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The South Park Test

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.