It should seem odd that someone (me) who presumes to be an expert in media and religion has consistently avoided commenting on the ongoing controversy over media depictions of Mohammed.  The current incarnation—around South Park’s decision to first represent him in a bear suit, and then to censor that depiction—has moved me to weigh in. In fact, I feel an essay or an article coming on, and am beginning to think about the outlines of an argument.

In this morning’s Denver Post, conservative columnist David Harsanyi presented what has become the commonplace liberal-pluralist argument: that there is something intrinsically valuable about media being free to represent anything and everything, especially when it comes to religion, and that the threats against South Park’s creators are evidence of the depraved, reactionary, and medieval nature of Islam.  In fairness, Harsanyi does not quite equate these threats with Islam as a whole, but comes close.  You be the judge.

So, what about this argument?  It will not surprise conservatives like Harsanyi to learn that a soft-in-the-head academic like me thinks that a bit of analysis and nuance is in order.

First—and I actually resent having to say this, but feel I must do so anyway—I think that these kinds of threats and the impulses behind them are reprehensible and incompatible with modern, enlightened life and culture, and certainly incompatible with American (including all of the Americas, actually) values and the philosophy behind the U.S. Constitution.  What is threatened is a crime and should it be attempted or carried out, should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and any defense based on religion or religious offense should be inadmissible on its face (need I mention the Scott Roeder case here?).  I also think the fundamental rights of the media are essential to a free democracy.  OK?

Now, to the nuance.  It seems to me that to understand the struggle over the depiction of the Prophet in U.S. media, we have to think about a number of dimensions and contexts.  These will be the themes of my essay, and you can expect them to be developed in more depth there.

First, at the root of the liberal-pluralist position articulated by Harsnyi is an implicit argument of moral equivalence.  Those Muslims can’t tolerate practices that we modern and enlightened non-Muslims find commonplace and unremarkable.  Need I point out that this straw argument actually pits their conservatives and reactionaries against our enlightened, educated elites.  (Just this past Monday, I was in a meeting with an American Muslim who happens to be a Republican politician who wondered aloud why Muslim conservatives get so exercised about things like South Park when we Americans are so used to religion being lampooned in art and the media).  Our conservatives and reactionaries in fact have a very different view of things than the rest of us, and have been known to respond with violence.  Again, remember Scott Roeder and Timothy McVeigh?  Some may want to have a discussion about whether a “mere” animated depiction should rise to that level of concern, but that is actually a pretty complex question itself. Again, for the essay, where I will undoubtedly refer to the work of David Morgan and Birgit Meyer, among others.

Second, and related to the above, is the question of what various groups and sensibilities find offensive.  We post-Enlightenment non-Muslims find it curious that something like mere depiction could give such offense.  But that begs the question of what gives offense to us?  Are we actually so liberal and free-thinking after all?  At this point in the essay I will rehearse Sinead O’Connor’s 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live, including the uncomfortable truths of the impact it had on her subsequent career, and of NBC’s censorship of the segment.  So we don’t care about depictions of Jesus in South Park?  We certainly do care about someone tearing up a picture of John Paul II.  Apparently.  Gordon Lynch’s thoughtful work on mediation of the sacred will be significant here.

Third, there is the question of the stakes.  I think the argument could be made that this pits two radically different contexts against each other and they don’t match.  On the one hand, the liberal-pluralist argument suggests that what is at stake is a process of progressive enlightenment, where such depictions are simply good for Islam and for Muslims, as they will help educate them about the nature and meaning of modernity and modern life.  Does Islam need a reformation?  Well, we can help them with that!  It is uncomfortably close, actually, to Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society.   On the other side, the stakes are quite different.  The furor, it seems to me, is not really about what depiction might do to harm the Prophet, or his memory, or faith, or whatever, but instead is more about the power of “the West” to subjugate Islam and Muslim sensibilities.  This is all deeply embedded in ongoing struggles over the colonial project, its meanings, and its present consequences and power relations.  Harsanyi and other conservatives will hate this, but I have to point out that U.S. foreign policy and practice plays a big role in animating this controversy.

Fourth, I think the essay will talk about moral equivalence in another way.  The Lerner-esque assumption that media can help bring about a “modernization” of Islam by intentionally challenging its aniconism assumes a role for media as a forum of public cultural and moral education.  This is an attractive idea to us intellectual, modernist elites.  The media are thus thought to be deeply embedded in the broader process of secularization as a progressive force in constructing a unitary Western modernity.  The essay will explore the extent to which this project has worked with our own backwaters of anti-modernism.  As a telling example, it will ask how successful we’ve been in relation to public confidence in science.  It may note, for instance, that rather than playing a positive role in public knowledge, conventions of journalism have inadvertently encouraged such things as the “intelligent design” movement.

Fifth, the essay might well also address the notion of “alternative modernities” that has become an important discourse among non-western critics.  It might be worth exploring the extent to which resistant Christian, alternative, “new age,” and “spiritualist” movements in the West are themselves expressions of particular understandings of modernity.

Finally, in relation to the specific case of Mohammed on South Park, it is interesting to note the layered ironies involved in first the hiding, and then the censorship, of the image.  I did a quick test today and it took me only about 45 seconds to locate an image of South Park’s Mohammed-in-a-bear-costume. So, did it really matter that the image was “censored?”  What difference did that make, really?  The power of media to subvert and elide authoritative practices of value and legitimation is shown again.  And, there is a further irony and subversion in the censorship itself.  South Park was suggesting in a deliciously ironic way that they had already self-censored by putting him in costume.  To then censor that censored image puts another layer of meaning on the practice and the struggle over inclusion and exclusion.  Fun.

So, I’ll get to work on that essay right away—as soon as I get some papers graded!