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. MuckRaker

    Just saying... South Park depicted Mohammed in the Super Best Friends episode, which aired July 2001. He was not censored, there was no censorship of the image, and the outrage was non-existent.

    April 22, 2010 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  2. Gary

    Wow, a great article. Really, one of the best I've seen on this subject.

    I have to mention though as a small addendum that Mohammed wasn't even in the bear costume... santa was...


    April 22, 2010 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  3. Sabba

    People are getting this all wrong.. It's not WHO you show, it's WHAT you show,

    thats why the super best episode is fine, and that's why the Danist cartoons, showing him as a TERRORIST which is WHAT they're showing, is wrong

    I love South Park

    April 22, 2010 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  4. J

    Just wanted to add....I am a muslim and a huge fan of South Park, I have to admit that episode 200 did make me uncomfortable and honestly I did not want to watch the sequel (201). However one does have to respect free speech and if that speech makes you uncomfortable then simply do not watch it. If you absolutely have to protest there are many civilized ways of doing so.

    I think what this radical website did is absolutely inexcusable. These radicals are a small minority but because of their bellicose and belligerent behavior they make the rest of us look bad and indeed foolish.

    Believe me there are many moderates in the muslim fold who would rather see these radicals gone than South Park or its creators.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Maffu

      I agree with this statement completely. I'm a christian, and southpark dings us too, but the only people who are upset are those looking for something to be upset about.

      September 13, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ValisMulla

    And i thought Islam was the 'religion of peace'. For years Christianity has put up with endless insults against its members, its orders, its Lord and God. Believe me, I've seen some pretty foul drawings of Jesus in my time, but we are taught to 'turn the other cheek', which has made us much more different than our needlessly aggressive Muslim counterparts.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    Death threats are not the best way to tell people that your religion is peaceful. Morons.

    The world will be a much safer place when we finally have freedom FROM religion.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jacktron

    There is no debate within Muslims about wither this is ok or not. What these cartoonist are trying to do is tarnish the image of Islam and it wont work. South Park should have been taken off air many times before even when they showed an image of Jesus because Muslims believe no profit not just Mohammad should be falsely exposed like that.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  8. kosta87

    Muslims just need to let go of things cuz look where they at right now almost all muslim countries third world countries they just need to let go of things and move forward. Oh btw i seem to recall that muslims also believe that Moses and Jesus were prophets of god too and south park has made fun of them in the past before so why Mohammad? Please dont tell me god has favorites otherwise you guys arent even close to understanding him

    April 22, 2010 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. Gordie

    Anyone remember the underlying message of the movie "Billy Jack?" --"Love your neighbor or I'll kill you."

    April 22, 2010 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  10. TimJones

    I agree.. when they first showed the Super Best Friends episode nothing happend, even though South Park made fun of about every single subject out there. I'm a Roman Catholic and when they showed God as a small messed up creature, i had concerns.. but there was no revolt against that episode.. Beacuse in all religion is mainly peace and love with your fellow man, but radicals take it to the extreme and make it seem like some religons are wrong and thiers is right.. in the end theres only one supreme being that whatches over everything..

    April 22, 2010 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  11. zach

    I agree, Mohammed was aired in July of 2001. Pepole didnt get mad because that. It's called humor people. South park was not just making fun of muslims, they need to know that. They go off on everyone, in a funny manor.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  12. seekertheidiot

    What really bugs me is that Mohamed cants be depicted however, its one of the most popular names in Islamic countries... I just don't get it, if you cant depict him, why can you use his name to name your children? In a way you are branding his name unto your children and then your children are a depiction of the prophet? 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.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  13. Matt

    In a perfect world we could pick and choose who is allowed to identify with our faith, but unfortunately it just doesn't work that way. When a few bad people disguised as holy men obtained positions of leadership in the Catholic church and committed horrible crimes against children, the church's public image suffered a worldwide blow and all Catholics, including myself, must now live with the common perception that our churches are havens for child molesters.

    While >99% of Muslims may be good, peace-loving people, the other <1% have hijacked your faith and used it to commit heinous acts disguised as holy deeds. As a fellow innocent bystander of my faith's "bad apples," my advice to Muslims is to wholeheartedly take a stance against these evil people. Don't split hairs, such as disagreeing with the acts but sympathizing with the root cause. Don't defend any aspect of who they are and what they do. You are either for or against the evils committed under the guise of your faith. If you're for them in any way, you're no better than they are. For my part, I am wholeheartedly against what has happened within the Catholic church and think church officials right up to the Pope should answer and pay dearly for it.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  14. Slapshot

    Yeah, what's up with that? His special power was fire and nobody said "boo!". It was a good episode.

    @upset people
    Take a note from any intolerant organization and realize that intolerance only gets you further alienated from the people you are intolerant of ..and guess what.. you have to live with those people because 1) you couldn't possibly kill them all. 2) so far this is the only planet we've got.

    I also don't see what the fuss is about this time as Mohammed was never depicted in the episode except in a stick-figure sketch(which apparently isn't being talked about). Just because you SAY Mohammed is in a bear costume doesn't mean he's actually in there. It could be Sea Man. It could be anyone. The Gingers got it right "How do we know that's Mohammed in there?".

    You know what? This whole time Cartman was actually Mohammed and they've been secretly depicting him all along. They were planning on letting that cat out of the bag on the farewell episode. Sorry, Matt and Trey, for blowing your big surprise.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jason

    No mention at all that in part II, Mohammed in a bear suit....wasn't?

    April 22, 2010 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
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