Taking a stand

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In November 2007, Gillian Gibbons, a British schoolteacher in Sudan found herself behind bars in a Sudanese prison sentenced to 15 days after being found guilty under Section 125 of the Sudanese Criminal Act, for “insulting religion, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs”. She had committed the crime of allowing one of her pupils to name a teddy bear Mohammed after the first name of one of the popular students in class. Little did she know that she also committed the criminal offense of maligning the Prophet Mohammed. She was spared 40 lashes because she apologized to the shar’iah court and after intervention by British leaders was given a presidential pardon by Omar Bashir after seven days in prison.

Many Muslim leaders in Khartoum agreed with the sentence and held demonstrations of tens of thousands Sudanese to express their anger at a perceived insult to Islam’s Prophet. In the demonstrations they threatened violence against her and against British citizens. Western media was shocked even though this has been going on for decades. Ultimately, a government that imposed medieval Muslim shar’iah laws in order to prevent blasphemy against “their Islam” suppressed the human rights of free expression of this teacher. American media was quick to point out how obviously that incident pointed to the great chasm that existed between enlightened, modernized, principles of religious freedom in the west and the oppressive restriction of free speech (blasphemy laws) exerted by the coercive Islamic state of Sudan. Maybe.

Gillian Gibbons was released, went into hiding and was whisked back to her homeland of the United Kingdom safe from Sudanese shar’iah. Fast forward three years to the United States, in the belly of freedom, the irreverent comedy program South Park found itself censored by the powers that be at Comedy Central for a very similar offense. During the now famous 200th episode, Matt Parker and Trey Stone decided to depict the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. Funny? Perhaps to some. Inappropriate to Muslims—yes. But that’s not what’s at issue here.

Two comedy artists living in the belly of freedom and free speech found themselves in basically the same position as that innocent British schoolteacher. Their 200th episode had their depiction of “Mohammed” censored. The details of the episode and what was censored has been broadly discussed in the media with valuable commentaries by Nina Shea and Cliff May to name a few.

I am sure that the Sudanese government agrees with the decision by the executives at Comedy Central. But Matt Parker and Trey Stone were not visited by the Sudanese government’s thought police. They were insidiously threatened by a “terror cell wannabe” bunch of thugs out of New York City called Revolution Muslim. Incidentally that same group posted a picture of me on their website after my media appearances in the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre. They declared me a ‘murtad’ or an apostate which is a crime that holds a capital sentence in some Islamist nations run by shar’iah law. Yet, I did not let their veiled threats impact our work at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). Paradoxically, even with a fraction of the resources that Comedy Central has to protect themselves against such threats, we held our ground.

The examples of appeasement to radical Islamists are growing exponentially. Who would have guessed how weak and subservient so many American corporations who pride themselves as the distributors of the uncensored work of the world’s leading artists would be in the face of threats from militant Islamists?

In October 2008, Sony Entertainment delayed the further release of Little Big Planet (LBP) the most awaited Playstation 3 game of the season when it was reported that music in the game briefly used Qur’anic verses. Toumani Diabate, the responsible artist was in fact reported to be a devout practicing Muslim who knew exactly what he was doing. He did not intend offense, but even if he did, this was his art form, which LBP contracted him to do. Fundamentalist Islamists made postings decrying offense of their religious sensibilities. Sony Entertainment issued a global recall and removed the “offensive” verse from all future production of the LBP game. Sony bowed to the pressure and exerted self-censorship over LBP artists. Sony’s decision to respect the hypersensitive sensibilities of Islamists took complete precedence over free speech and an unencumbered creative realm.

The suffocation of free speech on the heels of a growing western corporate phobia of radical Islamists and their barbarism is concerning. From the Danish cartoons to the South Park episode, the response seems to repeatedly be the same—bow to any pressure and suggestion of violence from Islamists. Hard to believe, but basically, “censor the artists, and freedom be damned.” And I say this as a devout Muslim who does in fact question the propriety and artistic value of much of the works in question. But that is not the issue.

At the end of the day, there is little difference between what the medieval Sudanese theocrats did under their shar’iah law to the British teacher on their land and what Comedy Central did to the producers of South Park on American soil.

Non-violent Islamist groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) do try to distance themselves from the behaviors of radical Islamists. They, however, do not respond logically by actively voicing the need for necessary reforms against blasphemy laws and theocracy of the Islamic state. Their director, Ibrahim Hooper instead told FoxNews.com that “it may be a setup to smear Islam.” True to form, Islamists will always contrive deflective bizarre conspiracy theories reflecting their pathological denial when case after case of violent Islamists should point Muslims instead toward the need for deep seeded reform.

Private corporations like Comedy Central, Sony Entertainment, and various book publishers will probably try to tell us that their decisions are not guided by real censorship but rather based in concerns of physical safety, liability, and some concerns of profit losses in the face of boycotts. These distinctions and excuses matter little.

At AIFD we believe companies producing the work of artists should stand behind their products. These companies are entering into a shared free market mission of art production with writers and videographers. If they censor their artists when things get hot due to the physical and existential threats of militants, they have shirked one of their deepest ethical responsibilities to our nation in which they operate—the preservation of a climate of genuine free speech and thought.

There is no mandate in the Islam I know and practice for anyone to force respect of Islam or the Prophet Mohammed and likewise to punish offensive art. In fact the Islam I learned taught me that the Prophet Mohammed was subjected to profoundly offensive criticism and ridicule during his life. He met this criticism with dialogue or avoidance with an admonishment to Muslims to either ignore it or respond positively, peacefully, and intellectually. This is the true example of the Prophet of Islam. Words and art, even when offensive, were never to be met with anything but mutual respect.

We desperately need a national conversation on the inherent duties of media and corporations in the war of ideas. We need to have a united front against these insidious threats, which radical Islamists impose upon artists and upon all of us. America cannot survive without the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech cannot survive in an environment that panders to political correctness.

As a devout Muslim dedicated to defeating Islamists, I am pleading with the artistic and intellectual community to stop their pathological timidity against Islamism. The last stronghold of human equality and principles of freedom is our First Amendment and the inviolable nature of free speech. Our culturally collective slide down the slippery slope of Islamist blasphemy laws is sending us hurling toward a society bizarrely no different from Sudan, which will remain a global obstacle to the very reforms we need within Muslim communities. My family escaped Syria and the Middle East because America represented the supposed beacon of freedom around the world to protect those voices, which the thugs of the Middle East would not protect. Yet a small group of thugs behind a computer right here in America can invoke the same fear we thought we left behind in the lands of autocracy and theocracy.

While the excuses are different, the end result of censorship on South Park’s 200th episode is the same as what the government of Sudan did to that schoolteacher.

Media companies need to understand that the root cause of Islamist terrorism is the desire of Islamists to stifle critique and put into place the shar’iah of political Islam like blasphemy laws around the world. The profound uptick in homegrown terror plots in 2009 shows that we are losing the war of ideas on the home front and globally.

Programs like South Park cannot have special standards for Islam versus that which they have for the program’s treatment of Christianity, Scientology, or any faith tradition. Islamists will capitalize on this double standard and it will nurture their sense of supremacy, which feeds the narrative that fuels terrorism.

There is a reason free nations have adopted the effective principle that “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

As a devout Muslim I will be the first to acknowledge that we have a great deal of work to do in reinterpreting Islamic scripture in a manner that marginalizes radical theocratic interpretations into ideological oblivion. We need to better lift up modern, pluralistic interpretations of Islamic scripture which are in fact not in conflict with western principles of universal freedom and societies that are based in one law that does not favor one religion above others.

The only way to force real reform within the Muslim consciousness is to show a united front in the defense of artists and their freedom of expression. Once radical Islamists find themselves beating their head against a wall, they will eventually wither and disappear. Corporations distributing the work of provocative artists need to take the artists as a whole package. Once the companies begin to pick and choose the populations they feel comfortable offending and those they do not, they become gateway drugs for the advancement of radical Islamists.

Comedy Central took a small “wannabe terror cell,” Revolution Muslim, and made them into an effective global leader of political Islam and its imposition of blasphemy laws. Every other corporation that caves into physical threats by radical Islamists does the same.

Brave anti-Islamist Muslim dissidents around the world should be collectively offended by the actions of Comedy Central and every other individual, corporation, and government which bows to the intimidation of Islamists domestically and abroad. Believe it or not, shirking away from the defense of free speech in America profoundly affects many deeply devout Muslims dedicated to defeating the ideas of theocracy. There are Muslims across the globe fighting an internal civil war against extremists and Muslim theocrats that manifests at many levels over the role of clerics in government and law. Ultimately they become the first victims of the blunt instrument of theocratic shari’ah law because of the avoidance behavior right here in supposedly the freest nation on earth.

M. Zuhdi Jasser is the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander. He can be reached at zuhdi@aifdemocracy.org