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. mikem

    Just another case showing how awful religion is for our world. The fact that this is such a big issue is just sad honestly, and it shows how ignornant our world is still. Hopwfully one day people will understand how ridiculous this kind of thing really is, but I'm not hopeful to be honest

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

    i dont understand why everyone is so mad, its not as if the writers are trying to make fun of mohammed, absolutely no negative aspect associated with him. besides there is no god. i hope that the writers do not give in to these extremist threats and that they push full heartedly to get this fictional being on the air. he is not real, neither is jesus. just my personal opinion

    April 22, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jerk

    the dark ages ended in Europe a long time ago and ideas have flourished in the foreground as the influence of the church withered. I only hope that the middle east has a similar awakening and turns away from nonsensical traditions to fulfill their own hopes and goals peacefully.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ethan

    haha redact, i do understand. i just think its silly, like mohammed

    April 22, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Johnny Deep

    If Mohammed saw that episode he would laugh his socks off!!

    April 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Glenn

    Wow! I just read this article and the following comments! Talk about craziness! Long and the short, like many others said, Southpark is a CARTOON! It's a FICTIONAL piece of work. Its very design is to be controversial and they do a fine job at it! I believe in religious freedom. Worship whomever you want, from Buddha, Jesus, God, Allah and his Prophet, whatever higher power you want to believe in. Who cares! Religion is a personal choice and if you choose (key phrase; you choose) to let it upset you (whomever you may be), let it incite you to violence, well...maybe, just maybe you might want to take a good hard look at why you've allowed it to make you feel that way. Again, loved the comments and the article was great!

    April 22, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike Berati

    Why do you pat too much the muslim people.Mohamed was the worst.Thi is the truth.

    April 22, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Nabil

    To any rational non-Muslim I say, respect our religion just as we respect yours in our own countries. We don't depict or make fun of Jesus or Moses, so you should do the same.

    But my main comment goes out to Muslims because obviously it is impossible to debate with the irrational disbelievers.

    So the main question is: Why were you watching this kafir show? It is made by kafirs, displayed on a kafir network. They are disbelievers and they are making fun of their own prophets and religions, let alone yours.

    In a Muslim country, it is obvious that the law prohibits and punishes such blasphemy, and we thank Allah for that. But in a kafir country, you cannot expect kafirs to always have respect for others as they have even lost any self-respect for being disbelievers. If you are in the unfortunate position of living in such a country, then you should make every effort to distance yourself from them, that includes not watching their TV stations.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. The lone wolf

    People have forgot that there is five buttons on the t.v
    Two to turn the channels
    an other two to turn the volume
    and if all else fails the power button

    April 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Tyler

    I am a Mormon and South Park did an entire episode mocking the prophet of my faith, Joseph Smith. Mormons being Christians also accept Jesus Chtist as the Messiah and we all know how South Park has portrayed Jesus. I bring all of this up because I am drawing a distinction between myself and the radical Islamic terrorist who are suceeding in stifleing free speech in America. They are playing on our fears of offending people to frighten us into submission. I am very tired of this whole battle between radical terrorists and western civilization. I sincerly hope that we will gain courage as a country and say that we are not afraid of them.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. KPW

    I am sorry, but Muslims do tend to overreact to perceive slights and injustices. You didn't see the Mormons all up in arms when South Park made huge fun of their Prophet Joseph Smith. Actually, no one of any Christian faith or those of the Jewish faith seem to get upset at South Park over their humor and in many ways, insulting treatment of revered religious figures.

    I think we all try to not offend people and we try to be sensitive to other's beliefs and such, but we are also a free people, who are allowed to express ourselves under freedom of speech. President Obama and other leaders get it left and right, but they do not try to incarcerate those who takes pot shots at them, because those people have the freedom to do just that.

    Muslims need to relax about this. It is a darn shame that a small minority of a faith can cause so much trouble for the majority of their believers.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Sanja

    I don't know what's up with America? Where is the Freedom of speech? Why is it OK that South Park make jokes with Christianiti and Judaism, bu not with Islam? Are they protected because they make threats? I didn't know that America is so scared....

    April 22, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. German

    It is the sad truth that every Muslim has to accept that Mohammed had 12 wives and did sex with 9 years girl and also with own daughter in law. He was so successful in preaching polygamy that every Muslim today has 4-8 wives and 8-10 children. He has made the most impact in the world history by having billions of people following his ideology of halal/holy killing of non Muslim. He also brought equality among races.

    April 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dan

    I am not Muslim, but leave the Muslims in peace. Go and mock your own country, your own institutions, and your own people and have a great blast on your own miseries. Stop offending others and then complaining like little girls. Yes, a good smack on the head of those show producers would be a great reminder that there are sacred things in this world, and if you don't believe is your problem.

    April 22, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Chris

    seriously? there are a few people who have posted that i agree with because they are calm, non-emotional opinions, and because they make very good points. one of these is that if you dont like it, dont watch it. dont go on the internet and blame the creators for misusing freedom of speech when you are doing the same. i think the radicals were just WAITING for something to happen so they could start fighting with people, because as someone pointed out, the original showing of muhammed was in July of 2001, just two months before 9-11. since then, we've had to cater to everyones feelings and sensitivities. I say no more. we've lived on this earth for HOW LONG before these radicals decided to blow smoke? i mean, c'mon! i think the whole thing is ridiculous and if the extremists wont tolerate certain things, then we non-extremists shouldnt either. I dont see them posting their address on their article.

    April 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
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