. Irreverence is a right. But it is criminal to allow freedom of speech and press to be encroached upon by extremists who threaten in the guise of faith.
Luckily the guys at South Park subscribe to the First Amendment and showed their usual nerve in episode 202, which was set in “cripple camp.” During the episode, the character Towelie needs an intervention. (Yes, Towelie is a drug-abusing towel.) At the intervention, in lieu of helping the drug-dependent cloth, Cartman, an overweight anti-Semite child, reads a few reams worth of reasons as to why the Jewish character, Kyle, and the other “beady-eyed Jews” are taking over the world.
As a Jew, let me just say how wrong that is on so many levels. Oh, but keep it coming…
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