Even after 200 hundred episodes, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone haven’t run out of ways to be offensive. For their bicentennial episode, they showed the prophet Mohammad in a bear suit, predictably setting off a storm of controversy and accusations of everything from Muslim-baiting to blasphemy.
In fact, one blogger was so irritated, he made some not-so-veiled threats on the website Revolution Muslim. The blog post starts out with a picture of murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, lying dead in the street, a knife protruding gruesomely from his chest. “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,” says the writer, before adding addresses for Comedy Central’s New York office and Parker and Stone’s production company. He even includes a link to an article talking about Parker and Stone’s vacation home under the ominous header “Where do they live?”
Perhaps as a result of this troubling response, the follow-up episode was altered. Parker and Stone admit to some self-censorship, using a black bar to cover up the bear-suited prophet and bleeping out his name. But Comedy Central didn’t feel that went far enough, and further censored the episode without the creators’ knowledge or consent, editing even more of the audio, ironically including parts of a speech about intimidation and fear. While many viewers thought it had intentionally been done that way, Parker and Stone later clarified, "It wasn't some meta-joke on our part."
It’s understandable that network executives were concerned about the content of the show. After all, it’s a business and they have advertisers to think about, as well as the safety of their staff. But it is nevertheless galling to see them engaging in such thorough self-censorship out of fear. However sensible the decision might be, it is always unfortunate when intimidation is successfully used to make others conform to one group’s idea of acceptable expression.
In response to the situation, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris created a poster for the fictitious group Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor—CACAH (say that one out loud)—advertising an equally made-up Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. The poster features various everyday items, including a spool of thread, a cherry and a box of pasta, all claiming to be the true likeness of the prophet Mohammad. The text comes out in defense of the first amendment and chastises Comedy Central for “cooperating with terrorists” and asks everyone to participate on May 20 in the first annual Everybody Draw Mohammad Day to “water down the pool of targets.”
The illustration went viral and before long, everyone was under the impression that this was a real poster for a real event. It was picked up by Associated Press, prompting Norris to write on her website, “I did not intend for my cartoon to go viral. I did not intend to be the focus of any 'group' […] This particular cartoon has struck a gigantic nerve, something I was totally unprepared for.” The artist went on to explain that she was not trying to target a particular religion, but just to make a statement about the importance of personal expression.
But as sometimes happens in the digital realm, the illustration has taken on a life of its own. Someone on Facebook has created an event listing for Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, and it’s currently boasting more than 5000 confirmed guests and a slew of artwork showing images of Mohammad with various degrees of offensiveness. Not long after, another page sprung up in response, calling for Everybody Draw Mohammad Day to be banned. Both substantive discussions and old-fashioned flame wars are raging on both sites, and the cartoonist herself is commenting on both. Meanwhile, various websites and press outlets continue to pick up the story, calling more and more attention to this latest conflict between free speech and religion.
It is hard to say how constructive a dialogue can be had when it comes to this touchy issue, but certainly some dialogue is better than none. As Norris put it, “I hope for the sake of this country that moderate Muslims will speak out with everyone else against any violent members of that or any other religion. That way I would know that there is a difference. Maybe this cartoon I made, this fictional poster of ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!’ had such a wildfire effect because it is finally time for Muslims and non-Muslims to understand one another more.”