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South Park gag makes a mockery of freedom of expression

IF you are not a South Park viewer, the US animated sitcom is biting, funny, insurgent humour that rips into everyone and every group.

Gays? "You know what they say: You can't teach a gay dog straight tricks," South Park character Chef says. Jews? Here's sportscaster Frank: "I haven't seen a Jew run like that since Poland, 1938!" Germans? "Genetic engineering is man's way of correcting God's hideous mistakes, like German people," Mr Garrison says. Hippies? Says Eric Cartman: "I hate hippies! I mean, the way they always talk about `protectin' the earth' and then drive around in cars that get poor gas mileage and wear those stupid bracelets - I hate 'em! I wanna kick 'em in the nuts!" The disabled? Cartman says this: "Attention shoppers! Outside today, we have a cripple fight. Cripple fight, outside!"

Celebrities are not spared: Tom Cruise's animated form regularly appears in a closet. Neither are religious figures: Buddha does a line of coke. When South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker celebrated their 200th episode two weeks ago, all the offended icons lined up in a two-part episode to launch a class action against the town of South Park. Cruise wondered aloud: why was it that Mohammed was the only guy spared ridicule? It was a pointed reference to the 2006 South Park episode in which, after the Danish cartoons controversy, Mohammed appeared behind a black "CENSORED" box.

The 200th episode reintroduced Mohammed, this time in a bear suit. And that reignited a familiar culture clash. A Muslim website issued a warning against Stone and Parker. Publishing their addresses, the site warned they would end up like filmmaker Theo van Gogh, slain by a Muslim extremist in 2004 for his film Submission, which explored Islam's treatment of women.

The second episode put to air was then full of audio bleeps and blackout "CENSORED" blocks. This was not more black humour from the guys at South Park. This was censorship courtesy of the bosses at Comedy Central, the channel that airs the show. The honchos at Comedy Central also suppressed a speech about intimidation and fear that made no mention of Mohammed.

Outraged by the threat and the concomitant censorship, supporters rallied to the South Park cause.

Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris suggested May 20 should be "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day". What began as a joke - Norris drew the prophet as a box of pasta, a tea cup and a domino - became a viral campaign to do exactly that in a few weeks.

Others are yawning. Just another silly grassfire we should not fuel with debate, they say. But instead of sleepwalking our way towards cultural capitulation, we should debate this. Discussing the boundaries around free speech is key to defending Western values in a civil society. Start with "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day". As a cartoon, it was mildly amusing. As a campaign, it's crass and gratuitously offensive. That doesn't mean resorting to the law to ban the idea. Instead, a sophisticated society can condemn and ignore it. As James Taranto wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "We would not endorse or participate in an `Everybody Shout a Racial Slur Day' or an `Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day'."

But defending those who expose, debate and even poke fun at all of our cultural faults and foibles is altogether different. Whether you like it or not, South Park offers cutting-edge commentary on Western culture. Muslims are entitled to adhere to their religious rules. No one is forcing them to draw the prophet Mohammed. But that does not mean Western societies built on freedom of expression must do the same. It's like saying atheists can't take the Lord's name in vain because good Christians choose not to.

Parker and Stone made legitimate fun of the claim for special treatment by some Muslims. Remember that the claim is not for an equal playing field. Those who want Mohammed fenced off often have no qualms about launching assaults on Christianity. That hypocrisy caught the attention of the guys at South Park. And for that they ought to be supported, not suppressed.

They also ripped into the West's cultural weakness, the supine appeasement that flows from self-imposed censorship. If we were to plot a graph representing how we defend freedom of expression, the line is heading south towards self-censorship. Each time we step down from defending Western values such as freedom of expression, our retreat signals a weary acceptance that Islamic rules apply by default.

The effect on our culture is chilling. After the South Park controversy, CNN reported that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art decided that its upcoming Islamic art exhibition would not include any depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

As the South Park creators said in an interview before airing the 200th episode, things might have been different if in 2005 the media had rallied together and published Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. Instead, as Parker said, "that guy has to be in hiding . . . because everyone just kind of left him out to dry". Somehow it was fine for South Park to feature Mohammed in 2001, but after the Danish cartoons controversy it wasn't fine. "Now, that's the new norm. Like, we lost."

Do Parker and Stone now have to surround themselves in protection? Speaking on CNN a few days after the South Park controversy, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script for Submission, said van Gogh was dead and she was still alive because she was surrounded by security guards. "I still have protection," she said. That will change only when more and more of us defend those values that have served us so well. Then: "There will be too many people to threaten and at that time I won't need protection." And the West will have reasserted itself as a confident culture, capable of defending freedom of expression.

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