What's the lowest point in the history of American TV? The censorship of South Park could be it.
South Park is a hilarious, profane and potty-mouthed cartoon show that has been airing on The Comedy Network for nearly 14 years. This week's Wednesday episode, featuring an irreverent treatment of the Prophet Mohammed, was altered by a frightened network. The network cancelled replays of the show and took it off the website. Episode 201 of South Park has officially ceased to exist.
The network did this in reaction to a single threat from a tiny group of nut-bars calling themselves Revolution Muslim. Here's where things get surreal. This group was reacting to the episode of the week before - which dealt in a satirical way with threats over depicting the figure of Mohammed.
Got that? There's more. The objectionable programs don't show Mohammed at all. They show a large cartoon bear, inside of which Mohammed is allegedly concealed. "Mohammed cannot make any public appearances," explains one of the other cartoon characters, "We cannot risk violence from the people!" In Episode 201, the person in the bear suit is revealed, and it isn't Mohammed after all. It's Santa Claus!
How many ways are there to spell "ironic"? Both shows were a wry commentary on fear and censorship. South Park is infamous for skewering every religion on Earth. But the last appearance of Mohammed on the show was shortly before Sept. 11, 2001. Since then he's been persona non grata. "Now there's a new normal," said Trey Parker, one of the show's brilliant creators, in a recent interview. "We lost. Something that was okay is now not okay."
The threatening website post said that Episode 200 "outright insulted" the Prophet, and it warned that South Park's creators could wind up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who was murdered by an Islamic militant. The handful of people who make up Revolution Islam are known for passing out inflammatory leaflets in front of New York mosques. The group's founder is Yousef al-Khattab, formerly a secular Jew named Joseph Cohen, who used to drive a pedicab.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park's creators reacted to this threat in typically cheeky fashion. In the next episode, they bleeped out the name "Mohammed," and blacked out the cartoon figure with a big box stamped "censored." This was not enough to mollify the network, which added more bleeps of its own.
"In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind," said the co-creators in a statement. "We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps." The final speech in the show was about intimidation and fear. Although it made no mention of Mohammed, it got bleeped too.
In the past few days, many Muslims have said on websites, on TV and in print that although they had trouble with the show, they condemned the threat of violence. (It's also worth noting that not all branches of Islam object to depictions of Mohammed.) The real culprits here are not Muslims, but the cowards at Comedy Central. We no longer need a genuine terrorist threat to scare us into submission. We're quite capable of doing it to ourselves. Caving in has almost become a cultural reflex. (Just look at our ludicrous airport security system.) We still dwell in the long shadow of 9/11 and then the Danish cartoon controversy, when we allowed ourselves to be cowed by people who were rioting over images they had never seen.
It wasn't always this way. When Salman Rushdie was targeted by death threats over The Satanic Verses, the West rallied round. But times have changed. Today, plenty of Westerners would blame Mr. Rushdie, for bringing his troubles on himself.
The list of institutions that have given in to Muslim pressure - real or imaginary - is long. Yale University Press recently published a scholarly book on the Danish cartoon controversy - but refused to publish the cartoons. It cited unnamed "experts" who claimed the book "ran a serious risk of instigating violence." The Metropolitan Museum in New York quietly pulled images of Mohammed from its Islamic collection after some Muslims objected.
In 2005, Burger King in Britain got in trouble when some Muslims thought the swirly design on the wrapper of the ice-cream cones looked like the word "Allah." "I feel humiliated," complained one unhappy customer. "I'm going to make [the person who did this]see that it was the biggest mistake in his life." Burger King promptly recalled the ice cream and apologized. Instead of telling people to get a life, the Muslim Council of Britain said: "We commend the sensitive and prompt action to prevent any hurt being caused to the religious sensibilities of others."
Nike got in trouble in the U.S. for the same reason - putting a design on a running shoe that some Muslims thought resembled the name Allah. Nike eventually negotiated a settlement with a leading Muslim group. It apologized for any unintentional offence, recalled all products carrying the design, introduced training for Nike designers in Islamic imagery, and agreed to investigate how the design came about. McDonald's goofed up too, in quite a different way. A few months ago, for fear of offending Muslims, the Singapore chain pre-emptively omitted a pig from a series of animal toys it had created to depict every sign in the Chinese zodiac. This time it was the Chinese who were infuriated. They demanded that their beloved pig be reinstated, and blasted McDonald's for cultural insensitivity.
The other day an interviewer asked Trey Parker and Matt Stone if they were afraid they'd be bombed. They said that was not the issue. "We'd be so hypocritical - against our own thoughts - if we said okay, let's not make fun of them because they might hurt us," one said. They wonder what would have happened if everyone had just gone ahead and printed the cartoons. That would have been a good thing to do. Because every time we reward bad behaviour, the thugs will do it again.