Hey, did you hear the one about Muhammad and …?
No? Me neither. And even if I did hear a good Muhammad joke, you can bet I wouldn't tell it. Not in an e-mail, not in a column, not no way, not no how. Why?
Because if you poke fun at the prophet of Islam -or even suggest anything that remotely smacks of irreverence -you will live (maybe) to regret it. Already, I feel the rumbling of thousands of creatively worded hate mails involving the word "donkey" as they thunder along my computer's routers.
Mr. Sulu, activate the insult shields.
So it goes in post-9-11 America, where Muslims have become the new approved victim class. Here's how the knee-jerk drill goes: A journalist writes or otherwise depicts Muslims or their Prophet Muhammad in some way other than soft-focus, peach-toned Hallmark words or images, and thousands of American Muslims become like a battalion of whitewashers unleashed on urban graffiti.
Leading the charge is the special interest group CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), which runs a Muslim news Web site and organizes letter-writing and e-mail campaigns. A recent "fatwa" against political cartoonist Doug Marlette produced thousands of e-mails, many of them threatening to varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum were overt threats of death and mutilation; at the other were attached viruses intended to sabotage Marlette's computer and, with any luck, his career.
Marlette's offense? A joke. A cartoon. An image of a man dressed in Middle Eastern garb driving a Ryder truck with a nuke in back with the caption: "What Would Mohammed Drive?" If you don't get it, go back to sleep.
Marlette's home paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, never ran the cartoon in its print edition and, under pressure from CAIR, quickly removed it from the newspaper's Web site. So much for free speech. And so much for desired effect because immediately thereafter Marlette drew another cartoon in response to CAIR's onslaught. This one shows the Statue of Liberty wearing a burqa and balancing a Free Speech tablet on her hip. Asking a cartoonist to be nice is like asking a pit bull to be lap dog.
Marlette also wrote an eloquent non-apology in response to CAIR's demand for one, whereupon a few Muslims have revealed themselves to have a sense of humor after all.
In recent days, Marlette says he's heard from several Muslims who congratulated him on the cartoon and apologized on behalf of their fellow humor-challenged, overly sensitive brethren.
Meanwhile, another victim has been added to the CAIR hit list -Tallahassee Democrat political columnist Bill Cotterell, who got trapped in an e-mail exchange with an angry Muslim woman. His offense, for which he has been suspended for a week without pay, was to fire back in his own angry and characteristically colorful language.
Cotterell criticized Arab nations for their failure to adjust to the Israel's existence, saying: "OK, they can squat around the camel-dung fire and grumble about it, or they can put their bottoms in the air five times a day and pray for deliverance; that's their business. And I don't give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself."
I'm sure Cotterell would rather those words not get repeated. He has apologized and declined my offer to speak up on his behalf. Too bad, Bill, it's a free world, and I choose to, anyway. Cotterell's remarks were clearly in bad taste, which is of course why some people find them funny. And they were intemperate. Sometimes that happens when people threaten and insult you, as this woman did Cotterell.
But keep in mind, it was also an e-mail exchange. All of us write things in e-mails -or we used to -that we don't intend to share with the world. The Democrat's decision to suspend Cotterell and to withdraw Marlette's cartoon frankly smacks of caving in to special interests at the expense of free speech. Censorship by intimidation.
Meanwhile, CAIR is shooting itself in the foot while accomplishing a reverse job of public relations. First, Marlette's cartoon got many times the exposure it would have had without CAIR's attacks. Second, few traits are more valued or uniquely American than the ability to laugh at oneself. If the self-appointed defenders of Islam would lighten up a bit, they might find themselves less often as the punch line.