Don’t screw with South Park—and don’t ever try to intimidate us into accepting Sharia law.
That’s the message Americans are sending upon news that the comedy team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone had received a fatwa-esque death threat for their 200th episode, which featured the Muslim prophet Mohammed dressed in a bear-mascot suit.
The obscure New York City-based Islamist supremacist group Muslim Revolution issued the warning alongside graphic images of the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Their message read: “We have to warn Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”
Courage is rare and it deserves to be rewarded.
The group’s homepage—which is now down—featured the “warning” over audio from radical clerics and also showed the picture of the author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was threatened alongside Van Gogh. I contacted Ayaan to get her take on the incident.
“It is obviously a very clear threat and it echoes the same threats that were used against Theo van Gogh and me when he was alive,” Ayaan said. “It is an invitation to murder, a way of inspiring other people to kill. And how disgusting that they are using the image of an innocent man who was killed—he has a son and a mom and dad and friends. When you grieve, you get closure. For them, there's no closure this way. I don’t know if I can legally stop them from using my image, but I feel threatened by them and, according to the Netherland's Radio 4, the Dutch Secret Service say they are concerned for my safety. The images and audio on their website make it clear that they are in cahoots with [Al Qaeda cleric and propagandist] Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and consider the Fort Hood shooter—Nidal Malik Hasan—a hero.”
The episode in question was a South Park manifesto of sorts, an assault on sacred cows of all sorts from liberal Hollywood elites to the leaders of the world’s religions. Jesus was portrayed watching porn and Buddha doing cocaine. But their primary point was that you can make fun of anyone in a free democracy—except Muhammad. The threats and violence that have dogged anyone who dares even represent the prophet—from Salman Rushdie to Danish and Swedish cartoonists—have created a kind of fear-fueled exception to free-speech laws even in Western democracies.
The episode addressed this hypocrisy clearly, even as Parker and Stone took care to obscure the actual image of Muhammad with everything from a black “censored” bar to a U-Haul truck to a bear mascot suit because South Park’s animated townspeople wanted to avoid having a fatwa placed on them. This wasn’t just provocative satire—it was both smart and brave.
Unfortunately, South Park’s network, Comedy Central, seemed to cave into the threats to a degree when the second episode of the two-part series was aired this week, bleeping out even the mention of Muhammad’s name. This was cowardly and provided evidence that coercion could be successful.
“Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the great satirists of our time—and satire is comedy as a moral weapon, bound to offend,” Brian C. Anderson, author of South Park Conservatives and editor of City Journal, told me. “ South Park has been an equal-opportunity offender: conservatives, liberals (nobody has mocked the Left more successfully), pompous and idiotic celebrities, religious institutions, animal-rights zealots, on and on. In a free society, offense is something everyone has to deal with. Unfortunately, some Muslims have shown themselves incapable of this basic rule of democratic life.”
Irshad Manji, NYU professor of leadership and author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, would seem to agree.
"It's ridiculous enough that extremist thugs put Islam's human prophet on some pedestal, engaging in idolatry of their own,” she told me. “But the fact these arrogant fools operate from New York City reminds us that open societies need to be defended—for everyone's freedom to believe as they choose. When I and fellow writers got a similar death threat from ummah.com, a site run out of Britain, we created a petition promoting human rights and secular values for all. To date, it's got thousands of signatures from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Readers can still sign their names and cities. It's a fast way of telegraphing to radical Islamists that their death threats won't chill our consciences. There's strength in numbers."
So what can Americans do as this latest test of free speech unfolds? Stand with the guys from South Park.
First, vote with your wallets by supporting their merchandise, movies and TV show. Courage is rare and it deserves to be rewarded.
After the threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten became public in the wake of their decision to publish cartoons of Muhammad, some Muslim countries proposed a boycott of Danish goods. In my column in the New York Sun, I advocated a counter-effort to buy Danish goods in support—I still wear a Skagen watch as a result. A similar bid might get Comedy Central to find an interest in showing more cojones in support of South Park’s freedom of expression.
Second, go online and sign Irshad Manji’s anti-death threat declaration of conscience here.
Third, remember that we are still at war—not a war between the United States and Islam, but between free people and violent religious extremists. America is proudly home to people of all religions, and our example of pluralism is the greatest threat to those tribalists who want to deny individual freedom while dragging the world back into Dark Ages. It’s no small irony that the despicable group Muslim Revolution makes its home in the borough of Queens—the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. The daily evidence of America’s strength and success is their greatest threat.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose new book Nomad is coming out this year, sees an even more specific opportunity: “From a community perspective, this is a great opportunity for the silent majority of Muslims to stand up against death threats and in favor free speech, declaring that this episode of South Park should go back on air unedited. It is an opportunity to show how patriotic and how American they are.”
When we are confronted by bullies, big or small, the best way to defeat them is to stand strong and fight back. It’s true whether the enemy is a terrorist or a tyrant. The fact that the pop-culture satire of South Park is the ground for which we’re fighting today is especially appropriate because this fight is about freedom. America’s pop culture is part of what continues to make us a beacon for free-thinking people around the world—and when it is threatened, a new generation and a broader slice of the population might take notice. So whether you’re a skate-punk or a comedian, an academic or a dissident, a liberal or a conservative, stand with South Park—because America is on the right side of history. And freedom is quintessentially cool.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.