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We Need South Park — and We Need to Remember Theo Van Gogh

Van Gogh, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and those like them are vital free speech beacons against extremism and capitulation.

by
Aaron Elias

Bio

April 27, 2010 - 12:00 am

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.”

Despite his mocking and often inflammatory rhetoric, Van Gogh utilized his free speech as an all too serious method to inform people of the violence and hatred so prevalent in fundamentalist Islamic societies (Van Gogh called the film a “political pamphlet”). The style in which South Park creators Stone and Parker operate is the polar opposite of Van Gogh’s Submission. Over its 14 years on the air, the show has gained fame and infamy for tackling controversial topics with an ingeniously moronic and often hilarious approach. In such episodes, South Park toes the politically correct line, and in some people’s eyes barrels right over it. The show has taken on countless topics of controversy, from Scientology to gay rights to abortion to stem cell research. It’s portrayed Mickey Mouse as a child-hating corporate fearmonger, Jesus as a porn addict, Buddha as a cocaine addict, and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, as a manipulative fraud.

Most relevant to the current South Park controversy is its 2006 two-episode story “Cartoon Wars,” provoked by the 2005 Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons ordeal. Here too, Comedy Central chose to censor South Park’s portrayal of Muhammad to the degree that they have refused to re-air the episodes. (Many websites which stream the show have been forced to pull the offending episodes, but you may watch them here.)

It is very likely that Stone and Parker do not fully comprehend the evils that run rampant within radical Islamic societies. As an avid watcher of the show, I feel it safe to make the assumption that they focused the story on Muhammad in order to point out the absurdity of the very thing that ended up happening to them.

Using humorously stupid scenarios in order to underscore the real stupidity of the topic featured in the episode at hand is South Park’s signature style of humor. When taken at face value, it comes off as perhaps one of the most idiotic shows on the air; when analyzed further the viewer discovers an opinion or message that makes all the idiocy and humor of the past twenty minutes seem brilliant and sharp. Indeed, that Comedy Central censored South Park for focusing on Muhammad can almost be seen as a joke that is part of the show serving to underline its message. In this case, people trying to forbid others from making fun of them or their religion are not only immature and imbecilic, but they expect the socially impossible. (The story ends with Tom Cruise, so sick of being made fun of in the media, trying to escape social ridicule by going to the moon — where he suffocates and dies.)

It’s important to note that not only did Comedy Central censor all visual portrayals of Muhammad, but just to be safe it censored all mention of his name, too. The Muslim belief that nobody should pictorially display Mohammad is inane enough, but not even Islam has a rule forbidding the use of Muhammad’s name.

Comedy Central’s actions are darkness. People like Van Gogh, Parker, and Stone, whether they know it or not, are now beacons of hope for free speech. Parker and Stone released a heartening response to their network’s spineless decision:

In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind.

Parker and Stone’s confident defense of their own free speech has inspired a number of people to plan Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, slated for May 20. Started as a single person’s response to the South Park fiasco, it has snowballed into a viral online event.

This event is a hard example of why the world needs people like Van Gogh and Parker and Stone to stand up to violent idiocy, whether through seriousness or a bear costume. Van Gogh had the courage to sign his name and face to Submission. Parker and Stone stand up for South Park no matter who it offends. A heavy drinking cocaine addict would not stand for being censored out of fear, nor will the creators of a foulmouthed twenty-minute cartoon. It is vitally important that people like this not back down in the face of danger like Comedy Central did.

They are in the public eye, and they are setting examples. Had Parker and Stone released a statement apologizing for the offending episodes, or censored the episodes themselves, it would have sent a drastically different message. Such actions would have told us that our human freedoms are meaningless and that we need to submit to hostility instead of fighting back. This is the message Comedy Central has given, and I can only hope Parker and Stone find a new and braver network that will stand alongside them in the name of free speech.

The free world is not going to sit still as a gag is tied around its head, but it needs figures of leadership and inspiration to get it on its feet. The world population’s free speech is coming under an attack the likes of which it has never seen before. Radical Islamists are using the very free speech we cherish in order to shut us up. It doesn’t matter if Parker and Stone stand behind the episodes in question because they believe in their right to make fun of anyone and everyone, and not because of the encroaching Islamic threat as van Gogh did. They all stand behind their work for the same, single reason:

It’s our right as human beings to make fun of you. And you’re going to deal with that.

Aaron Elias is a student at University of California Irvine. He writes for the campus' New University newspaper and blogs at The Wayward Infidel.
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