Round about the time that Yale University Press, of all publishers, capitulated to non-existent Muslim extremist threats when it divested its book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, of the actual cartoons that shook the world, it was amazingly easy to predict the future. We were going to be catapulted into the trembling years, all of us—scholars, journalists, readers, free-speech advocates—hostage to hatred.
And we would be launched into that muzzled world courtesy of the very institutions we are told to trust or admire. Universities. Newspapers. Networks. Fearless shows offering freewheeling satire.
As you may remember, in 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a competition for cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the results, while rather inventive, produced riots, during which around 200 people were killed. Despite vast media coverage of the event, those cartoons were conspicuously absent from many newspapers.
So should we have been surprised this past week when South Park, the impertinent television animated series, found itself censored by Comedy Central after the show depicted Muhammad zipped inside a bear suit? South Park’s legions of fans claim they were, yes, completely shocked and disgusted when a subsequent show (like the previous episode, a satirical nod to the Prophet whose image, under Islamic law, is never supposed to be shown) emerged studded with audio bleeps. Also bleeped: a choice selection of South Park dialogue, which railed against “intimidation and fear.”
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, like the newspaper cartoonists before them, got an interesting message the other day, warning them their lives were on the line. But this is nothing new.
It’s been just one month since a plot devised by terrorist Muslims intent on murdering the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was foiled in Ireland. Vilks, who had a $100,000 bounty on his head, courtesy of Al Qaeda (with a 50 percent bonus if Vilks was “slaughtered like a lamb”), was among the original core of irreverent artists. In similar fashion, but with different protagonists this time, Parker and Stone were warned on the site Revolution Muslim, that if they continued to broadcast images of the Prophet, they would likely “wind up like Theo Van Gogh…”
Six years ago, Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who criticized Islam’s treatment of women, was also “slaughtered like a lamb.”
You can argue that by continuing to push the perimeters of freedom of expression, as South Park attempted to do, we’re opening ourselves up to even more threats and more murders. But I argue the opposite. By submitting to fear, assuming the roles of abject captives, we are opening ourselves up to even more threats, more murders. Because the enemies of free speech are out there, emboldened by easy victories. They know who we are: traitors of the Constitution, easily vanquished. And worse, much worse: We are hostages of our own making, held captive in cells of our own construction.