(Warning: this blog may be offensive.)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, are more than familiar with controversy. In fact, they court it. In their raunchy, bitterly satirical and frequently hilarious show, they have left no important figure -- be he/she celebrity, politician, or religious icon -- unskewered. Their two-part two hundredth episode presented the scenario that a total of two hundred celebrities, lampooned on South Park at various times, were determined to destroy the town of South Park, CO in revenge for its rampant insensitivity. Only one way could the citizens save themselves: hand over Muhammad, prophet of the Muslim faith, so that they might ciphon off his coveted "power not to be made fun of." The prophet agreed to help save the city, but since his image must never be shown, he had to appear in a giant bear suit. Outside the suit, he was represented by a giant black bar reading CENSORED.
In the first part of the episode, the name "Muhammad" was spoken clearly. By the time Comedy Central aired the second part, Parker and Stone and the network had received some suspicious messages from a group calling themselves "Revolution Muslim," hinting that Parker and Stone might meet the same fate as Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered by Muslim extremists who didn't like his documentary film that shone a spotlight on the brutal treatment of women in many parts of the Muslim world. As a result, in the second part, the prophet's name was "bleeped," along with Kyle's "what-have-we-learned" homily that intimidation is not the appropriate response to ridicule.
Many conservative and libertarian bloggers have blasted Comedy Central and corporate sponsor Viacom for their cowardice, and some have praised Parker and Stone for their courage. I won't reiterate the points they've made. But the one part of this little incident that sticks in my mind is Revolution Muslim's evocation of Theo van Gogh -- their implication that the murdered documentarian got what he deserved for his "defamation" of Islam. I'm left considering what "defamation" really means, and how a religious faith might be "defamed."
Van Gogh's murderers didn't like his efforts to expose the savage violence to which women are subjected on a regular basis in the name of Sharia, or Islamic Law. Yet where does the defamation lie -- in van Gogh's determination to make this situation known, or in the situation itself? Who is really making Islam look bad -- van Gogh, or the men who treat women like untermensch in the name of religion?
Where is the disgrace to Islam -- in a South Park episode that mentions Muhammad's name, or in a group of schoolgirls trapped in a burning building by the religious police in Saudi Arabia, because they weren't "properly dressed" to come outside onto the public street?
If Revolution Muslim is looking for the real damage to their faith, I suggest they're looking in the wrong place.
It's been over four years, but I still remember a horrific news story of a father in Pakistan who reacted violently when his family's "honor" was compromised by his twenty-one-year-old stepdaughter, who was committing adultery. Granted, adultery is a sin, a moral crime, but are multiple stab wounds a proportional response? I would say not. Yet in the father's eyes, killing the adulterous stepdaughter did not suffice to cleanse the stain of dishonor. He went on to murder his own daughters, the youngest four years old, lest they be "tainted" by their stepsister's example. Imagine for a moment a four-year-old girl with a round face, big brown eyes, chubby arms stretched out for a hug. Think about her smile. Then try to wrap your mind around how anyone could erase that smile with a knife.
Here in the U.S., if a man butchers his own little girl, we call him a murderer (along with lots of less polite names), and we either execute him or send him to jail (where his fellow prisoners might execute him; even criminals don't think highly of scum who murder children). But in Pakistan, he simply goes home. The law can't touch him; it says he has done no wrong. Though once led by a female president, Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan refuses to treat "honor killings" as murders. And so the little girl goes unmourned. Her brother, five years old at the time of her death (and left alive because evidently he wasn't tainted or dishonored -- proof positive that the little girl was murdered for no other "sin" than being female), will in time forget he ever had a sister.
What disgraces a religious faith? Horrific crimes committed in its name. The days when Southern preachers spouted Christian scripture as a defense for the abominable institution of slavery were dark ones indeed for Christianity. Preachers who claimed the Holocaust was God's work served as further embarrassment to genuine believers, true to the spirit as well as the letter of their faith. Likewise, that little girl's death stands as an embarrassment to Islam, because her father believed his actions were "holy."
So it wasn't van Gogh who defamed Islam; it was the crimes he was out to expose. Extremists silenced the truth-teller, but the real disgrace goes on, and every "honor killing" makes sincere believers weep. Once the murders end, and the murderers are punished, the real defamation, the genuine stain will wash away.