Islam, Satire & The Simpsons

06/26/2015 09:41 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

In the latest salvo of anti-Islamic cartoons aimed at the Muslim community, Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders has broadcast derogatory images of the Prophet Muhammad on Netherlands television.

Islamic tradition prohibits any representation of Muhammad, and previously published images have enraged Muslims around the world, leading to violent attacks in Europe and the U.S.

On Wednesday night, Wilders, an anti-immigrant gadfly, displayed ten cartoons during his allotted -- and unrestricted -- time as a candidate. Earlier, Wilders was refused permission to show the cartoons in parliament.

"Freedom of speech must always prevail over violence and terror," Wilders said in the two-minute broadcast.

In early May, an inflammatory cartoon contest featuring Muhammad caricatures in Garland, Texas, left two Muslims attackers shot and killed. Wilders was a keynote speaker at the event, and these were the drawings he showed on Dutch TV.

Bracing for a similar, violent reaction to Wilders' broadcast, Dutch embassies were reported to have been advised to take security measures.

However, Muslim leaders tried to head off any violence.

"Wilders is trying to provoke us and we're ignoring him," Aissa Zanzen, spokesman of the Council of Moroccan Mosques in The Netherlands told the French news service AFP.

In April, the vexing tension between religious satire and the limits to free speech split prominent authors, over PEN America 's decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Eleven of the satirical weekly's staffers, including cartoonists, were slain in January following publications of Muhammad drawings. While decrying the attack, the protesting authors complained that the honor rewarded the magazine's mockery of a "section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized."

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 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 Reverend Lovejoy, their pastor, and Ned Flanders, their hyper-zealous evangelical next door neighbor. But other faith traditions, some less well known by The Simpsons' Middle American and worldwide viewers, have also 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 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 Geere.

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 1989 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 Muhammad (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 (mother Mina voiced by Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) 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 Muhammad - so there was no violent blow back from Muslims. For all of these reasons, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Los Angeles affiliate of The Council on American-Islamic Relations, wrote 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. The 'Mypods and Boomsticks' episode highlighted the diverse make-up of Springfield and brought to light how Americans can work toward mutual respect and inclusion by getting to know their neighbors."

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.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared on Pinsky is at work on an ebook sequel to The Gospel According to The Simpsons.)