By Arsalan Iftikhar, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.
(CNN) — Free speech issues and portrayals of Islam needlessly stirred a hornet’s nest recently when “South Park” depicted the Prophet Mohammed disguised in a bear suit in the 200th episode of the popular Comedy Central TV show.
But what many people don’t realize is that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, already used an image of Mohammed on “South Park” without any strife whatsoever in a July 2001 episode called “Super Best Friends.”
Of course, that episode, which depicted Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and other religious leaders as the “Super Best Friends” superhero crew, was aired before the September 11 attacks and the 2005 controversy over a Danish cartoon with drawings of the prophet.
To generate some press coverage and needless dispute, two extremist buffoons at a radical website called “Revolution Muslim” directed a thinly veiled threat against the show’s creators for depicting Mohammed in the recent episode. Much of the American mainstream media ended up giving a national platform to these unknown knuckleheads, which only helped to tarnish the reputation of Muslims in America further.
Sadly, it seems to be far sexier for the media to report the message of two extremists rather than the tempered and tolerant message of the majority of millions of American Muslims.
This is also important because actual Islamophobia — and other forms of bigotry and racism — badly needs to be combated by our society. That fight certainly does not revolve around a bunch of Comedy Central cartoon characters named Eric Cartman or Mr. Hanky.
Instead of conjuring up fake controversies involving the equal opportunity offenders of “South Park,” we should focus on professional political polemicists, such as Ann Coulter, who has publicly stated that we should “kill their [Muslim] leaders and convert them to Christianity” — or the Rev. Pat Robertson of “The 700 Club,” who once told The Associated Press that neither American Muslims nor Hindus should be allowed to serve as U.S. federal judges.
These right-wing professional fear-mongers have nurtured, facilitated and expanded the growth of Islamophobia after the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, attacks to the point where Muslim is almost a slur in America.
In another recent news story, an under-reported one that was more significant than the whole “South Park” debacle, the U.S. Army rescinded its invitation to the Rev. Franklin Graham — the former spiritual adviser for George W. Bush — to the upcoming National Day of Prayer at the Pentagon over remarks he has repeatedly made about Islam over the years.
“True Islam cannot be practiced in this country,” Graham told CNN’s Campbell Brown in December. “You can’t beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they’ve committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries.”
During a November 2001 broadcast of “NBC Nightly News,” Graham told news anchor Tom Brokaw that Islam is “a very wicked and evil religion … not of the same god … [and] I don’t believe this is this wonderful, peaceful religion.”
Even though he has never apologized, it was his father — the Rev. Billy Graham — who finally addressed his son’s remarks about Islam during an August 2006 interview with Jon Meacham of Newsweek magazine.
The elder Graham said, “I would not say Islam is wicked and evil … I have a lot of friends who are Islamic. There are many wonderful people among them. I have a great love for them. … I’m sure there are many things that [my son Franklin] and I are not in total agreement about. …”
Sir Winston Churchill once said that “a fanatic is one who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject.” All of this anti-Muslim rhetoric over the last few years has led to political whisper campaigns and public opinion polls that show 57 percent of Republicans, and 32 percent of Americans overall, believe that President Obama is a Muslim, according to a March Louis Harris poll.
As an American Muslim civil rights lawyer and proud First Amendment freak, I can honestly say that I love both my Prophet Mohammed and “South Park.” In any free democratic society, the concept of free speech can only be combated with more free speech, not censorship. If the creators of “South Park” choose to depict the Prophet Mohammed, that is their First Amendment right, and they should be able to do so freely without any threats of physical violence and retribution.
I also believe that Comedy Central probably went too far when it censored the following episode — 201 — especially since the show had run a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in season five.
On the issue of the U.S. Army disinviting Franklin Graham, I do think it was perfectly fine to disinvite him to play a prominent role at the National Day of Prayer at the Pentagon. Just as Graham has the First Amendment right to hate and defame Islam, the Army and Pentagon also exercise their own free speech by not giving an anti-Muslim evangelist a platform on their turf.
This is what I mean by saying the best way to counter free speech is with more free speech, not censorship. Because as we all know, the free speech clause of the First Amendment of our beloved U.S. Constitution legally allows racist, xenophobic and bigoted attitudes to be held that could easily be deemed Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic or anti-black.
Sadly, instead of dealing with the real cases of racism, bigotry and xenophobia regularly injected into our public airwaves by some of our political leaders and opinion makers, we have instead allowed ourselves to get sucked into a faux controversy involving two no-name idiots with a radical website taking on four pre-pubescent, fictitious cartoon characters from South Park, Colorado.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.