From South Park to Target’s Pride Collection: How Religious Extremists Get Their Way

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I’ve been publicly offending extremely religious people for many years now, and I’ve recently noticed an interesting parallel that I wanted to share with you. Way back in the mid-2000s, drawings of Muhammad were a really big deal. Now, according to YouTube’s analytics about 12% of you…sigh…weren’t even born yet, so let me explain what happened: ever since September 11th, 2001, Islamic terrorism was a hot topic. Islam is what’s known as aniconic, meaning that images of important religious figures like Muhammad are avoided or in some cases prohibited in order to avoid idolatry–the worshiping of the image as opposed to the person.

Some Muslims treat it as a serious prohibition even for non-Muslims, which resulted in an ongoing worldwide discussion over whether secular institutions should censor themselves to avoid offending these Muslims, or even if artists are censoring themselves out of fear. The threats on Salman Rushdie and the murder of people like Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh in 2004 gave those fears real credence. Van Gogh was shot and partially beheaded by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist terrorist who objected to a short film he made with Ayaan Hirsi Ali criticizing Islam’s treatment of women.

A conservative Dutch newspaper wanted to explore the issue of self-censorship in regards to Islam, so they asked their network of artists if anyone wanted to draw Muhammad. Several people did, and so their depictions of the prophet appeared in the September 30th, 2005 edition of the paper along with an editorial decrying the “special consideration” they thought Muslims were demanding to be free from ridicule.

This went about as well as you might expect in that climate: there were boycotts, threats, and mass protests around the world, some of which turned violent and led to hundreds of deaths.

Other newspapers reporting on the incident had to decide whether or not to show the cartoons. Most did not, though the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo did, which landed the editors on an Islamist hit list and resulted in them needing to fight for their right to publish it in court.

In 2006, Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted to comment on the idea of terroristic censorship with a South Park storyline in which Cartman tries to get Family Guy canceled by stoking fears of Muslim retaliation to an upcoming episode that would feature the prophet Muhammad. Kyle convinces the network executives at Fox to air the episode and not give in to terrorists demanding censorship. At the end of that storyline, they show Muhammad but in real life the executives at Comedy Central (where South Park aired) censored the scene, showing only a black screen with text describing what happened.

In 2010, the 200th and 201st episodes of South Park featured a storyline in which a bunch of celebrities including Tom Cruise demand to see the prophet Muhammad so they can harness his power of remaining free from insult. Muhammad is depicted hiding inside a bear suit, and later behind a big “censored” box. In between the airing of the 200th and 201st episodes, Muslim extremists warned Parker and Stone that they were going to end up like Theo Van Gogh. South Park Studios and Comedy Central employees were also threatened, and the NYPD beefed up its presence at the network. All of this lead Comedy Central to bleep out every reference to Muhammad in episode 201, along with one comically long bleep to censor a final monologue at the end describing the moral of the story, which was that, you know, we shouldn’t cave to threats of violence by censoring ourselves or others.

Parker and Stone were understandably pissed but there wasn’t much they could do. Comedy Central never re-aired episode 201, and it’s not available on streaming sites though someone did manage to leak the uncensored version if you’d like to go pirate that.

The uproar surrounding all this led to efforts like Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, which was started by an artist who said she wanted to make a statement about freedom of speech and encourage enough people to participate that terrorists couldn’t possibly kill EVERYBODY. But after desperately courting as much media attention as possible, she started getting death threats and got scared and said she no longer supported the idea or had anything to do with it. Yeah, I know. Layers upon layers of irony.

At this point the question wasn’t just “are people self-censoring out of fear” but also “SHOULD people self-censor when it’s not just them who are threatened?” Stone and Parker may choose to take on the risk of Muslim extremism, but what about the dozens of people working as production staff, animators, and administrative workers at South Park Studios? What about the thousands of people working at Comedy Central or the cable networks that air the show? Is it right to put them at risk, or force them to quit their jobs, for an ideal?

Five years after that episode, the terrorists caught up with Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical paper that published images of Muhammad:  In 2015, two terrorists did manage to force their way into the paper’s office and murder 12 people while injuring 11 more. The first victim in that shooting was a maintenance worker who happened to be sitting at the reception desk when the extremists walked in.

With that in mind, was Comedy Central right or wrong to censor that South Park? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think it’s a question that has a simple answer.

I talked about all this stuff back when it was happening, and I’ve always been vehemently against Muslim extremism, I’ve been in favor of actions like “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and have often leaned more towards being critical of Comedy Central’s actions.

Yet still, over the years, every single time I wrote a blog post or made a video that was critical or mocking of Christianity, there was a high likelihood that at least one Christian would say something along the lines of “You wouldn’t dare say this about Islam because you’re too scared.” Or “you’re lucky we Christians are so much better and more peaceful than those Muslim terrorists.”

And it’s those comments that I’m thinking about today, after the retailer Target announced that they would be pulling some “pride” merchandise (celebrating LGBTQ+ people) and relocating it to the back of the store following violence and threats of further violence on the part of Christians:

“Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work. Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.”

Homophobic and transphobic Christians have “knocked down Pride displays at some stores, angrily approached workers and posted threatening videos on social media from inside the stores.”

I’ll give you just one example of a guy who actually filmed himself harassing Target employees and shoppers and then had the complete lack of self awareness to upload it to the internet because he thinks it makes him look good. I’m showing this one because it has birthed us a new queen to pay tribute to. Watch and enjoy.

My god, please give that woman a raise.

Anyway, it seems that mainstream Christians have finally decided to dismount their high horses and join the other religions’ extremists in using violence to get what they want. Now, there’s a chance that Target’s corporate leadership is lying: that they’re not actually concerned for the safety of their employees but are actually concerned for their bottom line–that they’re hoping to avoid a large-scale boycott by backing off a bit on the whole “everyone deserves love and respect” deal. But as Christian white supremacists, misogynists, and homophobes become more mainstream, with their messages regularly appearing on Fox News and CNN, we’re going to see more and more violence that isn’t “just” directed at schools full of children or random nightclubs full of queer people. We may very well see that violence coalescing on large corporations to enact broader change in the same way we saw Islamic terrorists achieve success, which is what’s beginning to happen with Target. Bigots could have simply boycotted them like they are doing with Bud Light, but as a retailer open to the public, Target is an easy entry point for bigots to just walk in and start harassing people, or destroying merchandise. It’s a prime Target, so to speak, for those who are graduating from stochastic terrorism to actual in-person terrorism.

That’s why we have to pay attention to this, and we have to decide how to fight it and what we expect of companies when it comes to standing up to it. I don’t want minimum wage Target employees to be on the front line against anti-LGBTQ terrorists, but I also don’t want Target executives to give in to that terrorism and thus encourage them. I suppose what I want is for Target to spend some small portion of their billions of dollars increasing security, and trespassing, arresting, and/or prosecuting bigots who come to make trouble. And then I want them to spend another tiny percentage of their billions of dollars supporting LGBTQ organizations in their communities (or what’s left of them after Big Box Stores decimated them) to help those marginalized people feel safe, and to educate others on tolerance. And then, just for a little cherry on top, spend another tiny percentage of their billions of dollars supporting politicians who will unseat the guys passing laws banning books and trying to outlaw pronouns.
Will that happen? No, because it’s easier and cheaper to reduce merchandise, move it to the back of the store, and continue to stop workers from unionizing. And in the meanwhile, those good Christian bigots will learn that terrorism works, that they enjoy doing it and they enjoy reading the celebratory comments on the videos they post, and then at some point they’ll decide to move on to even more effective forms of terrorism, like firebombing a Budweiser factory. And then what will we do?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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