Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Revolution Muslim vs. South Park

[I originally wrote the bulk of this essay on 27 April 2010. The controversy is no longer current, but I think this piece is still worth sharing.]

[Also, a caveat: according to the news accounts I've read, the group under discussion in this entry, Revolution Muslim, is extremely small. Hussein Rashid on religiondispatches.org says the group consists of exactly two men, and I have the impression that the group does not represent many Muslims beyond its own membership. Analyzing the group's statements might therefore seem unwarranted and even unwise, giving the group additional publicity that it wouldn't otherwise receive. However, I believe that for a marketplace of ideas to work, sometimes even ideas held by just a handful need to be examined.]

Overview

As I understand it, the 200th episode of South Park was a reunion of sorts, featuring virtually every celebrity the show has ever mocked. (I'm familiar with the show, but I didn't see the episode and so am relying on media accounts.) One of those "celebrities" was Muhammed, the founder of Islam.

Some Muslims believe that Islam forbids Muhammed to be portrayed in pictorial form. Respecting this prohibition would present an interesting challenge for any television show, and South Park isn't just any television show: it lives to tweak the untouchable, and the more sacred the cow, the bloodier the resulting steak tartare is likely to be. In the 200th episode, Muhammed was camouflaged in a bear costume. (To close the circle, in the 201st episode it turned out not to be Muhammed in the bear costume at all.)

According to the New York Times:
The next day the “South Park” episode was criticized by the group Revolution Muslim in a post at its Web site, revolutionmuslim.com. The post, written by a member named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode “outright insulted” the prophet, adding: “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 a later clarification, Revolution Muslim said:
By placing the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a bear suit, the creators of South Park sought to insult the sacred, and show their blatant and general disregard for religion. By insulting our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) without the outright depicting of his image, the creators of South Park thought that they had found some loophole in the Muslim faith for them to mock.
So the creators of South Park sought to insult the sacred, and show their blatant and general disregard for religion, eh? Most fans of South Park would probably answer, "Yes," maybe even, "Hell, yes!" Trey Parker and Matt Stone, if memory serves, have made fun of not only Islam, but also Judaism, the wide swath of Christian sects, Hinduism, Buddhism, and less widespread beliefs such as Scientology. Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and Scientology have come in for mockery far more often and far more savagely than Islam has. Some people undoubtedly would like for South Park to insult no one, and particularly to leave religions of any stripe alone. Well, that's not how the show works. The only person on the planet likely to escape the show's sharp tongue is Robert Smith; the rest of us can only hope to be ordinary enough to fly under Parker's and Stone's radar.

Moving on, let's consider what "the sacred" means. Doing so should prompt you to ask, "Sacred to whom?" Earlier, I made a small pun on the old expression "sacred cow," but Hindus might not appreciate my humor, cows being holy to them. Should I have foregone the pun in deference to Hindu sensibilities? It would not have cost much ... and yet, it would have been more than I'm willing to pay. It would have required me to censor my writing, and censoring writing eventually leads to censoring thought. Censoring thought is antithetical to creativity, the biggest asset our species has in the race for survival. That's why freedom of expression matters: it fosters freedom of thought, and therefore creativity.

The principle Revolution Muslim is advocating, though they never say so outright, is that what is "sacred" to any religion must not be challenged. Many non-Muslims would agree, I don't doubt. A moment's reflection, however, should give them and Revolution Muslim pause.

Are they willing to hold sacrosanct all that which another holds sacred? Are they willing to abide by another's definition of what is beyond question? What if it conflicts with their own beliefs?

As a specific example: could the followers of Revolution Islam accept the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope?

A religion that requires fealty -- not just respect -- from non-believers challenges the very idea that different belief systems may coexist. That, in turn, begs the question of how such a religion can be accommodated within a pluralistic society, since pluralism only works if people are free to choose what to believe.

As a matter of courtesy, most of us refrain from willfully insulting the religious beliefs of others. However, I'm glad there are those who feel free to violate that and other taboos. Sometimes you only find your own limits if someone else steps beyond them. And sometimes, the only way to stumble onto wisdom is to stray off the path everyone else is following.

Revolution Muslim's response, in greater detail

Revolution Muslim had a good deal more to say in its response. I feel compelled to comment on some of it.

One of its first statements boded well, I thought, for a better understanding all around:
We would like to point out that we are not against a rational dialogue with either group [Muslims or non-Muslims] and would like to take this opportunity to ask all to read and respond with an objective mind. We live in an age of media concision, and a consequential reality which tends to afford very little opportunity for in depth discussion.
(I appreciated the use of the word "concision"; it lent an erudite tone to the writing that the average discussion thread on Slashdot, for instance, lacks.)

And then I hit a snag:
We seek to create an opportunity for correction of wrongs and the alteration of behavior that many may suggest is insignificant, but nevertheless is a behavior which we hold to be not only sacrilegious, but which we feel typifies a cancer which bites at the root of global injustice. The cancer we are referring to is that of American imperialism and its coincident culture of pagan hedonistic barbarism, a culture which drives to dehumanize the intrinsic morality of the rest of the world. As it stands today the vast majority of the world has witnessed the cloud of American debauchery, and those whom it has not hovered over have at the very least been affected by its dust.
Now, I'm not going to argue about "American imperialism"; I'll only remark that Canada and Mexico likely are irked that "American" automatically connotes "of or belonging to the United States" to the rest of the world.

However, characterizing U.S. culture (such as it is) as barbaric immediately triggers my "tirade filter." Resorting to the caricature of equating U.S. culture with barbarism -- that is, demonizing it, and by extension, demonizing the society that gave rise to it -- suggests that the writer's argument won't stand without such crude rhetorical tricks. And indeed, claiming that that culture drives to dehumanize the intrinsic morality of the rest of the world goes beyond the bounds of rational debate in my book. Intrinsic morality of the rest of the world? No, no, when you make a sweeping and unjustifiable (and, well, meaningless -- what the hell is "intrinsic morality"?) statement like that, you have forfeited your place at the debating table. If the United States holds no monopoly on virtue, neither does it hold one on vice.

(I own to being amused at the slightly Victorian tone of horror suggested by calling the barbarism "pagan" and "hedonistic.")

After briefly describing South Park's (mis)use of not only Muhammed but also Moses and Jesus, both of whom are also beloved prophets in Islam, the writer continues:
If you were to ask any American how many people had been killed in the Iraq war, then he would give you some number around 4,000. The reality is that many estimates put the complete death toll of this war at figures above 1,000,000. America is a country which murdered 500,000 Iraqi children in the decade before September 11th, 2001 under the Iraq sanctions. This is a fact which the American Secretary of State at the time Madeleine Albright admitted to. The attacks on September 11th did not even equal a week of the murder inflicted on the Muslim people by the American imperialist agenda, yet the United States unanimously viewed these attacks as a justification to kill additional hundreds of thousands of Muslims. America props up brutal dictators on our soil simply because they are friendly and they control the oil. America’s military supports the Israeli regime which stole the land it controls from Muslims. The closest thing it has done to helping the Palestinian people is to periodically give fewer munitions to Israel for them to kill Palestinians with. How can anyone possibly champion the values of such a people? In the last century only the Soviet regime and the Maoist regime murdered more innocent people than America. Not even the tyrant of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler, beats out America on this list. However, for some reason the makers of South Park in their self-righteous obscenity feel compelled to impose upon Muslims the values of this regime. Furthermore, they felt compelled to do it through the mocking of the man whom we hold in the highest esteem, whose honor we would die for, the Messenger of Allah Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah (peace be upon him).
I'll admit that my eyes glazed over the first time I read that paragraph. I've encountered arguments like this, delivered in this strident tone, at antiwar rallies in the U.S. There is a part of me that wonders how trustworthy the messenger is when this is the message. I say this not to belittle or to deny this information, but merely to explain why I didn't automatically recoil in horror at it. To this day I am reluctant to believe that I, as a United States citizen, have been complicit in activities this terrible. And yet, history teaches us that human beings can commit or condone atrocities when they're distant from the consequences.

I will say, however, that it is unjust and unfair for an organization based in the United States, as Revolution Muslim is, to state unequivocally that the United States unanimously viewed [the September 11th, 2001] attacks as a justification to kill additional hundreds of thousands of Muslims. In the wake of the attacks some extremists ignorantly proclaimed their desire to kill all Muslims, yes. However, claiming that these loudmouthed jackasses represented the entire U.S. population is as ignorant (or as hateful) as claiming that those Muslims who loudly wish to destroy the United States represent the entirety of the Muslim world.

But back to that paragraph. Notice that it isn't until the last two sentences that the writer brings the subject back to South Park -- and has to stretch pretty far to do so. He accuses Parker and Stone of feeling compelled to impose upon Muslims the values of this regime [the U.S.].

That is, to put it kindly, a silly argument.

If Parker and Stone felt compelled to do anything, it was to test the vehement reaction of some Muslims to the attempt -- by non-Muslims -- to depict the Prophet Muhammed. In that regard, the two men's actions are of a piece with their attitude toward every subject they've ever mocked on South Park. They behave like four-year-olds: they live to provoke outraged reactions for the sake of provoking outraged reactions.

More to the point, though, how could South Park impose values on Muslims?

Was this episode beamed into the brain of every Muslim on the planet? (Is that what the satellite dish in Cartman's posterior is for?)

Assuming the beamed-into-the-Muslim-brain hypothesis is not true, we come to my moment of supreme puzzlement: why in blazes do Muslims care what non-Muslims think of Muhammed?

Honestly, I think this calls for some reflection here on the part of Muslims. To borrow a Jon Stewart-ism: Muslims, meet me at Camera Three.

Why isn't your own supreme and unyielding faith in your religion enough? Why do you care what anyone else thinks? You know you're right; why must you be defensive about it?

(The same question could be posed to the adherents of other religions, but I digress.)

I could understand if you felt pity for non-believers. I could understand if you wanted to proselytize. But does your faith really require that on certain issues you must try to make the rest of us fall in line, whether we will or no?

If, even on only one or two issues, there's no room to live and let live, we non-Muslims are going to have a difficult time accepting that imposition. Being non-Muslims, we don't believe you have the monopoly on truth. That might be blasphemy in your eyes, but not in ours.

The rest of us have a strategy for dealing with South Park when, not if, it offends us: we stop watching it. It works for other aspects of U.S. culture, too. In fact, it works for culture from all over the world. You should try it.

(Okay, we're done with Camera Three.)

Back to the RM blog. The next section has to do with taking the United States to task for its relations with and policy toward what might be called the Islamic world. In particular, Revolution Muslim accuses the United States of attempting to change Islam, and asserts:
If America was openly engaged in a campaign to change Christianity or Judaism, do you not think there would be outrage and sensitivity from these communities? It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but anyone with half an hour of free time can easily find these comments in any number of policy documents. Furthermore they can find evidence of America supporting certain scholars of Islam and hiding others with American taxpayer dollars. It is only natural for a group which is under an ideological assault from the United States to be hostile toward anything coming from an American citizen which is mocking this group.
It's difficult to sympathize with the idea of preserving Revolution Muslim's reading of Islam against attempts to change it when it clearly coexists so uncomfortably with other belief systems. The Reformation was not a pleasant upheaval, but I believe the world is better for it.
While the makers of South Park are probably unaware of these issues, and they are merely pawns in a dangerous game, they are playing right into the hands of those who wish to change our religion. The destruction of the Islamic identity is not something which Muslims can tolerate, and this is something being directly funded by the American regime. It is no secret that America’s military uses American goods to spread its culture and propaganda in order to create docile societies. Just look at Somalia where the World Food Program refused to buy domestic food in favor of American food. How do you think Obama would feel if the flag of Al-Qa’ida was stamped on his coffee mug and there was nothing he could do about it? The issue of the honor of our Prophet (peace be upon him) is an issue of honor for this entire nation. Perhaps honor is a dead value in the West, but it will never die in the hearts of this Ummah (nation).
I was surprised to find myself able to accept the logic of most of this paragraph. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I think it makes some cogent arguments in a reasonable manner. At least, until that last sentence.

And now, we reach another gaping chasm of divergent perspectives:
Free speech is a vital tool in the staving of oppression, but this function has its limits. It is hard to understand how one can feel self-righteous while defending somebody as an "equal opportunity offender." Such an illogical state of mind could only emanate from a selfish culture in which the suffering of the many is justified by the enjoyment of the few. And it may be an American "value" that all speech should be free including that which is obscene and aimed at emotionally oppressing a specific group of people, but this is not a value that the Muslims share with America as a whole. In fact, one of the major reasons there is such little opposition to American domination today is the reality that the principle of free speech, as envisioned by the founding fathers of the United States and by wise men and women throughout the ages, is a universal principle that may protect citizens from political, economic, or religious persecution. Today it is understood much differently; today “free speech” is interpreted as the right to promote pornography, homosexuality, slander, and libel against even that which is considered sacred. Indeed, it is in the shifting away from this conceptualization that America first deviated from its position as republic and assumed the role of global empire.
It takes some practice -- okay, a lot of practice -- to stand up for equal opportunity offenders. It takes a lot of practice to accept, intellectually if not emotionally, the right of others to say and to believe things you consider repugnant. I can, for instance, accept intellectually that white supremacists have just as much right to promulgate their beliefs as anybody else, but nothing can make me like that fact. Nevertheless, I accept my discomfort as the price that the U.S. pays for having a vital, vibrant marketplace of ideas. (Not as vital or vibrant today as I'd like, but that's a different essay.)

Again, there is a misapprehension of why "free speech" is valued. Protection against persecution is the means; the desired end is the free exchange of ideas for the edification of the populace. The outraged feelings manifest in the phrase the right to promote pornography, homosexuality, slander and libel against even that which is considered sacred show that "free speech" includes elements that offend the writer's sensibilities. Well, perhaps they offend mine, too, but what I find more offensive is the idea that the writer should be able to dictate what I may say or hear.

And for the record, I find some of Revolution Muslim's remarks that I've quoted to be offensive to beliefs I hold sacred, but I don't call for Revolution Muslim to be censored, or suggest (not so) innocently that the blog writer will suffer the fate of Theo van Gogh.
Is there a purpose, other than evil, in insulting something someone holds sacred?
That's a reasonable question. While I don't pretend to know what South Park's creators/producers are thinking, one possibility that comes to mind is that they find something irresistibly amusing -- or bemusing -- in the phenomenon of religious belief. That seems to be the most logical conclusion after seeing the world's major spiritual figures gathered together in an obvious parody of the old Superfriends cartoon in another South Park episode....
While insulting Jesus, Moses, or any other prophet would remove someone from Islam, we Muslims are also forbidden to insult the deities that other religions hold in high esteem. Allah says in the Qur'an:

وَلاَ تَسُبُّواْ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ فَيَسُبُّواْ اللّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ

Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance
Therefore, as Muslims we do not define speech which has no place in a moral society as "free speech." Furthermore, we will never tolerate the mocking or insulting of any one of the prophets, peace be upon them, from any source even if it was the Caliph (leader) of the entire Muslim world. It is truly sad that we did not speak out when they first insulted 'Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), or even the first time they mocked the final prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all. However, simply because they have done something in the past and there was no outcry does not justify our silence in the present.
The Revolution Muslim blogger could not be expected to write a treatise on all the subtleties of Islam, but I cannot help remarking that I still don't have a clear picture of what constitutes speech which has no place in a moral society. I also am confident that we do not see eye to eye on what constitutes a moral society.

As a side note: it is all well and good that Islam discourages the disparaging of other deities, but there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in discouraging the disparaging of those flesh-and-blood people who don't worship any deity at all.

Now we go from what might be characterized as heated debate, to what I regard as a breakdown of talks:
As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death. Ibn Taymiyyah a great scholar of Islam says, "Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) -a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed...and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic scholars.”

...

This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they consider doing the same thing.
Yeah, sure it's not a deliberate attempt at incitement.

The first paragraph is unambiguous: if you insult the Messenger of Allah, Islamic scholars say you must die.

The second paragraph is a clumsily hair-splitting dance that translates to: "We're not actually advocating murder, so don't blame us. But you'd better believe it will happen. Oh, and anybody else considering similar behavior ... pay attention."

Although Revolution Muslim's blog entry continues with extensive explanations, qualifications, and justifications, the take-away is lamentably simple:
  • Islamic law requires the death of anyone who "curses" (insults) Muhammed.
  • The South Park episode in question insulted Muhammed.
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone are marked men in the eyes of Revolution Muslim and like-minded people.
The bigger message that comes through loud and clear in Revolution Muslim's lengthy essay:

Islam, as practiced in the way advocated by Revolution Muslim, is incapable of peaceful coexistence with other belief systems in a pluralistic society because it demands fealty to its sacred principles by non-believers.

Update

Honestly, I had no desire to revisit Revolution Muslim's Web site. To my mind, the blog postings come from a different world, and have the kind of odd and meandering not-quite-logic I've encountered in dreams (and once in a fever-induced hallucination). Nevertheless, I was curious to see what had transpired since the South Park brouhaha had come and (seemingly) gone.

On 30 April 2010, Revolution Muslim's blog quoted (in full, as far as I can tell) a thoughtful piece from Prof. Jeremy F. Walton; this post on therevealer.org appears to be the original (and is significantly more readable because of the formatting). I don't agree with everything Prof. Walton says, particularly about the advocacy of free speech; he bandies about the term free speech fundamentalists too cavalierly and impatiently for my taste. However, it's far more thoughtful than anything else I've read.

That was the upside of my update check.

Here's a posting, apparently from 19 May 2010, cheerily entitled, Tomorrow is a Nice day to Supplicate for the Destruction of the Kuffar!!! Please do not forget to make sincere du'aa:
Please take tomorrow May 20, 2010 as a special day to make many supplications incessantly for the destruction of the kuffar, their armies, their embassies, their flags, their military bases, their houses, their security, their disgusting way of life. May Allah (swt) punish them continuously, destroy their buildings, foil their plans and resurrect this jihad until even the eskimos must remove their sleds from the path of Allah's auliyya and mujahideen, amin!
"Kuffar," according to Wikipedia, is the plural of "kafir," which is usually translated as 'unbeliever' or 'disbeliever', or sometimes 'infidel'. In other words, the rest of us.

These deluded, self-righteous twits should be pariahs in polite society. Fortunately, if Hussein Rashid is correct, they already are.

[EDIT: corrected title of post from "Islam" to "Muslim"]

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