One of the 12 cartoons published in 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten showed two men rushing to their king. One had a sword in his hands, the other, a bomb. They were obviously angry, but the king, looking at a sheet of paper, told them: “Relax folks it is just a sketch made by a Dane from south-west Denmark.”
What was left unsaid was that the sketch was probably of Muhammad, revered by Muslims as their prophet. Muslims consider showing his likeness to be blasphemous. The cartoons were published in September 2005. By January 2006, it had become an international crisis, whose reverberations are still felt, with a would-be assassin attempting to murder one of the cartoonists recently, before the police arrested him.
Senior officials at Comedy Central were probably thinking of that when they decided to censor the 201st episode of South Park, the take-no-prisoners comedy show whose idea of equal opportunity is to lampoon every politician, idea, dogma and religious belief. In its previous episode, Muhammad was shown dressed as a bear, so in the next episode, Tom Cruise, the Hollywood star who believes in Scientology and has been frequently ridiculed on the show, demanded that Muhammad be shown. But when the bear costume is unzipped, what emerges is Santa Claus. Over the years, South Park has incensed many people, and its producers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, consider nothing sacred.
A group called Revolution Muslim didn’t think that was funny. It called the show “stupid” and warned the producers that they would “wind up like Theo Van Gogh”, referring to the outspoken Dutch film-maker, who was murdered in Amsterdam after he worked with the Somali-Dutch writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to make a short film critical of the treatment of women in Islam called Submission.
The fundamentalists’ response is part of an old trend, which gained attention after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. The fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding. In 1991, his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered, and his Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was stabbed. Two years later, the novel’s Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot at in Oslo. And in 2008, the home of Martin Rynja, a publisher in London, was bombed after he said he would publish Sherry Jones’ controversial novel, The Jewel of Medina, which Random House had decided not to publish, fearing violence. Author Kenan Malik calls this the internalization of the fatwa.
All of that contributed to Comedy Central’s decision to censor South Park. To say that nothing is sacred indicates the ability to reason and question. It means people can do what they want, love who they want, kiss who they want, cuddle wherever they want, and wear what they want. And fundamentalists resent that. And hence, the culture of taking offence has become the norm. In 2006, Britain nearly passed a law that would have made incitement of religious hatred an offence—advocacy groups fought hard to retain free speech protection. Internationally, Islamic states have forged a coalition at the Human Rights Council to expand the definition of human rights, and term defaming or insulting religions to be a human rights violation. In that Orwellian universe, from being victims, Rushdie, Van Gogh, the Danish cartoonists, and indeed, South Park’s producers, will be considered perpetrators. Ignorance is strength.
And it isn’t only about Islam. Fear of offending faiths is the new norm. Earlier this week, the British Foreign Office apologized to the Vatican after a silly document became public, in which officials brainstormed ways to commemorate the Pope’s visit to Britain this September. Among the ideas: the Pope should open an abortion clinic, and launch a brand of condoms, called Benedict. These were utterly impractical, possibly insulting and, yet, at one level, quite funny. The Pope’s visit is already controversial, given the scandal of sex abuse by the clergy, and authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have called for the Pope’s arrest for his complicity in those abuses. But the memo gave the church the high ground: Britain said sorry, and the Church promptly said it had felt offended.
How fragile must those divinities be, that they need protection from mere humans! That’s why Revolution Muslim wants to get South Park off the air; the Pope can’t take a joke; and, lest one forgets, Hindus can’t let Maqbool Fida Husain paint. There is a story Vivekananda recalls, of the swami being angry over the destruction of a temple by Muslims, when he hears the goddess ask him:
Am I here to protect you, or are you there to protect me?
Divinities are strong enough to look after themselves. Artists and writers aren’t. They need our protection. But as Bart Simpson says on the blackboard: “South Park: We’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared.”
Everyone is scared. But nothing is sacred. Relax, it is just a sketch.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org