Respect, blasphemy and violence

We looked at some of the coverage of the Comedy Central's censorship of the South Park program. South Park has long shown offensive images of Jesus and other non-Muslim religious figures. It has also attempted to show inoffensive "images of Muhammad" but been censored by the network -- and other media covering the issue -- out of fears of violence. I put "images of Muhammad" in quotes because their most recent censored images were actually of a bear and a taxi-cab (that Muhammad was supposedly inside). Anyway, it's not the blasphemy that's in question. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker love to blaspheme all religions. This is why they, for instance, think it's funny to depict Americans, President Bush and Jesus defecating on each other and the American flag. Blasphemy is sort of what they do.

It's the violence and the threat of violence and the censorship that results in that. Good coverage would look at the difference in core values of the clashing cultures and different religions in question. And that, of course, is the story few people want to cover.

A good opportunity to explore the issues came when a young illustrator came up with an "I am Spartacus" idea of having everyone draw Muhammad one day. It took off -- beyond the artist's wildest expectations, I guess. Here's the Los Angeles Times:

The outcry from Comedy Central's decision to censor an episode of South Park with depictions of Muhammad last week led a cartoonist and a Facebook user to fight back. That is until they realized it might be controversial, apparently.

In declaring May 20th to be "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," Seattle artist Molly Norris created a poster-like cartoon showing many objects -- from a cup of coffee to a box of pasta to a tomato -- all claiming to be the likeness of Muhammad.

Such depictions are radioactive as many Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad.

First off, I'd like to thank the Los Angeles Times for putting a "many" in front of Muslims to note that not all Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad. Muslims are most definitely not unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous.

The 15th century image with this post shows Muhammad visiting Paradise while riding Buraq, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel. Below them, riding camels, are some of the fabled houris of Paradise -- the "virgins" promised to heroes and martyrs. This image is entitled Miraj Nama, and is housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

Actually, I'm totally unsure where the breakdown is on whether or not to depict Muhammad, what the key doctrinal points are, or how many or what type of Muslims are on which side. I think that would make a fascinating story.

Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear approached the story by asking her paper's cartoonist Scott Stantis for his thoughts. Here's a snippet from the interview:

Seeker: Do you have a set of rules that govern what/who you draw and when? In other words, are certain people or historical figures off limits or is everyone fair game? Do you ever poke fun at people who have passed away or do you have rules about that?

SS: Under certain conditions I can see drawing anyone or any body.

Seeker: What are your thoughts about the reaction to the South Park depiction of the Prophet Muhammad? Do you think it's overblown or could it lead to a productive conversation about respect?

SS: Any time you threaten violence you lose the argument. I can second guess Comedy Central's decision to edit the South Park episode but I can see where they would not want to put themselves in harm's way. In terms of respect, I have to giggle at the notion that a faith that is so insecure that its icon cannot be held up to even depiction has a lot of internal work to do.

A good discussion ensues in the comments (how often can you say that on the interwebs!?). But again, this isn't really a debate about respect. Christian and Jewish symbols and figures are disrespected by cartoonists or other media figures every day that ends with a y. So this isn't really a debate about how to show proper respect to religious figures. This is really a debate about whether fear of violence is the only reason to back away from disrespectful speech.

I've been sick and under the weather all week so perhaps this has been covered better by mainstream reporters, but the only place I even saw a discussion of this issue was in Ross Douthat's New York Times column. Read the whole thing, but here is a snippet:

In ours, though, even Parker's and Stone's wildest outrages often just blur into the scenery. In a country where the latest hit movie, "Kick-Ass," features an 11-year-old girl spitting obscenities and gutting bad guys while dressed in pedophile-bait outfits, there isn't much room for real transgression. 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.

This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that "bravely" trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.

He sort of took the ball and scored three touchdowns with it -- but I'd settle for a simple discussion on establishing standards under threat of violence. How does that affect our culture, how does that affect Muslims in Muslim countries, how does affect Muslims living in countries that are not predominantly Muslim? How does that affect Muslim art? How does that affect art critical of Islam? Where are we seeing this issue played out? What are the hidden costs of decisions such as those made by Comedy Central -- and countless other publishing houses and art venues that don't even wait for the death threats to pull books, productions, etc.?

Brachear has also used her blog to provide a forum for other voices in the depiction of Muhammad controversy. Here's Hesham Hassaballa saying he was bothered by the cartoon but more bothered by the Muslim extremist response to the cartoon and Ahmed Rehab saying he thought the controversy was contrived. And there's an agnostic defender of the First Amendment in there for good measure, too. The Washington Post's comic blog also took up the issue, noting that 17 Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists had signed a petition expressing outrage at the threats made against Parker and Stone.

Blogs are great (hey, we're a blog, too!) but how about some more substantive coverage of the issue -- and the long-term concerns that need addressing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy