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An Offensive Image of Muhammad

South ParkI have never watched an episode of South Park. The snippets I’ve seen over the years suggest it’s not my kind of humor, and I’m too old to pretend to be hip and trendy. As I understand it, South Park began as a one-off animated short involving Jesus and Santa Claus getting into a fist fight. Since then, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have skewered just about every sacred cow there is. They once did an episode featuring the “Super Best Friends,” which cast Joseph Smith, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others as modern-day super heroes. Their comic assaults on Scientology drove Isaac Hayes, the voice of “Chef” and himself a devoted Scientologist, to quit the show in protest.

After the September 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons resulted in calls for the cartoonists’ death, the burning of Danish flags, the murder of a Catholic priest, and the destruction of Danish embassies, Parker and Stone attempted to return to the theme of depictions Muhammad in order to explore the issues of censorship. Muhammad was slotted to make another appearance in the 2006 episode “Cartoon Wars II,” but Comedy Central removed him before the episode aired.

Finally, South Park’s 200th episode once again abortively attempted to address issues surrounding censorship, free speech, and Muhammad. This time, Muhammad did indeed appear—but disguised in a bear costume! Even this, however, proved too controversial for either South Park’s creators or Comedy Central or both. In the very next episode it was revealed that the person in the bear suit wasn’t Muhammad at all but Santa Claus.

The fact that South Park, with its proven track record of offensive language, dialogue, and graphics that otherwise seems to know no boundaries would hesitate to show (again) an image of Muhammad itself proved offensive to many free-speech advocates. Thus today, May 20, 2010, has been declared “Draw Muhammad Day.”

(PS: I would have linked to the Facebook page I found yesterday for Draw Muhammad Day, but that page has apparently been taken down. If you’re interested in seeing additional offensive images of Muhammad, I recommend Daryl Cagle’s collection of political cartoons.)

As with the Jewish anti-Semitic cartoons I blogged about Tuesday, people are split on whether “Draw Muhammad Day” is really that constructive an activity. Some are calling it “shock for shock’s sake,” “choreographed punditry,” and “wrong, childish and needlessly provocative.” No doubt some would say the same or similar things about Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary.”

Perhaps the critics are right. In a sense, however, that’s beside the point. People are allowed to say silly, shocking, and childish things in this country—and some people are paid good money to do so! That means people are allowed to utter the vilest of blasphemies imaginable against everything I hold dear, and I am allowed to call them on it.

How I respond may well decide how others remember the controversy.

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