April 22nd, 2010
09:46 AM ET

'South Park' Mohammed issue sparks debate among Muslims

A message on the "South Park" website explaining why the second part of an episode involving Mohammed can't be streamed online yet.

It took seven minutes of a "South Park" episode to change a devout Muslim’s features from an entertained smile to complete disapproval. He told his colleague, Lebanese blogger Bilal el-Houri, as he walked away from the screening, “This is disgusting.”

What the young man (he prefers to remain anonymous) found disgusting was the depiction of Islam’s revered Prophet Mohammed as a bear mascot in "South Park’s" 200th episode. The depiction was the show authors’ sarcastic attempt to highlight media’s uneasy dealing with the father of Islam as not to offend Muslims who consider any depiction of their prophet as blasphemous.

Since his followers insist on him not being shown in any form, producers have always struggled with ways to include Mohammed in story lines without showing him. The most famous of those depictions is the classic Hollywood movie ‘The Message’ by Mustafa al-Akkad about the life of Prophet Mohammed. Being Muslim himself, al-Akkad directed his entire film with extreme sensitivity building the character of the prophet around the wind or the light so it’s a presence that is felt or experienced but not seen.

The "South Park" episode showing Mohammed disguised in a bear suit earned the show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker a jihadist campaign and a serious warning from a radical Islamic group based in New York City. The group posted on its website Revolutionmuslim.com a video filled with reminders of what fundamentalist Muslims did to those who in their eyes “insulted” their prophet.

On Wednesday night the episode continued the storyline of Mohammed in part II of the episode– but it aired with additional audio bleeps and image blocks reading “CENSORED." They also didn't have the episode streaming on their Web site. There was however, this message from the creators:

"After we delivered the show, and prior to broadcast, Comedy Central placed numerous additional audio bleeps throughout the episode. We do not have network approval to stream our original version of the show."

Comedy Central confirmed they added additional bleeps to the show than what was in the original cut. Whether the decision was an attempt to appeal to Muslims or to keep angry sentiment at bay, nobody knows, but tackling the issue of Mohammed in any way, beeps and censor marks included, still sparks concern among Muslims.

Blogger Bilal el-Houri is agnostic but he grew up in a Muslim family in the mostly Muslim region of the Middle East. He said, “My first thoughts on the episode were "haha!", but then I realized how deep and complicated this issue is.”

El-Houri said he was quickly reminded of tragedies that ensued from other infamous depictions of Prophet Mohammed. In particular he recalls the Muslim outrage in 2005 following publications of Cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. He said he witnessed in Beirut, Lebanon, crowds take to the streets and burn the building housing the Danish embassy.

“I remember seeing people crashing and burning police cars and ambulances that had nothing to do with Denmark or their cause.” He also recalled how “al Qaeda issued a call to murder Dutch politician Geert Wilders” for his film “Fitna” which was critical of Islam.

El-Houri observed that the "South Park" episode highlighted the fear from “barbaric Muslim retaliation” when a Muslim symbol is featured in the media. He said Muslims should focus on convincing others not to show iconic figure out of “respect to Islam” instead.

El-Houri’s advice to Muslims is to “appreciate free speech” and use its tools to debunk the misconceptions that exist around the world about Islam and showcase the peaceful side of their religion instead of reacting to what others publish or broadcast. “The media makes fun of Jesus, The Pope, politicians and so on, all the time, but you don't see Catholics burning tires outside Comedy Central's studios.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali agrees. The "South Park" episode “was not just funny, it wasn’t just witty” she said, but it also addressed what she called the essential issue that “one group of people, one religion, that is claiming to be above criticism, and I hope that in the aftermath of this, that we discuss that.”

Having been brought up as a Muslim, she said she grew up with the notion that one “shouldn’t criticize Allah, Islam or the Prophet” but she herself became a prominent critic of Islam. Her screenplay for Theo Van Gogh's movie ‘Submission’ brought her death threats. She had been living under protection since Van Gogh’s assassination of fear for her life. She describes the reaction to the depiction of Mohammed as “ridiculous” and thinks the solution lies in “scrutinizing Islam and criticizing it in the same way that we criticize Christianity, Judaism and other ideologies and other religions.”

"Equal opportunity scrutiny, equal opportunity offense," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

On "South Park’"s Facebook discussion boards, Muslims vented their frustration trying to explain why depicting their prophet is offensive and blamed South Park for fanning the tensions that already exist in the world around this subject. Under the title “Respect my Religion,” posts were mainly defensive. Most tried to expand on their belief that Islam is a religion of peace that respects other religions and prophets. Others blamed the extremists for “hijacking” their religion and using it to justify murdering and threatening people who don’t agree with them.

Muslim fans of "South Park" focused more on the episode which one of them thought was a “let down” in its redundancy of the old “controversial Prophet Mohammed depiction.”

Zainab Sher said, “2 b honest 200 episode wasnt funny at all to me!” She then added, “Bringing Mohammad back! when you know it is a sensitive issue […] seems to me southpark is running out of ideas!!! that angle just brought everything down.”

Omar Latif kept his comments simple, “DISAPPOINTED with showing our prophet.”

Ahmed Ata Saada said he had seen all "South Park" episodes and he found them “very fun.” But he found it “ridiculous” to make fun of other people’s beliefs and sacred religion. Many other Muslims joined in agreement while non-Muslims comments focused on the right to freedom of speech.

Part II of the 200th episode brought more of the same and the reaction does not seem to have picked up anywhere around the Muslim world yet. But the episode did seem to have a clear self-censorship which could have resulted from the warning. The reason for this could be a simple one. In every instance where violence ensued from published or broadcast material that offended Islam, the strong reaction was not immediate or spontaneous. It took time to build steam through video distribution in mosques and on the Internet, supported by clerics and religious leaders’ incitement during sermons and speeches.

It is true that hundreds and thousands took to the streets especially following the Danish cartoons controversy. Many of them protested violently burning buildings, cars and calling for the death of the cartoonist. But it is equally true that the majority of Muslims did not take to the streets and expressed their dismay rather peacefully or did not comment at all.

While millions around the world watched the violence in the streets of Islamabad, Cairo, and Beirut, there were many other Muslims who appeared on shows to condemn the violence committed in their name and under what they considered it to be the guise of defending Islam. They called for calm and talked about the peaceful nature of Islam instead.

Many mainstream Muslim clerics and devout Muslims have said repeatedly that the problem with the Muslim scripture, the Quran, is that it is vast, complex and appears at times to be contradictory. They attribute that to the belief that the verses are based on unique situations that occurred during the life of Prophet Mohammed but don’t apply to modern-day life.

It is a known fact that the Quran is open to interpretation; unlike other religions, Muslims don’t have a single entity to make a final call on certain issues. This leaves the door open to local clerics to issue Fatwas or religious edicts, based on their personal belief which could be ultra orthodox, moderate and many shades in between.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bilal el-Houri, like many experts and scholars who speak up about this subject, put the responsibility in the hands of the majority moderate Muslims. Hirsi Ali points out that the Quran contains verses calling for the killing of non-believers. She said, “There are some people who want to act on it, and there are some people who don’t. The majority of Muslims do not want to act on the scripture, but they are silent when fellow Muslims do.”

Blogger Bilal el-Houri has seen both sides first hand in the Middle East. He says no matter how "cruel" the South Park episode is, “it should be a wake up call to Muslims around the world about how they are being portrayed, and instead of grunting and calling for boycotts and other actions, “they should begin by respecting free speech” and they should ask themselves, "why?"

Beside the intended humor in "South Park’s" 200th episodes I and II, there seems to be a message about the role of the world’s leading religions with a special emphasis on Islam’s state of affairs. Judging by the many bleeps censoring every time the word Mohammed was uttered and covering the entire “moral” of the episodes if one may call it that. It seems that the creators of South Park are sending the same message as Hirsi Ali and el-Houri; that open dialogue is the way to go.

In the midst of "South Park’s" many jokes and jabs, one can conclude that moderate Muslims can take away a message already articulated by many. By enforcing strict rules on depiction of their prophet, they allow the extremists to get all the attention. By doing so, they draw negative attention to their religion, alienate themselves and allow their message to be lost in censorship.

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. 18

    I am sick and tired of Muslims hitting the streets when their prophet is portrayed in a negative way. Or even when they are profiled in airports. WHY are the muslims not putting out the same energy when cowardly terrorists acts are commited. Nothing but silence....
    Muslims need to wake up and smell the couscous. They cannot keep silent on injustice of innocent lives.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Teddy3indc

    Great article and great comments from you all.

    1 correction though.... you won't find too many Islamic clerics that would ever say that the Qur'an contradicts itself. It is the people who contradicts themselves and their believes.

    As a believer of the Qur'anic text and as a military person, I would have to say that everyone should take a closer look at 'why' they are doing and saying what they are.

    ... Why? .....
    – do non-Muslims hate something they don't understand?
    – Are we all so convuluted and biased?
    – do Muslims get so offend by people who do things out of ignorance and disrespect?

    My suggestion is that everyone should try toview both sides of the story and that everyone should read what it is that the Muslims believe in. That is the only hope that you have to come to understanding

    Peace be with you all,
    Teddy

    BTW... Muslims also don't depict God, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, or any other Prophet.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Swiss814

    We make fun of all the religious models because you are a part of our culture in America. It is a compliment, not an insult.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. rlewis

    ITs just an over reaction from Muslims about a stupid yet funny cartoon the bashed every religion but you dont see any one else taking it as slander. It just goes to prove how much religion is overrated! Tremendously.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dame Makedonski

    SHAME ON YOU "Comedy Central" for your censoring of the 201 episode. SHAME ON YOU!!!

    April 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  6. 700jab

    I suppose congratulations goes out to the Islamic extremists... Comedy central cowered in fear and further censored the second episode. If this is how America is going to handle these extremists perhaps they will be able to accomplish their goal of assimilation. As for the moderated Muslims on this blog that say they like south park but they didn't like their profit being made fun of... then you are not a south park fan because news flash... THATS WHAT THEY DO!! They make everyone a little uncomfortable. I find it fascinating that some are ok with South Park insulting every other religion (including the creators religion), so long as its not theirs. There was at time when Muslim nations were at the forefront of scientific and cognitive development... it would seem that modern Islam shuns logic, reason, and accountability, in favor of fear based extremism. In response countries are banning burka wearing, and the building of minarets (Switzerland). Until moderate Muslims take back their religion and literally expel the extremists from their ranks, something they are clearly terrified to do. The legacy of this generation of Muslims will be not be looked on kindly by historians.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mordrud

    To follow up in a more rational manner my desire for a movie or mini-series on Islam. People, especially Americans, are lazy and uninformed in general. They get their history from movies becuase they are too lazy to read. This ban on showing Mohamed is one of the reasons why non-muslims are so untrusting and fearful of Islam. Fear of the unknown. If the movie was made fairly, by non-muslims, it should be okay. becuase no muslim has violated their own beliefs. see the above quote from the Quran:
    Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion. (6)
    So in my religion it is perfectly fine to depict a historical figure in a movie. And you cannot dispute Mohamed is one of the most interesting and important historical figures we have ever had as a species. Maybe through education we can achieve understanding and lasting peace. But if we keep knowledge in the dark we will all keep running blindly into each other.
    Just trying to interject some reason into the mix....

    April 22, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Derek

    Abdul Aziz you write what looks like gibberish aka garbage. Blame your fanatics and the acts of 9/11 for how your people are portrayed.

    I question, when will terrorists against the middle east arise? When will these terrorists do to your people what terrorists of Islam have done to Americs? It's long past due. The American military is baby sitting you right now because of the havoc your people wreak on the rest of the world, based from your religion.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Seeker the wise

    To Mr Seekrtheidiot's comment
    "But wait... I am not Muslim, i don't understand these things at all. We are just a bunch of idiots in the west that don't understand how powerful religion can be on simple minded 3rd world countries."

    I want him to read the article and understand that it was the Muslim group in New York, a city of the developed world, that started the uproar. The simple minded folks of the 3rd world probably hadnt even seen the episode. To Mr seeker, its not a matter of who lives where. Religious fundamentalism is independant of boundaries, and it exists as much in America as it does in the 'simple minded' third world. This is an issue of religious fanaticism and not the IQ of people.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dudeman

    Could this article be slanted any more towards the Muslim viewpoint of the situation?

    April 22, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. andrew

    When southpark aired muhammad before in the episode 'super best friends', there was no outrage then. So whats the big deal? have muslims all of a sudden become offended by it? or have we become weak? I think both, extreme muslims realise they have a power over the west now because we are weak.

    Guess what, im offended that the muslim prophet, muhammad, was a pedo. He actually had sex with a 9 year old girl, after marrying her when she was 6. So should I threaten with violence etc? Should we censor anything to do with islam because of this fact?

    Of course we wont.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jo Jo

    Well said Abdul Aziz...

    Neither Islam, Christianity nor Judaism rules the world, neither does any other religion... No religion will ever rule the world in the sense of imposing their beliefs onto others. You can try to rule the world big 3 monotheistic religions and history has shown you have tried, tried and failed, Human nature will not allow it, we will always rebel (FYI you all are worshiping the same god just disagree on how)...It's not going to happen so let's move on and worship who we want to and how we want to... or not (shout out to the athiests out there) Just don't tell me what I should believe, let me choose for myself.

    Love Jo Jo

    April 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  13. adikos

    @MuckRaker

    actually in the first airing of the broadcast he was cencsored. in all previous re-airings and on the dvd he was not censored.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kalid

    Islam will one day conquor the West and subdue the West under the Islamic banner and the Holy Koran will be the highest law of the land. Inshallah ! Allah O Akbar !!!

    So keep up the hate and as you can see western women are converting to islam in mass and even men because Islam is a great religion and Mohammed is the finest example to mankind.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  15. H MAN

    Free speech being stripped away in front of my eyes because of lunatic Muslims. They have surely won the war.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
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