Respect, blasphemy and violence

We looked at some of the coverage of the Comedy Central’s censorship of the South Park program. South Park has long shown offensive images of Jesus and other non-Muslim religious figures. It has also attempted to show inoffensive “images of Muhammad” but been censored by the network — and other media covering the issue — out of fears of violence. I put “images of Muhammad” in quotes because their most recent censored images were actually of a bear and a taxi-cab (that Muhammad was supposedly inside).

Anyway, it’s not the blasphemy that’s in question. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker love to blaspheme all religions. This is why they, for instance, think it’s funny to depict Americans, President Bush and Jesus defecating on each other and the American flag. Blasphemy is sort of what they do.

It’s the violence and the threat of violence and the censorship that results in that. Good coverage would look at the difference in core values of the clashing cultures and different religions in question. And that, of course, is the story few people want to cover.

A good opportunity to explore the issues came when a young illustrator came up with an “I am Spartacus” idea of having everyone draw Muhammad one day. It took off — beyond the artist’s wildest expectations, I guess. Here’s the Los Angeles Times:

The outcry from Comedy Central’s decision to censor an episode of South Park with depictions of Muhammad last week led a cartoonist and a Facebook user to fight back. That is until they realized it might be controversial, apparently.

In declaring May 20th to be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” Seattle artist Molly Norris created a poster-like cartoon showing many objects — from a cup of coffee to a box of pasta to a tomato — all claiming to be the likeness of Muhammad.

Such depictions are radioactive as many Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad.

First off, I’d like to thank the Los Angeles Times for putting a “many” in front of Muslims to note that not all Muslims believe that Islamic teachings forbid showing images of Muhammad. Muslims are most definitely not unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous.

The 15th century image with this post shows Muhammad visiting Paradise while riding Buraq, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel. Below them, riding camels, are some of the fabled houris of Paradise — the “virgins” promised to heroes and martyrs. This image is entitled Miraj Nama, and is housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

Actually, I’m totally unsure where the breakdown is on whether or not to depict Muhammad, what the key doctrinal points are, or how many or what type of Muslims are on which side. I think that would make a fascinating story.

Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear approached the story by asking her paper’s cartoonist Scott Stantis for his thoughts. Here’s a snippet from the interview:

Seeker: Do you have a set of rules that govern what/who you draw and when? In other words, are certain people or historical figures off limits or is everyone fair game? Do you ever poke fun at people who have passed away or do you have rules about that?

SS: Under certain conditions I can see drawing anyone or any body.

Seeker: What are your thoughts about the reaction to the South Park depiction of the Prophet Muhammad? Do you think it’s overblown or could it lead to a productive conversation about respect?

SS: Any time you threaten violence you lose the argument. I can second guess Comedy Central’s decision to edit the South Park episode but I can see where they would not want to put themselves in harm’s way. In terms of respect, I have to giggle at the notion that a faith that is so insecure that its icon cannot be held up to even depiction has a lot of internal work to do.

A good discussion ensues in the comments (how often can you say that on the interwebs!?). But again, this isn’t really a debate about respect. Christian and Jewish symbols and figures are disrespected by cartoonists or other media figures every day that ends with a y. So this isn’t really a debate about how to show proper respect to religious figures. This is really a debate about whether fear of violence is the only reason to back away from disrespectful speech.

I’ve been sick and under the weather all week so perhaps this has been covered better by mainstream reporters, but the only place I even saw a discussion of this issue was in Ross Douthat’s New York Times column. Read the whole thing, but here is a snippet:

In ours, though, even Parker’s and Stone’s wildest outrages often just blur into the scenery. In a country where the latest hit movie, “Kick-Ass,” features an 11-year-old girl spitting obscenities and gutting bad guys while dressed in pedophile-bait outfits, there isn’t much room for real transgression. Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.

Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.

This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.

He sort of took the ball and scored three touchdowns with it — but I’d settle for a simple discussion on establishing standards under threat of violence. How does that affect our culture, how does that affect Muslims in Muslim countries, how does affect Muslims living in countries that are not predominantly Muslim? How does that affect Muslim art? How does that affect art critical of Islam? Where are we seeing this issue played out? What are the hidden costs of decisions such as those made by Comedy Central — and countless other publishing houses and art venues that don’t even wait for the death threats to pull books, productions, etc.?

Brachear has also used her blog to provide a forum for other voices in the depiction of Muhammad controversy. Here’s Hesham Hassaballa saying he was bothered by the cartoon but more bothered by the Muslim extremist response to the cartoon and Ahmed Rehab saying he thought the controversy was contrived. And there’s an agnostic defender of the First Amendment in there for good measure, too.

The Washington Post‘s comic blog
also took up the issue, noting that 17 Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists had signed a petition expressing outrage at the threats made against Parker and Stone.

Blogs are great (hey, we’re a blog, too!) but how about some more substantive coverage of the issue — and the long-term concerns that need addressing.

Print Friendly

  • Jettboy

    And what is going on with the outcry? Nothing. Newspaper cartoonists will never show artwork depicting Mohammad. They cry fowl while acting the coward; but only to the Muslim hoards. No other religion gets referential treatment and often absolute mockery.

  • Jerry

    media figrues

    Mollie, I know it’s a typo but it’s a very funny one given the meaning of the word ‘grue’: A grue is a fictional predator that dwells in the dark. and how some think of the media.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I just googled Molly Norris and she is running away from what she started. According to the latest news accounts she now has only a picture of herself on the site and the words “I said I wanted to counter fear and then I got afraid.”
    I think Douthat’s word “decadent” aptly describes a media that will trash, insult, deride images and icons of one’s own religious culture and history, BUT cowardly grovel when there might be a cost to defending freedom of speech and the press.
    Meanwhile our courageous young men and women in the military are putting their lives on the line each day to protect our (and the media’s) freedoms.

  • Roberto Rivera

    Not to be pedantic but South Park airs on Comedy Central, not the Cartoon Network.

  • Mollie

    Thank you so much Jerry and Roberto for your typo corrections. Not pedantic in the slightest. Very impt. to correct. Thanks.

  • Peter

    I’m glad the LA Times story included actual Muslim voices who were willing to condemn blasphemy and violence. Too often, there’s a lot of moral preening by traditional Christians on this issue who seem almost giddy abiut the blasphemy, but who melt down at the faintest hint of criticism if Christians.

  • Ben

    This is not so simple a debate for journalists. I remember when the Danish cartoon controversy hit. In our newsroom there were strong arguments made that the cartoonists were merely trying to be annoyingly provocative, somewhat like the Westboro Baptist crowd, and so should we really give them more attention? Further, the cartoons would not help convince Muslims to embrace a more open society model but in fact do the opposite. I argued against these views because I generally find taboos to be more trouble than help, and, ultimately, no one was preventing Muslims from practicing their religion so freedom of speech trumped in the public square. At least for our paper, the decision about how much to cover the issue was largely made along the lines of these arguments, not based on some perceived fear or PC-love (which is it?) of Islam and loathing of Christianity. I wish people would stop suggesting these motives among journalists.

    When the Deacon talks about “media” in his comment, I am guessing he’s talking about entertainment outlets. (If the Deacon includes journalism operations, I’ll just say that there are a lot of journalists who are also over in Iraq and Afghanistan bravely risking their lives for this whole freedom of speech thing.) I’ll agree that Comedy Central’s decisions in this case were cowardly. That often goes with the territory when you are talking about purely for-profit entertainment businesses — which is one reason I reject Chris Bollinger’s frequent arguments that journalism should just respond to market dynamics.

    Are we muddying the debate here by not distinguishing between entertainment and journalism?

  • Aaron Worthing

    Its funny you made the “Spartacus” analogy, because I created a blog called Everyone Draw Mohammed, and when I saw someone make the same analogy, I picked it right up, and made three posts on the idea:

    Anyway, if you want to actually draw mohammed, my blog is open to you. We have no standards in terms of content or quality, except for 2 rules:

    1. it has to depict mohammed.
    2. no actual porn.

    So check out my mission statement here:

    And then learn how to submit a dreaded cartoon of blasphemy, here:

    And you all have a wonderful day. fight the good fight.

  • Aaron Worthing

    Btw, i have to say that in the journalistic context, there shouldn’t have been even a debate about this.

    How on earth do you report on a controversial drawing without actually showing us the drawing?

    As for the westboro analogy, well, last time i checked the media does show the signs that are part of the issue, there. I mean you don’t have the embarrassing spectacle of CNN showing the cartoons and then blocking out the actual image of mohammed when the Westboro people protest at a funeral for a soldier.

  • Ray Ingles

    As Ben notes, entertainers and artists are in a different category than journalists. Different journalists came to different conclusions on how to cover the Dutch “Mohammed cartoons”.

    But Christians should be very careful how they discuss the fact that people feel more comfortable acting in ways and saying things that Christians find offensive than those that Muslims find offensive. Otherwise they can come across as having fatwa envy. I mean, is it a bad thing that people don’t generally think Christians will take violent retribution for ‘offenses’? (At least, for the last couple centuries or so. Leaving aside the Holocaust, I guess. And the death threats the student who held onto a communion wafer apparently received, and P.Z. Myers did receive.)

    I have to admit, I’m pondering making a contribution to Aaron’s collection. Not because I want to offend Muslims of any stripe, but because I’m offended (at the very least) by death threats.

  • Ray Ingles

    Aaron –

    How on earth do you report on a controversial drawing without actually showing us the drawing?

    That’s a toughie. In these days of web links, it’s a little easier – one can describe the image and indicate how to find it without actually presenting it. But there is a necessary balancing act. How offensive does the picture need to be, and to whom, before one exercises discretion?

    I mean, almost any picture is offensive to somebody:

  • Julia

    Ray Ingles:

    How is actually taking a sacred object from a religious ceremony connected to drawing pictures of Mohammad?

    The US Federal and state governments are returning objects sacred to Native Americans. Do you oppose that? Why or why not?

    Doesn’t seem to be any journalism or free speech issues involved in either case.

  • Aaron Worthing


    > I have to admit, I’m pondering making a contribution to Aaron’s collection. Not because I want to offend Muslims of any stripe, but because I’m offended (at the very least) by death threats.

    Well, first, you don’t have to be offensive, beyond the actual depiction of mohammed, which is considered by some to be itself offensive. I mean a few of the cartoons are not offensive at all. And some of them really, really offensive. I didn’t want to get bogged down into a discussion of what is appropriate, so I just said more or less, “be as offensive as you want, or not at all, and I will publish it.”

    As for your points, as much as we might talk about cultural respect, there has to be limits. A good example is a discussion mark steyn recounted between a british official in india and a group of locals. Back then the Indians had that tradition that when a man died, his wife would then be burned alive based on some twisted logic that she must be so distraught that she would prefer to be burned alive rather than live without him, or even to die in a less horrid way, and just didn’t quite have the courage to do it. So the locals are saying, “hey, this is our culture.” And the british officer says (all of this is paraphrase), “you say this is your culture. Well, we have our own culture, and in our culture if you burn an innocent woman alive, we hang you. So you can build your bonfire, and I will build my gallows and after you carry out your traditions, we will carry out ours.”

    So some people in islam don’t like mohammed depicted at all, and probably almost all of them don’t like patently offensive ones. That is their tradition. And our tradition is freedom of speech—even if we don’t like what you say.

    I think what it comes down to is that there are core traditions in our society and peripheral traditions. Like I might go to dinner tonight at a burger place and eat classic American food. Or I might go eat Italian food. Or I might eat pizza which is an American bastardization of an italian dish. Unless you are a vegetarian or something, or someone is offering you a slice of dog, there generally isn’t any strong moral preference there, and so Americans can eat any dang food they want, no big deal. Indeed we consider that sort of thing to be uniquely American. And if you want to a club and dance Indian style, or you want to wear traditional African clothes, or whatever, as a rule of thumb, its no big whup. But on the other hand, when you strike at constitutional principles, people will be wont to say, “if we let you do this, then this isn’t America anymore.” If we don’t have freedom of speech, it isn’t America anymore.

  • Peter

    A private company deciding not to show pictures that are offensive or provocative is not a freedom of speech issue. It may be cowardice, but it isn’t a First Amendment concern.

  • Mollie

    Even with the wide berth of this post, please try to stick to the journalism issues.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Some wonder why so many Catholics–and other Christians–consider the NY Times nothing but a hate rag. For typical example consider the cartoonist issue. When the Danish cartoon controversy hit, the NY Times, instead of logically showing one of the cartoons in question, illustrated their major story on the controversy by, again, printing the “artwork” of the Blessed Virgin Mary daubed with elephant feces that Catholics, Orthodox, and many others had vociferously (but non-violently) complained about.
    To many, the Times behaviour is that of a powerful bully who will bravely punch–again and again– those who won’t physically punch back, but cowers when confronted by those who might call them to task physically.

  • Ray Ingles

    Julia –

    How is actually taking a sacred object from a religious ceremony connected to drawing pictures of Mohammad?

    Not journalism-related, but since you asked: Neither the student or Myers did anything illegal to get the consecrated Host. In the student’s case, it was handed to him, no contract required. In Myers’ case, wafers were acquired by others in a similar manner and sent to him. (At least, reportedly. I’m not aware of any way to test the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated wafers…)

    The Host wasn’t stolen – it just wasn’t treated with the respect that the people who (freely) provided it expected… and then came the (reported) death threats and (documented) physical assault and efforts to expel him from school.

    Now, the student’s motivations were murky – multiple conflicting accounts have been made – but Myers’ motivation was very specifically the death threats, assault, and expulsion attempts the student received.

    The US Federal and state governments are returning objects sacred to Native Americans. Do you oppose that?

    Not at all. Some were taken without authorization and should be returned. Others are being returned as a courtesy, and I heartily approve of that. I’m in favor of courtesy in general, and I’ve not heard any reports of Native Americans being discourteous by issuing death threats.

    Anyway, if you want to discuss this further, click on my name, and the “CONTACT” tab on my website, and let’s take it to email.

  • Molly

    This is a fascinating article.
    Thanks for it, and for all of the intelligent discussion in the comments.
    I am glad my CARTOON (for crying out loud! It’s just art!) at least helped to get a lot of people talking. And yeah, where is the mainstream media!? Where are mainstream Muslims when we most need them?
    It’s all so crazy. Can’t we all just go out and have some fun now?
    Molly Norris

  • Aaron Worthing


    > A private company deciding not to show pictures that are offensive or provocative is not a freedom of speech issue.

    It depends on the reason why. If it is because they are nice guys who don’t like to offend people, okay.

    if it is because they will get lots of nasty, but essentially peaceful protests or letters, okay.

    If it is because of concerns from sponsors, or actual boycotts, okay.

    But if it is because you are getting death threats, its not okay. And it does implicate freedom of speech. Because just how free are you to speak if you are terrified that someone will kill you?

    How free is Theo Van Gogh.

    This isn’t complicated. this is civics 101: don’t kill people for expressing an opinion you don’t like.