By Ahmed Rehab, executive director, Council of American-Islamic Relations-Chicago
The latest Muhammad cartoon controversy, courtesy of Comedy Central’s South Park, seems somewhat contrived.
The protagonists in the original controversy of 2005 consisted of a fairly mainstream Danish newspaper on one hand and mobs of angry, and sometimes violent, protesters on the other.
The protagonists this time are a couple of jokesters who openly offend people for a living on one hand, and a single posse of five “Muslims” on the other (whom we know very little about).
First, let’s take a quick look at the offenders.
Cartoonists Trey Parker and Matt Stone suffer from what one could call “self-importance.” They are part of a growing group of people who believe they are the flag bearers of free speech on behalf of the Western world; for them, there is only one way to test the limits of free speech: offend people’s sacred sensibilities.
Let’s consider that logic for a moment.
A sacred thing is something or someone you have utmost reverence for, it does not have to be divine; it could be your mother or your child, for example.
Now, imagine if your elderly mother is riding on a bus; would you harbor some expectation that others, for whom she may not be sacred, would still treat her with respect?
That is to say: while they may not sanctify her as you do, they will at least refrain from insulting, harassing, or offending her – even though they have every “right” to not stand up for her, give her a dirty look, or even call her “an old hag” under protected free expression and speech.
Is that not a basic Western societal expectation? Is there not a healthy balance between freedom and decency that has long existed as part of our Western tradition?
Now imagine if I actually insult her – just because I can.
And imagine if I then play the “hero” card, expecting praise and glory for being the flag bearer of Western values of freedom.
Imagine if those who characterized my actions as unreasonable and indecent were then condemned as thin-skinned prudes and enemies of free speech who wish to tie us down with their personal norms of “decency.”
OK, now let’s move on to the offended party, a group that calls itself “Revolution Muslim.”
Their sin is not that they were offended but that they delivered a veiled death threat to Parker and Stone. That makes them radical goons whose threat ought to be seriously investigated.
But, what does that say about other Muslims?
Nothing./p> <>Yet the breaking headline everywhere was that “Muslims” once again attack freedom of speech with death threats.
Well, we have already addressed the “freedom of speech” canard. Now let’s deal with the “Muslims” canard.
How about some context?
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.
Yet, little to no context is given in the media when this group is mentioned, as if it were somewhat representative of a normative Muslim reaction. (They are a constant feature on CNN and FOX News.)
The real headline: most Muslims seem to have learned from the Danish episode. South Park’s provocation was mostly met by silence and indifference.
The widespread Muslim attitude went something like this: this is a free country, you go on mocking Jesus and Muhammad, and we will go on keeping them in our prayers. No harm done. Muhammad’s and Jesus’ value to humanity certainly will not dip as a result of your mockery.