Which is more likely to elicit an irate Muslim response: 1) public cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, or 2) public proclamations that Muhammad was a bisexual, sometime transvestite and necrophile, who enjoyed sucking on the tongues of children, commanded a woman to "breastfeed" an adult man, and advised believers to drink his urine for salutary health?
Based on the recent South Park fiasco—where an animated episode depicting Muhammad in a bear suit sparked outrage among various Muslim groups, culminating with the usual death threats—the answer is clear: cartoons, once again, have proven to be the Muslim world's premiere provocateur. Indeed, during a university lecture the other day, Swedish artist Lars Vilks, whose life is in jeopardy due to his depiction of Muhammad as a dog, was violently assaulted to ululations of "Allahu Akbar!" (Islam's primordial war cry).
Yet how can cartoons rouse Muslim ire more than public assertions that Muhammad was a bisexual, a transvestite, a necrofile, et al? First, context:
The evangelical Arabic satellite station, al-Haya (Life TV), regularly takes the Muslim prophet to task, especially on two weekly programs: Hiwar al-Haq (Truth Talk), hosted by Coptic priest Fr. Zakaria Botros, and Su'al Jari' (Daring Question), hosted by ex-Muslim Rashid. Both shows revolve around asking uncomfortable questions about Islam and its founder in an effort to prompt Muslims to reconsider the legitimacy of their faith. (It is on these shows that the aforementioned, unflattering assertions of Muhammad originate; see here and here for English summaries.)
These broadcasts are viewed by millions of Arabic-speaking Muslims around the world. That the satellite station strikes a Muslim nerve is evinced by the fact that it is formally banned in several Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, and is regularly condemned by Islam's demagogues on mainstream Arabic media, including al Jazeera.
When the programs first began airing, they certainly caused uproar in the Muslim world. Then, Muslims regularly called in cursing the hosts, promising them death and destruction (both here and in the hereafter). Al-Qaeda reportedly put a $60 million bounty on Fr. Zakaria's head; and the priest is on CAIR's radar. (See the father make his famous "ten demands" of Islam here and explain his mission in this rare English interview.)
Far from being cowed by the daily death threats, however, Life TV and its unrepentant hosts have responded by upping the ante and providing even more anecdotes discrediting Muhammad. Rashid recently examined the theological implications of Muhammad's hatred for the gecko lizard, which the prophet accused of being "an infidel and enemy of the believers." Muslims who kill it in the first strike receive 100 "heavenly-points," whereas those who kill it in two strikes receive only 70. More graphically, Fr. Zakaria recently examined canonical hadiths (authenticated Muslim accounts) that record Islam's first believers eating Muhammad's feces, marinating food in his sweat, drinking the water he gargled and spit out, and smearing his phlegm all over their faces—all to his approval.
Needless to say, Life TV's hosts—especially the flamboyant Fr. Zakaria—are hated by Muslims around the world. But to the careful observer, the outrage appears to be subsiding, ostensibly replaced by apathy—that is, the default strategy when threats and displays of indignation fail. Most callers are now Muslim converts to Christianity, who encourage and thank Fr. Zakaria and Rashid (often in tears). Conversely, the diminishing angry callers usually spew a barrage of insults, culminating with a "may-you-burn-in-hell," and quickly—almost as if ashamed of their impotent behavior—hang up.
Now, back to our original observation: how can Life TV get away with outlandish weekly disparagements concerning Muhammad, whereas Western cartoons spark widespread outrage? Considering that millions of more Muslims watch Life TV than have ever heard of South Park makes the question doubly puzzling.
The answer is simple: the South Park incident is less a reflection of Muslim anger and more of Western appeasement. By constantly buckling in to the slightest Muslim displeasure—whether by altering films, removing museum art, or canceling book launches—the West has perpetuated a vicious cycle wherein Muslim sensitivities are ever heightened and outraged at the slightest slight, and Western freedoms of expression are correspondingly diminished and trampled upon. What's worse, such self-imposed censorship falls right into the hands of homegrown Islamists actively working to subvert Western civilization from within.
Conversely, by holding fast to onetime Western principles of free speech and open dialogue, Life TV has conditioned its Muslim viewers to accept that exposure and criticism of their prophet is here to stay. As Fr. Zakaria often points out, every religious figure is open to criticism: so why should Muhammad be sacrosanct? (Indeed, Comedy Central, which was quick to acquiesce to Muslim threats to censor South Park, is "brave" enough to run an entire cartoon series mocking Jesus.)
Of course, one need not agree with Life TV's tactics or evangelical mission to appreciate the lesson it imparts: Muslim outrage—as with all human outrage—is predicated on how well it is tolerated. Continuously appeased, it becomes engorged and insistent on more concessions; ignored, it deflates and, ashamed of itself, withers away. Put differently, if you voluntarily act like a dhimmi—a subjugated non-Muslim who must live in debased humility—you will be treated like a dhimmi (including by being killed for the slightest offense); conversely, if you assert yourself like a freeman, you will be perceived as a freeman—even as you are still hated.
To be fair, there is one caveat: whereas Muslims have no choice but to interpret South Park's and Lars Vilk's caricatures of Muhammad as egregiously offensive—no known Muslim records depict Muhammad in the guise of a bear or dog—the much more disturbing Life TV anecdotes all originate in Islam's most authoritative sources (Koran, hadiths, tafsirs, fatwas, etc). In other words, perhaps the anger toward Life TV is subsiding as Muslims become reconciled to the fact that, no matter how heinous, the things being attributed to their prophet are, in fact, grounded in Muslim sources, and thus must be true.
Yet if that is the case, seems like silly cartoons of Muhammad are the least of Muslims' problems.
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.