Published May 07, 2010
Don't mess with Allah. That's the new, unwritten code in Hollywood following the one-two punch of Islamic extremists' threats against the creators of "South Park" and the failed bombing attempt outside the cartoon’s parent company, Viacom, in New York's Times Square.
In the current, supercharged climate, it just isn’t worth endangering the safety of an entire production staff or network by pursuing a storyline that Muslim extremists might find offensive, media executives and writers tell Fox411.com.
Aasif Mandvi, a self-described “liberal Muslim” and the “senior Islamic correspondent” for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, said on air after the “South Park” threats that it would upset him to see the Prophet Muhammad depicted in a cartoon. But, he added: “Here’s what’s more upsetting. Someone, in the name of a faith that I believe in, threatening another person for doing it.”
But after the failed Times Square terror attack, "The Daily Show" asked Mandvi not to comment further on the matter, according to his spokesman. In fact, reps for the networks and television shows reached for comment on this article, including Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, FOX, NBC, and CBS, either failed to respond or asked to speak on background for fear of retribution.
And it isn’t just comedians on fake newscasts who are being muzzled. One writer for a scripted drama fold Fox411.com that in one of his show's final episodes, there had been a minor plot point involving a Muslim extremist. Last week it was removed and the script was rewritten, he said.
Hussein Rashid, religion professor and religion dispatches associate editor at Hofstra University, said he is concerned that self-censorship will lead to a shutdown of the dialogue that must continue if people can be brought to understand the true meaning of Islam.
“I don’t think it is ever smart to self-censor,” Rashid told Fox411.com. “I am a big believer that the response to speech should always be more speech. I think this ‘South Park’ episode has been good for that conversation.”
But when it comes to Islam, the conversation seems only to be getting quieter.
Random House canceled the 2008 publication of Sherry Jones’ “The Jewel of Medina” out of fear it would incite acts of violence, and last year Yale University decided remove all images of Muhammad from Jytte Klausen's book, “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” a book commenting on the Danish cartoon controversy that sparked violence in the Muslim world.
The subject has gotten so sensitive, media pros are even chilling the conversation in forums where no one is watching.
“The writer’s room has always been a safe place for jokes of any sort, the dirtiest jokes you can think of that you could never tell in public because your own mother would hate you,” a network comedy writer told Fox411.com. “But for the first time we feel like there is a taboo.”
But religion in general hasn’t become taboo -- just Islam. The Cartoon Network squeaked under the radar in March when it showed a racy depiction of Jesus voiced by jailed rapper Lil' Wayne. And Comedy Central is developing "JC," a half-hour cartoon about Christ wanting to escape the shadow of his "powerful but apathetic father" and live a regular life in New York City.
One show recently appeared willing to go out on a limb. The April 27 episode of the CBS series “The Good Wife” featured a storyline in which a newspaper editor was killed for publishing an editorial cartoon showing the Prophet Muhammad being searched by airport security officers.
But that episode was written and filmed before the "South Park" threats, and it aired before the Times Square terror scare. Whether the same script would be written today is an open question.
“[A] liberal democracy depends on the principle that each person is entitled to hold and express his or her own beliefs," said Svetlana Mintcheva, director of the Arts Program for the National Coalition Against Censorship. "The failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it.”