Who’s Afraid of the Free Speech Fundamentalists?: Reflections on the South Park Cartoon Controversy

by Jeremy F. Walton, The Revealer, April 28, 2010

Recent days have, alas, been marked by a sense of déjà vu all over again for scholars of contemporary Islam. On April 14th, the American cable network Comedy Central aired the first half of a double episode of the immensely-popular cartoon sitcom “South Park.” The episode specifically parodied Islamic prohibitions on the pictorial representation of the Prophet Muhammad by portraying him in concealment, first within a U-Haul truck and then inside an ursine mascot costume. On the day prior to the episode’s airing, the American website revolutionmuslim.com posted the following comments by one Abu Talhah al-Amrikee:

We have to warn Matt and Trey [Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators of South Park] 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.

Al-Amrikee’s comments were accompanied by an image of Van Gogh’s body; the Dutch enfant terrible filmmaker was assassinated in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan extremist in November of 2004. In spite of al-Amrikee’s insistence that his posting did not constitute a threat, the inclusion of the image of Van Gogh, as well as the addresses of Comedy Central offices and a Colorado home co-owned by Stone and Parker, strongly suggested otherwise. In partial response to al-Amrikee’s post, Comedy Central opted to censor all references to Muhammad in the second half of the episode, which aired on April 21st. And so a familiar script was established: As in 1989 with the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (popularly known as “The Rushdie Affair”), as in 2005 with the global uptake of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, so too in 2010. Almost immediately, the complex theological and political issues at hand were reduced to a regrettable polarization of two mutually-exclusive fundamentalisms: stringent religious orthodoxy and free speech. My modest aspiration in this reflection is to attempt to think beyond the either-or of rigid orthodoxy and free speech—an admittedly difficult task in a political context that privileges the comfortable satisfactions of easy dichotomies.

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