An American convert to Islam issues a passive-aggressive death threat against an American icon — South Park — and presto, we have our very own Muhammad-cartoon controversy, with Comedy Central running for cover and otherwise intelligent bloggers demonstratively parading their courage with a chorus of knee-jerk “fuck you’s.”
The South Park ruse of not showing Muhammad by having him hidden in a bear suit, to emerge in the end as Santa Claus, was definitely on the gentle side of satire. But what’s left unsaid is how un-Islamic intolerance of satire actually is. In fact, tolerance of it is built into the Quran.
The Quran is nothing if not repetitive. Again and again, it refers to Muhammad being mocked, sneered at, taunted, laughed at, and derided by his opponents in Mecca and Medina. It continually cites previous messengers of God, from Abraham down to Jesus, being similarly mocked and derided. Such mockery becomes almost an honorable tradition, a kind of inverted proof of the truth of the message.
This obsessive harping on the issue is a way of comforting Muhammad, telling him to persevere. With the same obsessiveness, he is told to “be patient,” to ignore those who mock him, and to “turn away” from his tormentors. Their punishment will come on the Day of Judgment, God tells him. Punishment is God’s to wield, not Muhammad’s.
But since the Quran is as contradictory as any other religious text (the first two chapters of Genesis being a prime example), it also contains the infamous “sword verse,” telling believers to “strike the unbelievers wherever you find them.”
If you’re a literalist, you don’t even care that there’s a historical context for this verse, which is a response to Muhammad’s followers asking if they are allowed to fight within the sanctuary of the city of Mecca. So you ignore the qualifications — and the Quran is full of them. Yes, you can cut off the hands of thieves, but if they repent, forgiveness is better. Yes, you can kill Meccan opponents, but only if they try to kill you first, and only if they’ve broken an existing agreement with you, and even then forgiveness is better. It’s as though Muhammad — or God, depending on your point of view — was searching for a way to ease the transition from traditional tribal law to the radical new post-Christian law of Islam for his seventh-century followers
Some of his twenty-first-century followers are clearly far less sophisticated, especially new converts eager to prove themselves more Roman than the Romans, as it were. Selective and literalist reading is the modus operandi of all violent fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. But while we’re under no illusion that fanatical West Bank settlers represent Judaism, or doctor-killers represent Christianity, we still tend to understand Islam solely through its most ignorant proponents — and through its most conservative, humorless, and soul-less interpreters.