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.