Monday, April 26, 2010

South Park vs. Radical Islam

The main characters (in order from left to rig...
South Park’s 200th episode featured Muhammad. He was not, of course, actually drawn as Muhammad but rather presented wearing a mascot’s bear costume. This, not surprisingly, has led to post a warning to South Park creators: they will end up like van Gogh. No, not the painter who allegedly sliced off his own ear. Rather, this is Theo van Gogh who was murdered after making a film about violence against women in certain Islamic cultures.
One reason for this response is that it is supposed to be forbidden to create images of Muhammad. The idea that certain images should not be displayed is not unique to Islam. There have been times when the displaying of certain religious images was forbidden in Christianity (and not just graven images, etc.). While the idea that such images should not be displayed seems like mere irrational superstition, it can be argued that people’s religious beliefs should be respected. So, for example, if Islam forbids the portrayal of Muhammad, then this should be honored. Then again, the idea that the free expression of ideas and views can be held hostage by theological views might strike some as rather medieval.

Another reason for this response is that the episode can be seen as mocking Islam-or at least making a veiled (sorry) attack on the followers who tend to be rather obsessed about Muhammad being portrayed. While people obviously do not like having their beliefs mocked, how people respond to such mocking shows a great deal about the people in question. South Park routinely makes fun of Christianity (Jesus is a recurring character on the show and his epic battle with Santa is a thing of legends), yet Christians generally do not make death threats over such mockery. In contrast, Islam’s defenders might be seen as operating like the Spanish Inquisition-quick to use violence to “defend” the faith. To be fair, people claiming to be Christians do still use violence and justify it on the basis of their faith. Perhaps the best known examples are the murders of doctors who perform abortions.

It might be the case, as some have argued, that a significant number of Muslims are still operating in the mindset of the dark ages (that is, how religion often operated in Europe prior to the Enlightenment…and beyond). After all, a mature and rational human being can, as the saying goes, take a joke. Also, an ethical person proportions her response to the severity of the offense. Having Muhammad in a bear suit might seem a bit silly, but it hardly seems something worth killing over. As such, the folks at might be regarded as rather immature and unethical. Some might go so far as to make the same claim about many followers of Islam or perhaps even the entire faith.
Islam might, as some see it, be lagging behind because it is a younger religion and also because it has been far less influenced by Modern and contemporary ideas and influences (like democracy, women’s rights, scientific advances, and liberal political theory). Perhaps, as some have argued, Islam will eventually emerge from the dark ages after a long and prolonged struggle, much like Christianity.
Then again, as some argue, perhaps Islam is not lagging behind. After all, this presumes that religions progress towards some sort of “better” state. It might well be the case that Islam is up to date with the 21st century, just not the Western and liberal 21st century.