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South Park: internalizing the fatwa

Toward the end of last week, the South Park producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone said that Comedy Central had censored its episode that aired last Wednesday, to remove references to the prophet Muhammad. The Viacom-owned network also pulled the episode off its website.

In an earlier episode that aired on April 14, the show’s 200th anniversary, South Park played with the idea that Islam forbids depiction of Muhammad. It deliberately did not show the prophet’s face, and instead had him holed up in a U-Haul trailer and then appeared wearing a bear costume. That led to criticism from a group called Revolution Muslim. A post on its website stated “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably end up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show.” Mr. van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker, was killed by an Islamic militant in Amsterdam in 2004.

In 2006, South Park commented in an episode about the controversy over the Danish newspaper that published cartoons satirizing Muhammad, but indirectly: Muhammad was said to be contained in a black box labeled “CENSORED”. Parker and Stone admitted that their original that was to be aired last Wednesday had also been self-censored before being presented to Comedy Central (by using a “CENSORED” graphic and bleeping the prophet’s name), but that the network had imposed further alterations.

What’s remarkable here is how little it took to provoke Comedy Central’s actions: calling Revolution Muslim a fringe group is generous. Also, the key issue is self-censorship, and how organizations in the West end up doing illiberal groups' work for them. The best book to read to understand all of this is Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad: The Legacy of the Rushdie Affair. Malik makes many important points, but one of them is how the West has effectively internalized the fatwa.

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