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. Ulises

    What these show creators are trying show is the ridiculous ideas these belief system instill into its followers. South park has made fun of the other abrahamic religions for their ridiculous quircks. This episode of south park is just trying to get to the heart of islams ridiculous quirk of not showing mohammed.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. David Donahue

    Do people understand satire? When are we as humans going to get over being offended by opinions People say offensive things to everyone. It's how you react that makes you better or worse. We live in a world where freedom of speech needs to be fought for more than ever. Lighten up and learn to laugh.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ibrahim

    I get sick of people being offended by everything if it doesn't hurt you or your loved ones suck it up. Nobody cares about your id letting everyone know how childish you are and how every word hurts your feelings and this goes for every religion, if your gods are so great why did he create such weak followers?

    April 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John

    Comedy Central took away my freedoms by censoring the episode and made each of us who truly love the show a victim of terrorism by not airing it uncensored. The constant bleeps throughout the show ruined my high.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. why do we argue about religon when no one knows until you die, seems pointless to argue about something you don't really know about until you kick the bucket...LOL

    WOW! Can't believe so much controversy over a cartoon. Goes to show how ignorant people are. It's a comedy driven show based on overinflating and overexploiting everything in order to push the limits. They do this to gain viewers. If people don't like it, don't watch. Anyway, this has all been done already in the 80's. Don't you remember the Smurfs? Gargamell represented the devil, Joker smurf represented the Catholics cause he always liked to "joke around", Smurfet represented the Jews cause she would never give it up, and pappa smurf represented the Muslims, nice beard.....hahahahha wow!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Soxfan29

    I think everyone who is so riled up either way just needs to get a life and realize THIS IS A CARTOON...if religion is such a big part of your life and a SATORICAL TELEVISION show offended you so badly, whether your Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, DON'T WATCH IT. CHANGE THE CHANNEL. No one is forcing you to watch it. It's not like this egregious insult was shown in schools or delivered to you at your places of worship, IT'S A CARTOON. Get over yourselves

    April 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. l

    this is a serious element to muslim doctrine, huh? great religion. real powerful and spiritual

    April 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ken

    Muslims, really, get serious here. I don't think Mohammed would mind a joke or two, He was after all your swash-buckling hero/scourge of the sands. Come on get real. I think you guys are miss-interpreting the no images thing. I think he had that rule while he was alive so his enemies did not know what he looked like. Kind of a self preservation thing. Remember there wasn't exactly cameras or the internet then. To hide one's self you made sure no one drew your picture. The seriousness of the scripture was to instill fear and obedience. I think it's high time to get over yourselves and lighten up.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joe S

    Time for another crusade! If the muslims can't live in our country by the rules that exist, fine. Go somewhere else. Free speech says everyone is fair game in our country. Lots of places in the middle east which welcome muslims and their way of life. Go nuts. Stop causing trouble here, or trouble is what you're going to get.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Paul

    Perhaps this is a task for homegrown viral video. If a good number of people would create You Tube videos and movies featuring mohammed and they could be spread around, who would the extremists turn to in order to vent? They would be awash in images of the prophet. Would they retreat from the web if they could not know where such an image might pop up?

    April 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Lindsay

    I have a question. If no one has been allowed to draw a picture of Mohammed *gasp* then how does anyone know what he looks like? I could draw a picture of a man looking NOTHING like Mohammed actually did (as no one can possibly know what he actually looked like, see before) and that would piss muslims off? WTF. Grow up children.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Pam

    First, let me say that I do not like South Park and have not seen an entire episode of it. That being said, I know what South Park is about and what they depict on their show-that is why I choose not to watch it-I do not find it humorous to make fun of anyones belief or handicaps. To be insulted by this episode means that you watched it-if it is offensive to you, don't watch,. I have seen comments saying that they think South Park is very funny-up until this episode which made fun of something that they hold sacred. So watching when they made fun of other religions/politics...etc was OK. If you don't like it, turn it off but you are living in the US and we have freedom of speech so you will need to come to terms with that. No one is forcing you to watch South Park. I know I sure don't.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. David

    I must have missed the Muslims condemning the violent reactions and death threats to that cartoonist. I'm sure he was convincing.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dOh

    @77, Stone and Parker don't make fun of religion just because they don't believe in it. They do it because it is relevant, controversial, and they can make it funny while teaching the world a lesson about tolerance and being open-minded.

    They bash on every religion, every celebrity, every aspect of life as we know it, and it's all in good humor and fun. There is absolutely no malicious intent and if you take it that way, says more about you than them.

    I understand that South Park can be offensive, but it's offensive to you, and you, and you. No one is left out so it's not pointing fingers at anyone. Get over yourselves.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. too

    Check out the revolutionislam site now, haha

    April 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
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