Last week, a two-episode South Park storyline centering around the Islamic prophet Muhammad sparked a mess of controversy for portraying what the show’s characters thought was Muhammad in a bear costume (it turned out to be Santa Claus).
After the first episode aired, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker received threats from RevolutionMuslim.com “warning” them they could end up like Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh was brutally assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, for co-producing the film Submission. It focused on the violence women are subjected to in the Islamic world.
As a result of the thinly veiled threat, Comedy Central — against the South Park creators’ wishes — censored every utterance of Muhammad’s name in the second episode, as well as a customary “what I learned today” speech despite it not even mentioning Muhammad.
The controversy reminded us of Van Gogh’s story, which fell into obscurity following his untimely murder in 2004. While Van Gogh and the South Park creators are — as far as we can tell from their work — probably very different people, they are identical in their love for freedom of speech. Theo Van Gogh was son to Johan Van Gogh, a member of the Dutch secret service. More interesting is his relationship to his great-great-uncle, Vincent. Such relationships offer an undertone of politically charged artistic beauty to Theo’s career, as well as his death; Vincent Van Gogh was recognized for his artistic genius after his death, while Theo Van Gogh has been recognized as a martyred pioneer in the pushback against radical Islamic attempts to censor.
In his many books and movies, Van Gogh presented an often cynical and mocking tone when critical of a topic. So it was with Islam — Van Gogh was well-known for his critical attitude, especially after the September 11 attacks. A nihilist at heart, Van Gogh could have been a character right out of the politically incorrect, comically disturbing atmosphere that makes up South Park. He openly used cocaine, went through heavy drinking episodes, and was an outspoken cynic of relationships (he later adopted a healthier lifestyle, naming his son as the reason). Van Gogh was immortalized in the sculpture “De Schreeuw” (“the cry” or “the scream”). Erected near the site of his murder, one side shows Van Gogh crying out while the other shows him close-mouthed — symbolic of his being silenced by his fanatical murderer.
Van Gogh’s Submission is a 10-minute film dealing with the violence Muslim women endure in Islamic societies. The script was written by Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The film tells the story of four abused Muslim women, and its title is directly translated from the world “Islam.”
The film shows women’s naked bodies veiled with translucent shrouds as they kneel while recounting their stories, as if in prayer to Allah. Koranic verses hostile to women are projected onto their bodies in Arabic. Soon after the movie was broadcast on public Dutch TV, Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats. Unfortunately, Van Gogh did not take them seriously and refused protection. He reportedly told Ali: “Nobody kills the village idiot,” a term he often used to describe himself.
Despite Bouyeri’s attempt to censor Van Gogh and Ali, the film was widely broadcast throughout Europe. Film Threat movie critic Phil Hall stated:
If its methods were harsh, nonetheless Submission was bold in openly questioning misogyny and a culture of violence against women because of Koranic interpretations. The questions raised in the film deserve to be asked: is it divine will to assault or kill women? Is there holiness in holding women at substandard levels, denying them the right to free will and independent thought? And ultimately, how can such a mindframe exist in the 21st century?
Despite having gone into hiding, Hirsi Ali has stated she would like to make a sequel to Submission: “By not making Submission Part II, I would only be helping terrorists believe that if they use violence, they’re rewarded with what they want.” When asked if she would submit to threats against her life, Hirsi Ali responded, “Not me.”