The Simpson’s guide to satirizing Islam

In the latest salvo of anti-Islamic cartoons aimed at the Muslim community, Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders on Wednesday plans to display images of the Prophet Mohammed on Netherlands television.

In early May, an inflammatory cartoon contest featuring derogatory Mohammed caricatures in Garland, Texas, left two Muslims attackers shot and killed. Wilders was a keynote speaker at the event, and he intends to display the same cartoons on Dutch TV.

Earlier, Wilders had been refused permission to show the cartoons in Parliament, so he announced he would use his allotted — and unrestricted — time as a candidate to air the images. Mainstream Islamic tradition prohibits any representation of Mohammed, and disparaging images have enraged Muslims around the world.

The controversy is not new. Jews in particular know where free expression collides with genuine hate speech. Few wept when Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi tabloid Der Sturmer, which featured scurrilous caricatures of Jews and Catholics, was executed for crimes against humanity after World War II. And there is only scorn for modern sponsors of the annual anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and Holocaust denial cartoon contests in Tehran.

So, what is the intellectually defensible position for where to draw the line between free speech and religious satire? How far is too far in an open society? Is it possible for tact to replace hate, to make the point with a stiletto rather than a cleaver?

Often, when I face such dilemmas, I turn to an unlikely wisdom tradition: “The Simpsons.”

Spoofing religious excess, hypocrisy and prejudice has been a staple of the show’s narrative. While “The Simpsons” never hesitates to mock, its biting humor is intelligent rather than crude, informed by understanding rather than ignorance, and never characterized by meanness and denigration. It aims for a smile rather than a sneer.

Mainline Protestant Christianity, the Simpson family’s nominal faith, has naturally been a primary target in the long-running show, through individual family members and supporting characters like the unctuous Rev. Lovejoy, their pastor, and Ned Flanders, their hyper-zealous evangelical next-door neighbor.

But other faith traditions, some less well-known by worldwide fans of the show, also have been the focus of at least one episode, and then become part of the show’s comedic vocabulary, referred to or joked about in subsequent shows. These include Pentecostalism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. Each was introduced in plot lines through friends of the family and supporting characters, often with a boost from celebrity cameos, like Paul McCartney, Don Cheadle and Richard Gere.

But for “The Simpsons,” Islam was the final frontier.

In 2000, when I was researching the first edition of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family,” several of the show’s writers told me that the only reason they had not yet portrayed the Muslim faith in the show was that none of the writers knew enough about it.

At the time, I took this as an uncharacteristically lame dodge, based on self-preservation. The ongoing Iranian fatwah, threatening death to novelist Salman Rusdie for “The Satanic Verses,” was still fresh in mind.

Still, the writers assured me, the time would come when the show would portray the last of the world’s great religions. I had my doubts, especially in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen editorial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (republished by Charlie Hebdo), inflaming Muslims around the world, and provoking more death threats.

And yet, the time did come, in late 2008, in the episode “Mypods and Boomsticks,” which aired again recently on the FXX cable network.

It features bad boy Bart’s friendship with a new kid in town, Bashir bin Laden (!!!), whose family is from Jordan. Bart goes to their house to eat savory lamb, but when he tells Bashir that the only edible dish at Springfield Elementary’s cafeteria is pork chops, the newcomer explains that Muslims are forbidden to eat them.

In school, Bart — no stranger to being pushed around — cautions Bashir not to let the school’s trio of bullies know that he is Muslim. Nonetheless, the bullies hear the warning and begin to menace Bashir until Bart comes to his defense.

In typical Simpsons fashion, a dinner hosted by the Simpsons for the bin Laden family leads Homer to dream a Fox News nightmare of a Muslim takeover of Springfield at the hands of a genie out of Disney’s Aladdin: Their church becomes a mosque, their pastor a mullah and Cat Stevens’ music is pervasive.

Awake, Homer suspects that Bashir’s father is a terrorist, about to set off a bomb. In fact, the engineer father is a demolition expert, hired to implode the abandoned Springfield Mall. Hilarity ensues, followed by profuse apologies.

While the episode did confront numerous stereotypes, it did not breach the ultimate red line — images of the Prophet Mohammed — so there was no violent blow-back from Muslims.

When the episode originally aired, Nihad Awad, then executive director of the Los Angeles affiliate of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, congratulated Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening:

“I applaud your effort in Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons to humanize American Muslims by challenging anti-Muslim sentiment in our society by introducing a professional Muslim family.”

In retrospect, and in view of the Charlie Hebdo affair, and attacks against other Scandinavian cartoonists, “The Simpsons” episode appears not only brave. It was wise, and well within the show’s tradition of portraying an unfamiliar faith in a knowing way, with a relatively light hand, while at the same time defanging a widespread religious prejudice.

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