Before I wade into the controversy over Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, I suppose I should declare an interest. In February 2006, I was just starting to write a national affairs column for the New York Press. The alternative weekly's former owner and columnist Russ Smith had written about the Danish Mohammad cartoon brouhaha. The editors wanted to reprint said cartoons to show readers what Smith was talking about. The new owners of the paper wouldn't allow that, so the entire editorial team, led by editor Harry Siegel, resigned. There went my national affairs column.
The controversy then was over the depiction of Mohammad by various artists that ran in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The point was to be offensive about a taboo subject and thereby strike a blow for free expression. One cartoon had Mohammad with a bomb for a turban. Another used Islam's crescent symbol to give him horns. Another had a Mohammad as a stick figure. The cleverest of the lot depicted a cartoonist drawing Mohammad while nervously looking over his shoulder for fear of what might happen.
What happened was mob violence, riots, death threats, burned embassies, and ongoing intimidation. Yale University Press recently published a book titled The Cartoons That Shook the World, about the controversy. The publisher made the utterly moronic decision not to reprint the cartoons, in deference to the sensibilities of violent Jihadists everywhere. We can only wonder if Yale will decide to censor images of women in bikinis in the future. Many mullahs do not look kindly on too much skin.
The impetus behind Everybody Draw Mohammad Day is a more recent depiction of Mohammad, this one on South Park. The cartoon is the brainchild of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It regularly pokes fun at religious figures, from Jesus to Vishnu to Joseph Smith. Therefore, Mohammad was a natural target for Stone and Parker to go after. The problem is that Comedy Central, the cable network that airs South Park, has expressed a strong disinclination to let them.
Stone and Parker had got around this in the past by mocking it. In 2006, an episode had several South Park characters working to stop rival show Family Guy from airing an episode that showed Mohammad. Rival Fox Network considers censoring the episode but finally bows to the demands of free speech (and ethical manatees). But there was nothing satirical last week about Comedy Central's decision to obscure images and bleep bits of South Park dialogue of and about Mohammad. And that wasn't all. Kyle Broflovski's usual wrap-up speech at the end of the episode, which counseled against intimidation and fear and didn't even mention Mohammad, got bleeped too.
The network chose to do this in response to threats and posts on a website called Revolution Muslim, including images of slain filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and strong suggestions that Stone and Parker could be next. On the Washington Post's Comic Riffs blog, Michael Cavna asked, "So we all see the crystal-clear irony in this by now, right? A Web site characterized as 'pro-jihad' preys on fear and intimidation in regards to South Park. So when South Park attempts a speech about fear and intimidation, Comedy Central -- apparently chilled by the Web site...bleeps the speech. Voila -- the Web site's goal seems achieved: Parker and Stone have been at least partially 'silenced.'"
However, that's not how things tend to go in a liberal democracy with a strong a tradition of free speech. While the suits at Comedy Central and Yale University Press have been cowed, people across the country have decided to speak up and thereby magnify the offense a thousandfold. On Facebook and elsewhere, May 20 is being dubbed Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. One sponsor is the fictitious group Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor, but previous experience suggests that the blowback could be no laughing matter.
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