By Sana Saleem
We haven’t yet fully recovered from the aftermath of the Danish cartoon controversy and a whole new menace is upon us. Last month, the Comedy Central show ‘South Park’ self-censored an episode meant to feature Prophet Muhammad after receiving threats from a New York-based extremist group. As a result of that censorship, artists – claiming to be defenders of free speech – have responded by organising an event they call “Draw A Muhammad Day” on May 20.
The campaign claims to be an attempt to defend the freedom of speech. But a Facebook group used for campaigning the event has been widely condemned. The blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook have been abuzz with counter-groups and protests. Facebook users are calling for a site-wide boycott to object to the fact that the social networking site has failed to remove the page, despite it being reported for offensive content numerous times.
Pakistani blogger Awab Alvi raises valid points regarding Facebook’s stance on the campaign:
I believe this might be a good case study on how tolerant Facebook administration might actually be. On one hand they are quick to delete the facebook page of a civil activist group [Peoples Resistance] which was organizing street protests in Karachi on the mere whim that we might be promoting hatred and violence, while in reality we were peacefully protesting against a military dictatorship, our democratic right – that group was deleted quickly and the administrators were issued warnings, this group continues to reign supreme raking over 34,400 fans since April 25th.
Alvi also mentions an interesting point that redefines the campaign’s claims of freedom of speech, providing a link to a radio interview by Molly Morris, the force behind the campaign. When asked if she would draw or make fun of the Holocaust, Morris replies, “No, there is nothing funny about it.” Moreover, owing to the frenzy that followed after the campaign was launched, Morris has published a disclaimer on her website declaring her disassociation with the campaign.
Laughably, the campaign website also claims that the point is not to promote certain “personal/political/religious” messages, but to show the world that “we’re not afraid to depict Muhammad.” But, the question remains, who is the target audience for such a campaign? And what is the purpose of a mass campaign that has the potential to target and offend people of a certain religion? The truth is that ‘South Park’ has a wide viewership, which includes Muslims who have remained silent or protested peacefully despite knowing about the about ‘South Park’ caricatures of Prophet Muhammad for years. It was only recently that a New York-based Muslim group lead a campaign titled ‘The Defense of the Prophet Campaign’ to condemn the caricatures.
Part of the campaign included a seven-minute YouTube video titled ‘Help Us Remove This Filth,’ showing pictures of the dead body of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough, who was murdered in November 2002 in reaction to his film ‘Submission’. It was this campaign, which was seen as a direct threat, that led to ‘South Park’ being self-censored. No doubt, the group crossed the line by issuing such a threat to the creators of ‘South Park.’ For that they should be properly prosecuted in accordance with American law.
Given the aggressive and inappropriate content of the ‘Defense of the Prophet Campaign’, the Facebook campaign can be understood as a direct response to the extreme actions of a particular Muslim group. But doesn’t anyone realise that “Draw a Muhammad Day” is nothing more than a discriminatory campaign aimed at hurting Muslims worldwide? The Facebook campaign makes an extreme group of Muslim bloggers representative of the entire Muslim community and shows no regard for the millions of Muslims who have used their right to protest peacefully against offensive iconography. If the Facebook campaign is truly directed against those who stifle free speech, shouldn’t it target the group directly responsible, rather than the Muslim community at large?
The fact is, the New York-based group has earned quite a dubious reputation, even among American-Muslims. In the words of Ahmed Rehab, executive director, Council of American-Islamic Relations, Chicago:
The “Muslims” in this case are a group of literally 5-10 people who are widely reviled by the mainstream community for their radical and confrontational style including harassing Muslims outside mosques (where they tend to be banned) with outlandishly provocative anti-American rhetoric. Most suspect the group is fraudulent. Its mysterious leader, born Joseph Cohen, is an American Jew who converted to Islam in 2000 after living in Israel and attending an orthodox rabbinical school there. Whether true Muslims or agent provocateurs, the result is the same: they are five community outcasts.
Although it is clear that this small, fringe, extremist community chose to hit out against ‘South Park,’ the news headlines have stated, ‘Muslims attack freedom of speech once again.’ In these tense times, there should be more responsible reporting, and more thoughtful – and proportional – responses to the activities of certain Muslims of an extremist bent, who are often sidelined within their own communities.
That said, this can also be an occasion for self-reflection for the Muslim community at large. The truth is that there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to support the death threats against the creators of ‘South Park’ and join violent protests to register their condemnation. We, too, need to pause and re-think our options. Are death threats, violent outbursts, burning tires, and other acts of aggression really the way forward? Don’t they simply add more fuel to the controversy, draw more publicity to fringe activities, and further malign the image of the global Muslim community? The fact is, the best response to free speech campaigners is an attempt by the Muslim community to use its own right to freedom of expression to register protest and call for an end to offensive campaigns.
Let’s act rationally once and for all, and help change the trend of the freedom-of-speech excuse being used to justify discriminatory campaigns. Most importantly, let’s sort out the issue of representation. The Muslim community at large – and not a fringe, extreme element – should retain the power to decide how to react to such situations. If our stance is that of peaceful condemnation, then we must rid ourselves of those who behave otherwise. The “Draw a Muhammad Day” campaign appears to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to incite and provoke Muslims – let’s not give them the satisfaction.