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. Michael

    Just when we thought we were getting away from the "politically correct"era of the 90's; here we go again!

    April 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Snapper

    It seems that many Muslims need to get some confidence. They have learned and been taught fear for so long its endemic. I feel sorry for you brothers.

    April 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. kumar

    If an object does not bend then it breaks and it's called tolerance. My muslim fellows try to develop some tolerrance into your system. It the key to peace and happiness.

    April 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kamran

    i grew up muslim, and was always uncomfortable with this no-criticism-at-all policy in Islam... i renounced Islam for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was this one... and of course, the murderous atttitudes of islam, its adherents and its prophet toward all dissenters.

    more power to south park!

    April 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. South Park fan

    Why should one group get to play by different rules than the rest of us? It's sickening.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Michael R

    I believe that all you people angry should grow up and get over it. It is not that important or big of a deal. South Park makes fun of everyone and muslims should not be excluded. Thank you.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. guest

    @Seth In response to your comment “just because you don't agree with the ideologies of some religions does not make it right for you to go ahead and violate there [sic] most sacred beliefs”:

    If one were to follow that to its logical conclusion, I should not eat pork because that would violate Jewish law, I should not drink alcohol because that would violate Mormon teaching, I should not cut my hair because that violates Sikh tradition . . the list could go on forever.

    The point a lot of posters are trying to make, I think, is that if it goes against Islam for its followers to depict the prophet, fine – then they should not. As far as I know, Matt & Trey are not Muslim, so there is no requirement that they follow this Islamic tenet. End of story.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Lynnwood

    South Park didn't portray Mohammed. South Park protrayed a teddy bear and CALLED it Mohammed.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. andyk

    People seem to mistake what free speech really means. It means that you are free to say/express whatever you like, no matter how offensive. However, it does not guarantee the right to have a television forum to make those statements/expressions. I can say, all purple people are disgusting and should be killed. That doesn't mean comedy central has to supply me with a forum to air those views. Moderate muslims should keep doing what they're doing... if they're offended by something, protest peacefully and boycott (the power of speech and the pocketbook often get noticed, especially if 1.2 billion people are offended). And I don't see anything wrong with those tactics, cause they are in themselves expression of free speech.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. LKJ

    I'm a Muslim who has never been a fan of South Park. What I don't understand is why it's necessary to mock any religion or any group of people. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I'd like to see a little more respect in the world.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mariuch

    Muslims need to "lighten up". They seem to have absolutely no sense of humor...but a great sense of do as I say "or else"....

    April 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Barzoo42

    Comedy Central you caved in and missed the whole point of the episode. Every other religion is fair game for satire but not Islam? You caved in to despotic, terrorist threats. This is the USA where free speech reigns- except on Comedy Central.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kelvan Kam

    I'm glad some moderate and reform muslim are willing to speak out against extremism, anti-zionism and anti-semitism but the vast majority of the Muslim world are still living in dark age.It siads that "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?"Look at any other religion. Do you think majority of Catholics will call for religious edict against Dan Brown? If Salman Rushdie would have visit a Muslim nation what will happened to him as compare to Dan Brown?The vast majority of Muslim has nobody to blame but their clerics and among themselves who promotes radicalism and extremism wihthin the Islamic world. When are Muslim world moving towards enlightenment age like Jews and christian before them?

    April 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Hon

    If only religion did not exist.

    April 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Craig M

    Can someone explain to me why the Muslims do not object to images of Jesus even though they consider him a prophet as they do Mohammed?

    April 23, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
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