Ross Douthat Takes on Underplayed 'South Park' Censorship Story

Ross Douthat has a good column on Monday, "Not Even In South Park?," on a terrorism and free-speech matter that hasn't gotten much media attention, certainly not at the Times - Comedy Central's self-censorship in the name of a threat by a radical Muslim group angry over two "South Park" episodes featuring images of Muhammad. The text box summed it up: "How Islam became one of the last taboos."

Two months before 9/11, Comedy Central aired an episode of "South Park" entitled "Super Best Friends," in which the cartoon show's foul-mouthed urchins sought assistance from an unusual team of superheroes. These particular superfriends were all religious figures: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Mormonism's Joseph Smith, Taoism's Lao-tse - and the Prophet Muhammad, depicted with a turban and a 5 o'clock shadow, and introduced as "the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame."

That was a more permissive time. You can't portray Muhammad on American television anymore, as South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, discovered in 2006, when they tried to parody the Danish cartoon controversy - in which unflattering caricatures of the prophet prompted worldwide riots - by scripting another animated appearance for Muhammad. The episode aired, but the cameo itself was blacked out, replaced by an announcement that Comedy Central had refused to show an image of the prophet.

For Parker and Stone, the obvious next step was to make fun of the fact that you can't broadcast an image of Muhammad. Two weeks ago, "South Park" brought back the "super best friends," but this time Muhammad never showed his face. He "appeared" from inside a U-Haul trailer, and then from inside a mascot's costume.

These gimmicks then prompted a writer for the New York-based Web site to predict that Parker and Stone would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 for his scathing critiques of Islam. The writer, an American convert to Islam named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, didn't technically threaten to kill them himself. His post, and the accompanying photo of van Gogh's corpse, was just "a warning ... of what will likely happen to them."

Douthat reminded Times readers of other examples, that haven't gotten much play in the liberal press, of "Western institutions' cowering before the threat of Islamist violence," like a German opera house that suspended performances of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" because it included a scene featuring Muhammad's severed head. He also listed several Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians, including National Review journalist Mark Steyn - who've been "hauled before courts and 'human rights' tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam."

Douthat cogently summarized the case near the end:

But there's still a sense in which the "South Park" case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren't allowed to cross. But because it's a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all....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.

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