Last week, the 200th episode of South Park reprised the show’s Super Best Friends gag, in which the primary figures of various world religions—Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Vishnu, Moses, John Smith and Aquaman—serve as a crime-fighting team a la Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends. Presumably in satire of the Jyllands-Posten debacle, Mohammed sits in the back of a moving van for most of the new episode, only to finally emerge wearing a bear suit. These expediences were to avoid the Koranic prohibition against visual depictions of the prophet, which a majority of the world’s Muslim’s consider blasphemy. Even though the use of the bear suit clearly satisfies the laws set down for the authors of the Koran by the creator of the universe sixteen centuries ago in anticipation of the invention of television, frame-based computer animation and basic cable, at least one Muslim group has suggested that Trey Parker and Matt Stone should be put to death. In a message posted on RevolutionMuslim.com, Abu Talha Al-Amrikee said, “We have to warn Matt and Trey 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.” In case you’re wondering, Theo Van Gogh was the Dutch filmmaker who was stabbed to death after making a movie arguing that Islam condones violence toward women. Argument refuted: counterexample.
First of all, thank goodness Abu Talha Al-Amrikee isn’t threatening Parker and Stone when he says they will probably be stabbed to death for doing the thing that made him so angry. Second of all, thank goodness we live in a country where expression is protected and would-be theocrats don’t guide our actions at the point of a sword. Instead of killing Parker and Stone, Comedy Central merely censored images of Mohammed in his bear suit in last night’s episode, and bleeped out all mention of the prophet’s name. Everybody got what they wanted: Muslim extremists got to determine what you can say on cable, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone got to live. Of course, the RevolutionMuslim.com post warning them that devout Muslims might try to murder them also included the addresses of their production studio and a house in Colorado where they are thought to live, but come on. You’re telling me a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists are going to get on a plane?
The issue here, of course, is not whether such people are crazy. No one is questioning the belief that Mohammed was god’s prophet on earth who ascended to heaven on a winged horse, and it is therefore an affront to Allah to draw a picture of him, or to draw a picture of a bear suit and say that he is inside it. We respect that, just like we respect the discovery of the troposphere and the presumably impending discovery of the winged horse. The real issue is whether RevolutionMuslim.com is issuing a death threat or exercising freedom of speech, as this report from CNN indicates.
Obviously, what we have here is a First Amendment problem. On one hand, we have freedom of the press, which the American courts have seen fit to apply to TV, considering that the Constitution was written 150 years before television was invented and could not possibly have foreseen it. On the other hand, we have freedom of religion, which places the beliefs of certain individuals beyond the pale of public discussion, including the belief that god commands them to murder the guys who made Baseketball. One of those two hands has to be cut off, but which? It’s almost as if the Enlightenment principle of free expression, predicated on the notion that the truth will emerge from a free exchange of discourse in which ideas thrive or disappear based on their merits, is unprepared to deal with people who are willing to commit murder in defense of ideas that make no goddamned sense at all.
Yes, I am saying that Koran does not make sense, either as a descriptor of the functional order of the universe or as a template for managing a post-agrarian society. The Bible doesn’t make sense either, and if you object that adherents to the Bible aren’t out murdering people, I direct you to the former home of Dr. George Tiller, whose address could be found on any number of anti-abortion websites. There is a tradition of religious tolerance in this country that has been a credit to America since its founding, and has undoubtedly protected us from the sectarian conflicts that have undone other nations. That being said, there is a difference between religious tolerance and religious acceptance. When you say that your religion authorizes you to call for the murder of two humorists because a book written by god forbids us all from drawing pictures of a particular seventh-century leader—or pictures of bear suits thought to contain that leader—I do not need to accept those beliefs. Those beliefs are stupid.
Christopher Hitchens, who is not otherwise a man to be quoted indiscriminately, gave us all a gift when he said, “Claims advanced without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If a man in New York wrote on his website that he possessed a document in which the creator of the universe ordered him to kill two people over an episode of a television show, a decent society would subject him to ridicule or indictment. Because that man is one of millions, we call his threats faith and his delusions religion. Clearly, they are religion as we define the word. Islam is no less legitimate than Christianity or any other of the world’s faiths. It is also—from the standpoint of science, logic and personal decency—no more legitimate than the rantings of a schizophrenic. That is to say: compelling to their utterer, but untrue to me because uncorroborated, and therefore not real.
I am not saying that we should treat religion as a problem. I cannot imagine a worse undertaking for post-Enlightenment culture than to try to stamp out religion, or even to curtail its expression. But we must stop treating it as the exception to every principle on which our culture stands—and I include the Islamic world in “our culture.” We are in this together now, because we have television and the internet and planes. The beliefs by which an individual guides his behavior are his business, but the beliefs by which we guide one another’s are ours. When someone tells me that god commands us to kill Trey Parker and Matt Stone because of a 22-minute cartoon, I say prove it. If he cannot, I say that he is wrong. If we want to move forward as a decent, intelligent society, we need to stop distinguishing between types of mistakes.