The elite gatekeepers of American pop culture huff and puff about freedom of speech. But when political correctness actually threatens that right, Hollywood's stalwart defenders of free expression are nowhere to be found.
Last night, Comedy Central gave into threats of violence against the creators of the animated sitcom "South Park" and not only censored the image of the Muslim prophet Muhammed -- as it had last week and in one previous episode -- but even censored every verbal mention of the the prophet's name (see the video below the fold).
The decision came days after a radical New York-based Muslim fundamentalist group warned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show's creators, would be killed for supposedly mocking Muhammed.
"We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show," wrote Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee on the website of the group Revolution Muslim. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
Theo Van Gogh was the Dutch filmmaker who was brutally murdered in 2004 for making a movie critical of Islam's views on women.
Comedy Central did not respond to requests for comment. The New York Times reported, however, that "a spokesman for Comedy Central confirmed that the network had added more bleeps to the episode than were in the cut delivered by South Park Studios, and that it was not giving permission for the episode to run on the studio’s Web site."
The irony of the whole situation is that the threats of violence against Parker and Stone -- and Comedy Central's reaction to those threats -- drives home the point of the two episodes that sparked outrage from hard-line fundamentalists: Islam is the only world religion -- indeed, perhaps the only large-scale organization on Earth -- that has succeeded in insulating itself from criticism.
Indeed, in last night's episode Parker and Stone showed Buddha snorting cocaine, and vulgarly bickering with Jesus Christ, who, it is suggested, is a compulsive consumer of pornography. So while Comedy Central gave into demands the word Muhammed not even be mentioned, other prophets were portrayed in tremendously offensive ways.
(As seen in the picture at the top right, Muhammed also appeared in a 2001 episode of "South Park" -- before the publication of the Danish cartoons that sent the world into a terrified tailspin towards political correctness. That episode is still available online, fire-shooting superhero Muhammed and all.)
For all Hollywood's claims that it is edgy and pushes the boundaries of the socially acceptable, a bastion of mainstream pop culture could not even bring itself to say the name of a religious figure.
South Park is legendary for its take-no-prisoners attitude to ridiculing, well, everyone. It is the scourge of political correctness, taking on public figures from the Pope, to Al Gore, to Tiger Woods. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of the occasionally offensive, yet undeniably funny things that South Park has done and said, Muhammed is off limits.