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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Muslim threats to 'South Park': Did Comedy Central cave in to knucklehead extremists?

April 23, 2010 |  1:03 pm

South_park By now you've probably heard all about how Comedy Central bleeped out all references to the prophet Muhammad in a recent "South Park" episode that featured the holy figure dressed in a bear costume.

It was typical Trey Parker and Matt Stone bratty humor, but Comedy Central got spooked after a lunatic fringe Muslim group, revolutionmuslim.com, issued a threat against Parker and Stone, warning them that "what they are doing is stupid and they will probably end up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show."

Ending up like Theo Van Gogh is no joke. In fact, the post initially included a graphic photo of Van Gogh's body lying in the street after he was murdered in 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri for having made a film that was critical of the treatment of women in Islam. Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, shot Van Gogh eight times, then cut his throat, decapitated him, stabbed him in the chest and left two knives implanted in his torso, one attached with a five-page note threatening various Western governments, Jews and Van Gogh's collaborators on the film.

So it's not surprising that Comedy Central took the threat seriously, even though the fringe group making the threat has no known ties with Van Gogh's killer. My colleagues Scott Collins and Matea Gold have written a wonderfully thorough story detailing many of the issues in this case, in particular the debate over whether thuggish behavior is rewarded when a network caves in to terrorist-style threats. They also revealed that the lunatic fringe Muslim group making the threat against Parker and Stone is based in, all of places, New York City!

This inspired a classic Jon Stewart monologue on last night's "Daily Show," where he admitted to finding it pretty amazing that the Muslim extremists "are allowed to praise Osama bin Laden, celebrate the anniversary of 9/11 and try to intimidate the creators of 'South Park' all while enjoying our lovely theater district, our many diverse restaurants, including some of the really best Jewish delis you'll find ... and these numnuts get to enjoy it all because of how much we in this country value and protect even their freedom of expression."

But let's go back to the pivotal issue here. What should Comedy Central do? If it brushes aside an ugly threat from a fringe extremist group and airs the unedited "South Park" episode, is it putting Parker and Stone, not to mention anyone who works at Comedy Central, at risk of bodily harm? But by editing out all the offensive material, will the network embolden other extremists to start threatening other outspoken satirists -- like Comedy Central's own Stewart and Stephen Colbert?

I don't think there are any easy answers here. If anyone has any strong opinions on this issue, I'd like to hear them. I've always believed that, in a democracy, artists and political satirists should be allowed to say what they believe, even if it offends some of its audience. As Ezra Pound once said, artists are the antennae of the race. Whether they are filmmakers, writers or comedians, they are the provocateurs who enrich and add spice to our pop culture, pushing it in new directions, flaunting taboos and stretching the boundaries of taste.

If Lenny Bruce, one of our seminal provocateurs, were around today, he'd probably be putting all of Trey and Matt's jokes into his act, daring the Muslim extremists to come after him too. Not everyone has to be that brave, or foolhardy, but I come down on the side of believing that the best thing you can do when you're dealing with knucklehead extremists is to call their dare. If they want to live in a free country, they'll have to accept that fact that freedom includes the freedom to mock, heckle and stir the pot. It's a freedom that's too important to be hijacked by extremists who should learn to accept one of our most sacred freedoms: To live in America, you have to be able to take a joke. 

You can watch Stewart's inspired riff on this issue for yourself:


The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c

South Park Death Threats

www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Photo: "South Park" creators Matt Stone, left, and Trey Parker. Credit: Shea Walsh / Associated Press

 

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