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. Freedom of Speech

    In America we have FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Don't like it? GTFO AND GO BACK TO WHERE U GUYS SHOOT EACHOTHER OVER BREAD! POS Garbage muslim website shows a dead little boy on their main page and say the weapons that killed him were funded by....now this is funny... SOUTH PARK FANS!! The U.S Government needs to ban this garbage site for terroristic threats perhaps? Which leader and which religion were responsible for killing 1000's of AMERICANS in 9/11? oooo yeah thats right...

    April 28, 2010 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jacky

    Think about this. The whole 2 part episode focused around a group of famous people trying to obtain some type of goo from Muhammad in order to not be made fun of anymore. At the end of the episode, they realize that the goo does not in essence exist. This should speak out to those radical Muslims. Nobody is free from being made fun of. We live in a free speech society. It's okay to say anything you like, but the moment Muhammad is brought up, everyone has to get all nervous? Seriously come on! Cartman rips on the Jews in every single episode, yet I have not seen any Jews threaten South Park or its writers. Jesus is depicted plenty in South Park- he has a tv show, and in the 200/201 episodes, he was watching porn. No Christians were obscenely offended. Buddha was doing coke. There are episodes which "show" certain religions as clearly wrong. Yet, every religion or group of people laugh and move on with their lives. If they were hurt or upset by something, they either didn't watch the show anymore, or dealt with it civilly. Honestly, the radical Muslim reaction for depicting Muhammad in a bear costume (which actually turned out to be Santa Claus btw) was irresponsible and wrong. If it bothered you, turn it off and move on. No need to make videos and threaten Matt and Trey.

    April 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dimitri

    i like bears.

    April 28, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John

    what is with the whole "Islam is about peace and we kill you if you don't believe us!" stance. Things like this really doesn't support any case that about Islam being understanding or peaceful. I liked how this article comment on the silent Islamic population that doesn't cause trouble or do anything productive either. Can the knock that off and start getting vocal about their violent counterparts already. I also enjoy the fact drawing a picture of Mohammad should be censored, but threatening some ones life is protected by the freedom of speech, especially when it protects people that are quite vocal about how much they think America sucks. Eh religion . . you suck

    April 29, 2010 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    This episode of south park is not offensive if you look at the meaning behind the episode the children of south park are trying to show everyone that its okay to speak of mohammed. I being strictly roman catholic, am not offended by this show at all even with the depiction of jesus or god. We all need to lighten up. The episode was not meant to be a stab in the back to muslims but more of a wake up call. This show is a comedy. No body threatens comedians for making religious jokes. We need to lighten up, laugh together and enjoy some good comedy.

    April 29, 2010 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  6. Brick Layer

    This entire "controversy" is ridiculous. I understand the belief of Muslims not to depict the Prophet, but he EXISTED! He was a man, of blood and flesh like you and I, and has been an inspiration to society and many peoples all over the world. To not expect to have someone want to depict him, out of the billions of people on this earth is SILLY AND UNREALISTIC.

    In all honesty, the episode Stone and Parker did do years back (no one caught that one huh?) the image of Muhammad wasn't even offensive. Its about as accurate as the wimpy Jesus.

    No one is asking you to throw away your beliefs. South Park is raising the issue of how stupid it is not to be able to depict an ACTUAL HISTORICAL FIGURE WHO LIVED AND FOUNDED YOUR RELIGION BECAUSE YOU'RE TOO SOFT AND BIGOTED. The only thing you screaming believers do is add more fuel and legitimacy to the ones among you who are the true dogs and degenerates, like the greedy Catholic priests and missionaries from the Holy Roman Empire. At the end of the day, SHUT UP, its only TV!

    April 29, 2010 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  7. Brick Layer

    Oh, and not allowing him to be shown, in my opinion, is no different than idol worship, since he was only a Prophet, and not Allah.

    "In all things Muhammad was profoundly practical. When his beloved son Ibrahim died, an eclipse occurred, and rumours of God's personal condolence quickly arose. Whereupon Muhammad is said to have announced, "An eclipse is a phenomenon of nature. It is foolish to attribute such things to the death or birth of a human being." "At Muhammad's own death an attempt was made to deify him, but the man who was to become his administrative successor killed the hysteria with one of the noblest speeches in religious history: "If there are any among you who worshipped Muhammad, he is dead. But if it is God you worshipped, He lives forever."

    April 29, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  8. F

    Most muslims don't pay attention to Revolution Muslim.
    They're just a bunch of idiots.
    To think that they represent the millions of muslims around the US is really idiotic.

    Check this article out in order to get a more balanced view instead of listening to Islamophobe's Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Anderson Cooper 🙂


    April 29, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jorg

    "But he found it “ridiculous” to make fun of other people’s beliefs and sacred religion."

    Um, if the beliefs in question are ridiculous, there is nothing wrong with making fun of them. What's more, even if they weren't, there would still be nothing wrong with making fun of them.

    April 29, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. robert

    America is about freedom. If you do not agree with someone, you do not harm them. To threaten someone who has mocked your religion is wrong. Live and let live. This is america.

    April 30, 2010 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dominique Allmon

    Free expression is a cornerstone of Western societies. We should never give it up. Never!

    April 30, 2010 at 4:52 am | Report abuse |
  12. Dimitri

    god doesn't exist.

    April 30, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Artie

    Like the kid who loses his hair because of chemo, and all the other kids shave theirs so that he won't be different, all of media should have supported Southpark and shown a picture of Mohammed. And show it everyday that there's a threat.

    May 1, 2010 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  14. DIsgusted

    The irony of it all is that Comedy Central completely abided with the whole concept of folding to pressure and fear.

    Its funny how Muslims can't even take a joke, because it shows how you are all really a BIG joke yourselves.

    South Park makes fun of anyone, everyone, and anything. They make fun of every other religion all the time, yet I never see any of those religions issuing death threats.

    And for all you athiests, humanists, etc., South Park even addresses you. There is an episode all about the world in the future when "Science" has replaced religion. It is quite funny and edgy as usual.

    On a completely separate note, concerning Muslims who feel it is wrong to show Mohammed, the Bible says to not "Use the Lord's name in vain." Yet if I issued a death threat for every time I heard that rule broken, I would've killed about half the world's population by now. GROW UP WE LIVE IN THE 21st CENTURY!!! Free Speech is far more beneficial to all peoples and societies than censorship will ever be.

    May 1, 2010 at 6:18 am | Report abuse |
  15. The only way to make these people rational

    Just like the Japanese in WWII, the only way to stop their incredible fanaticism was to utterly break their will. Same for the Nazi regime too.

    And that is the problem with today's wars and why winning them is impossible. Look at the victor of wars from the beginning of recorded history to the present day. The victor always had to break the will of the soldiers and hierarchy (or in this case, terrorist cells) and the common people in order to achieve victory, or protect their own people's freedoms.

    The only way you will ever, and I literally mean EVER see these terrorist threats truly stop and Muslims wake up to the 21st century and reality is if they reach a similar fate of the Japanese in WWII.

    I know everyone will think I am crazy for saying this, but it is the truth. Although the Japanese were not defending religion, the Emperor was a god-like figure who they served with the same fervor and suicidal attitude as Islamic terrorists. The only way to beat them is to bring them to their needs; both the terrorists and the commo people.

    May 1, 2010 at 6:40 am | Report abuse |
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