Civil Liberties

Right-Wing Attacks on South Park Censorship Ignore America's Wars in Muslim Countries

It's absurd to buttonhole Comedy Central when U.S. troops are occupying two Muslim nations and bombing a third.

The decision by Comedy Central last week to heavily censor an episode of the animated sitcom, "South Park," has prompted conservative commentators like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat to bemoan Western "cowardice and self-censorship" in the face of Islamic extremism, while conveniently failing to take into account the U.S. role in fomenting said extremism.

The episode in question was a followup to one featuring the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. The decision by Comedy Central came after a jihad-sympathizing blogger -- 20-year-old Zachary Adam Chesser, who converted to Islam a couple years ago -- warned ominously that "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would likely suffer the same fate as Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004 for making a film critical of Islamic society’s treatment of women. Chesser, who lives in Fairfax, VA, denied that he was threatening the comedic writers, but Comedy Central took his comments seriously enough to beef up security at its New York headquarters.

In an op-ed titled “Not Even South Park?” this weekend, Douthat accurately points out that “there’s no icon 'South Park' hasn’t trampled, no vein of shock-comedy (sexual, scatalogical, blasphemous) it hasn’t mined.” Yet, when it comes to Islam, he argues (dubiously), the network that apparently won’t draw the line at anything, willingly censors itself. The "South Park" episode is important, he writes, “because it’s a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.” Meanwhile, the U.S. has drawn battle lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond.

Douthat writes:

Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place. 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.

Douthat wasn’t the only one who was disgusted. In Seattle, a cartoonist who admits to being “personally afraid of Muslims because the peaceful folks of that religion do not often come forward to differentiate themselves from any radical elements” drew a comic declaring May 20 to be “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” A Facebook page by the same name has more than 7,000 “confirmed guests,” whose subsequent posts and pictures have turned out to be so bigoted, the creator of the page has since distanced herself from it. (A spinoff page, titled “Change Default Picture to Mohammed Day,” has also emerged.)

In a democratic society where free speech is vigilantly protected, it is perfectly reasonable to call out censorship, particularly when it springs from some form of tyrannical religious extremism. Giving in to fear means that the terrorists win, after all, and whether it’s Christian supremacists murdering abortion providers or Islamic fundamentalists murdering artists, such threats must be taken seriously.

But apart from pointing out the long history of, say, Christian extremists threatening those who dare depict their god in a negative light, what is missing from Douthat's column is any semblance of context, particularly when it comes to the broader treatment of Muslims by the West. The notion that Islam is some sort of protected final frontier, too coddled to be satirized, is absurd at a time when U.S. troops are occupying two Muslim nations and bombing a third; when Guantanamo Bay has yet to be closed and the innocent victims of U.S. torture yet to be vindicated; when moderate Muslims like the academic Tariq Ramadan only just had a five-year travel ban against him lifted; when in New York, a man named Syed Fahad Hashmi is only now going to trial on dubious charges after being held in solitary confinement for three years; when the Pentagon recently invited (and then uninvited) Rev. Franklin Graham, a man who has called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion,” to speak at its National Day of Prayer. (In an interview with Fox News last week, Graham denied he has anything but love toward Muslims, he just "want(s) them to know that they don't have to die in a car bomb. They don't have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God, but it's through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone.”)
 
Douthat’s examples of European capitulation to Islamic fearmongering are similarly devoid of context. Four years ago, in the wake of the violent outcry over a Danish newspaper’s publication of images of the Prophet Mohammed, including one of him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, theNation's Gary Younge wrote a column called "The Right to Be Offended."

“There seems to be almost universal agreement that these cartoons are offensive,” he wrote:

There should also be universal agreement that the paper has a right to publish them without fear of violent reprisal. When it comes to freedom of speech, the liberal/left should not sacrifice its values one inch to those who seek censorship on religious grounds. But the right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive. If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in antiracism should be no less so.

Neither the cartoons nor the violence has emerged from a vacuum. They are steeped in and have contributed to an increasingly recriminatory atmosphere shaped by, among other things, war, intolerance and historic injustices. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, racially motivated crimes doubled in Denmark between 2004 and '05. These cartoons only served to compound Muslims' sense of alienation and vulnerability.

Four years later, we see a Swiss ban on minarets, attempts to ban the hijab in France, and in England, military trainers using models of mosques as target practice.

“There is nothing courageous about using your freedom of speech to ridicule the beliefs of one of the weakest sections of your society,” Younge wrote in 2006. Nor is there anything honest about a columnist like Douthat using a platform like the Times to denounce the supposed special protection reserved for a religion that is currently the target of so much American hatred, fearmongering and murderous foreign policy.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.