By now you know that not even “South Park” is immune from salafism’s insistence on terrifying and alieanting the rest of the world. You may love or hate the show, but the defense of free-speech is a central values breakpoint between liberal modernity and reaction, between the best traditions of the West and the worst of Gulf Islam. This is an important part of the battle of ideas in the GWoT, as is defending the Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Mohammed cartoonists in Denmark. Ali, herself a terrible victim of this paranoia, has a nice summary of the explicit free-speech threat of Muslims exporting sharia onto non-Muslims.
Everyone with a blog should do as Jon Stewart did on April 22 and explicitly defend the right of free speech, especially the right to ridicule and mock religion. Religions as a body of thought deserve as much scrutiny as any another paradigm, intellectual system, or philosophy. And religion certainly needs this criticism if it is not just to be superstition and received ascientific silliness, repackaged as ‘time-honored tradition,’ and codified by some book written a long time, then repackaged as ‘divine revelation.’ Even the faithful know this in their heart of hearts. Consider this counterfactual: if your friend told you that snakes could talk, that people came back from the dead, or that bushes burned without disintegrating, wouldn’t you be pretty incredulous – unless you heard it at Sunday school? I never had a teacher in my Catholic grade school who could answer that one, which was a pretty big let down.
If you don’t know the story of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, it is an object lesson in this healthy interchange between religion and criticism. Read the Confessions for the whole story, but the short version is that the young Augustine found Christianity ridiculously primitive, intellectually soft, and superstitious. Trained in Greek philosophy and the high Latin of the great Roman authors, he found the writing of the New Testament poor and unconvincing. The story of how Augustine still came to Christianity and helped drag Christianity into a meaningful interaction with Greek philosophy is intellectual gripping, spiritually provocative, and more likely to convince you of Christianity’s veracity than any of the Palin-esque, family values TV preachers who masquerade today as authorities on Christianity. (If you want a 20th century version of this back-and-forth, read about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein’s lengthy discussions of Christianity.)
The point is that religions, most especially today Gulf Islam (and American evangelical Christianity), desperate need their Nietzsches, South Parks, Hirsi Alis, and Christoper Hitchens to force them to stay up to par. Defending “South Park” is not just about free speech. It’s also about the larger point made by the New Atheists in the last 10 years: that religion must find a way to live in a the modern, plural, ‘impure’ multicultural, scientific, democratic world. If it can’t, if it simply lashes out to demonize (Benedict XVI) or butcher (salafism) its opponents, then trained people will never take it seriously. And that is the greatest ‘disrespect’ the faithful should really fear – when even the mildly educated think you’re like the Raelians or something – simply ridiculous and unworthy of meaningful consideration.
Addendum: It should be noted that the Islamic prohibition against imagery of Muhammad is far less totalist than the Gulf Sunni salafists would have you think. Shi’ites don’t care a whit, and Southeast Asian Sunnism was pretty lenient on this too until Saudi oil money and clerics start bringing the ‘pure’ (i.e., ‘arid-as-the-Gulf-desert’) version of Islam in the last generation. ISLAM DOES NOT HAVE BE MONOPOLIZED BY THE JIHADIS.