By: J.F. Sullivan
By now most followers of religion and popular culture are familiar with the recent flap over depictions of Muhammad in the Comedy Central animated show, South Park. Show creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were specifically taking on the Muhammad topic to combat their contention that every other religious figure has been satirized, but not Islam’s prophet. The understandable controversy that erupted took on an interesting pallor as the intense response to the idea not only confirmed their very thesis, but plugged into a tradition of fear-based decision making that I’m calling fatwaPhobia. FatwaPhobia occurs when decisions are made to limit or prohibit discussion of Islam or the prophet for fear of reprisals.
No one likes their religion being skewered, so some response is always expected, but groups within Islam seem to present their tradition as a special case, not only for their intense reaction to any negativity surrounding their religion, but the consistent appeal to violent response. The group, Revolution Muslim (www.revolutionmuslim.com), posted a warning on their website cautioning Parker and Stone that their actions could result in their suffering similar consequences to Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who was murdered following the release of his film Submission which was critical of Islam. While Revolution Muslim claimed to simply be warning the show makers of potential dangers, the issue highlights not only a concern for violence in reaction to perceived slights against Islam, but a larger concern about what this call for special unassailable status demands.
Recently there have been a string of threats (with negative results) stemming from perceived blasphemous or unflattering treatment or depictions of Islam or the prophet. South Park is only the most recent example, but besides the Van Gogh murder, there were riots and continued difficulties stemming from Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad and death threats to other film makers who have produced films that some Islamist groups have considered unacceptable. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the screenwriter for Van Gogh and a critic of Islam, has been living under protection since her colleague’s murder. Ali’s situation is reminiscent of perhaps the first incident of this deadly form of criticism; Salman Rushdie, whose book the Satanic Verses earned him a death threat from the Iranian government and sent him into hiding for several years.
Comedy Central chose to bleep and edit the South Park cartoon rather than risk potential consequences. This move seems a bit odd considering the lambasting every other religion has received at the hands of Parker and Stone. And, while this is just a cartoon, it does highlight an ongoing problem with criticism or even simply a critical and considerate eye toward discussing Islam.
A similar instance of fatwaPhobia may be occurring within the academy. In addition to the prohibition of Muhammad’s or God’s depiction, it is also the Qur’an’s status as the literal word of God. Thus, any source-critical or historical-critical approach to studying Islam or the Qur’an (the same methods used to study every other religion) come with potential dangers for scholars. To a degree, putting the Qur’an into a historical context and suggesting the possible influences of other philosophical schools or ideas extant in the Arabian Peninsula, as influential in its thought, could be seen as blasphemous. As such, scholars seem to be much more hesitant to apply the same critical lens to Islam that informs the study of every other religious tradition. As a result, many studies of Islam begin in 570 CE with the birth of the Prophet or more likely 622 CE, the beginning of the Muslim Calendar. Along the way, very little, if any, attention is given to disagreement or conflict in the Qur’an, the hadith, or differing schools of thought within Islam beyond Sunni, Shia or Sufi. The history or formation of Islam is often gestured to, rather than discussed and no significant exploration of the thoughts and practices existing in the region seem to relate to the development of the tradition.
For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the solution lies in “scrutinizing Islam and criticizing it in the same way that we criticize Christianity, Judaism and other ideologies and other religions.”* As scholars, we want to be respectful of the religions we study, but does that require that we abandon the scholar’s critical gaze for fear of offense or a fatwa? If we are only allowed or allow ourselves to study a religion within the parameters of what the practitioners of that tradition would find agreeable then we run the risk of making any study of that tradition irrelevant and little more than theology. Every other major tradition has been subject to similar scrutiny and other, more fringe traditions have been severely deconstructed by the academy. Islam should not be different. To paraphrase Princeton scholar Jeffrey Stout, “religion does not get a free pass.” Our Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish students have all had to bracket their beliefs when studying their traditions in an academic setting, but many Muslims students do not have the same experience. If fatwaPhobia and special sensitivity are at work, then our study of Islam can drift dangerously close to apologetics, a trend that is not in service of students, history, or the academy. If we consistently censor ourselves out of fear of offense or threat of offense then aren’t we actually supporting and condoning an image and belief in Islam as a violent and intolerant religion in the same way that the media tends to do? A critical approach to Islam both by the academy and social critics actually makes the tradition more real and allows for equal treatment of the vibrancy and beauty of the tradition while also considering its development and role as a sociopolitical as well as religious entity. The critical lens then can help turn Islam into “another” rather than “The Other,” a shift that benefits everyone, and will likely reduce potentially blasphemous treatment in the future.
CNN coverage of the South Park/Revolution Muslim controversy (10:57 min)
*courtesy of CNN, original post by Octavia Nasr.