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. Johann of OC

    Not being completely familiar with everything Islam, I'm wondering if Mohammed himself asked or demanded that his image never be revealed? I wonder what he would say about all this.....just curious.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Scott

    When I watched the Mu....ad episode (Part II) for the first time, I heard the extended beeps during the wrap up/moralistic conclusion, and immediately thought Matt and Trey just played it perfectly. The beeps were overwhelming – and an obvious way to elevate the importance of what was beeped. In my opinion, they probably weren't confident in the humor or quality of the way it wrapped up – so they beeped it all out. Funny!

    Now, in retrospect, knowing the lawyers confronted Trey and Matt, asking for additional beeps, they probably responded with a 'whew' and proceeded to beep out everything.
    In the moment, this excessive beeping then became genius – – forever obscuring an ending that the viewer longs for – elevating its importance and brilliance.


    April 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AmericaTheFearful

    Ok so now we're losing our own freedoms of expression and speech and laughter to the same type violent vengeful threatening ancient people that tried to take just that away from us back on 9/11. It seems they don't even need to use weapons or planes to instill fear on America nowadays. Today I am a shameful American. Where has our backbone and resilience gone? Why are we catering to them now?

    April 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tom

    Let's see now.... GET OVER IT! Move on. Get a life. Buy a sense of humor. Cope. Go back to your homeland where you can be sensored, improsioned and killed for having an opinion not given to you by a cleric. But...thanks for sharing!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tom

    Islam is a religion of peace... under Islam. Mohammed was not a peaceful man as many here seem to think. He married rich, so he didn't have to work, and spent all his time in a cave where God came and spoke to him. He preached his monotheistic beliefs in Mecca to what was then a polytheistic society, and was driven out of town for it. He came back with an army of followers who believed his teachings, and he was kicking ass and taking names.

    Islam is a religion of intolerance. Intolerance for anyone and anything that is out of line with their beliefs. Ironically, since 9/11, muslims the world over have been playing the victim, and politically correct sensitivity has gone off the deep end.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Brenda

    They attacked Scientology and Mormanism a lot worse than Islam. And what about Gingers? And segueway riders? And the list goes on. That's what its all about. But if you watch the show – at the end, one of the kids always has a 'lessons' learned that when you actually listen to it – is spot on. But Seth, you sound a bit angry and hostile. Even threatening. Why do you assume 50% of the commenters are atheists?

    April 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mohammad the Prophet

    I am thoroughly asamed and embarassed for my people. I watch South Park, and I was really excited to see what I look like. Even I'M not allowed to see myself!! Do you know how frustrating that is? I could have a booger hanging out of my nose, but I can't even look in a mirror to see it! What if my towel is crooked? Suppose I have seaman in my chin? I can't take it anymore!!! Aaaaaaaah!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dax

    Seth South Park did not commit a terrible crime and Islam and Muslims are evil and deserve to be made fun of.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Grey

    Actually, BECAUSE you disagree makes it 100% okayt. That is the essence of free speech. Dissent is very American.

    ..and all these "outraged" people were nowhere to be found when South Park spent an entire episode mocking Mormonism (where they had a song chanting "Dumb-dumb-dumb" whenver the LDS belief system was discussed) or the SEVERAL episodes that have made fun of Scientology.

    One group should NEVER be above ridicule. That was the whole point of the two episiodes.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jeff S

    If the Prophet Mohammed isn't supposed to be depicted in any physical form, then I'm certain devout Muslims don't do it. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are not Muslims, so just as athiests speak negatively of Jesus Christ, and Evangelicals refer to Catholics as satan spawn, they have the right to depict Mohammed wearing a bear suit (I didn't see the episode myself.) People should concern themselves with their own behavior in respect to their beliefs, and *nobody* should concern themselves with others' spiritual beliefs.

    Everyone has a different path to the divine, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Spaghetti Monsterism, etc., and anybody who is a true follower of any religion would be accepting of any other. I'm certain that's what Jesus would teach, what Mohammed would teach, what Buddha would teach, etc. were they alive today.

    Too many simple-minded fools in the world today.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tom

    ok you are all missing the point here....how do you think Tom Cruise feels? You sure don't hear him complaining and he was bashed waaaay more than muhhamed. Come on! he had Seaman on his back! who cares about a bear suit!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. David

    To the person above who stated that South Park is tarnishing the image of Islam.....do you REALLY think that South Park is the biggest thing in this world that is tarnishing the Islamic image??? Maybe the tarnishing is coming from....oh, I don't know...maybe it's due to the complete willingness of self purported Muslims to blow up 100 fellow Muslims in order to kill one non Muslim in a crowded square or strapping a 100 pounds of TNT to a donkey and sending it amongst a crowd or maybe back-packing explosives on a brain washed child or a mentally challenged person. Maybe THOSE things are what tarnishes the supposedly "peaceful" position of Islam. Until the "peaceful" Muslims quit burying their heads in the sand while their violent Muslim counterparts tarnish their religion, then they have no right expecting the rest of the world to see them as the peace loving people they evidently are not.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jeehan

    Just get over it. South Park has made fun of my God left and right, but that does not change who Gid is. The South Park guys will be the ones in trouble for sinning against God, not I. The sanctity my God does not depend on whether idiots show reverence or not. It cannot be affected by anything because God himself is already holy. Can Muslims be more confident of their faith?

    April 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Rob101

    Should of just had a disclaimer. If you are Muslim then do not watch this episode! Not every one is Muslim and you cant expect everyone to follow the Muslim religon just because a group of people do. People should be aloud to live and express their own lives for themselves and if there is a God then he/she/it should be the judge when the time comes. South Park did nothing wrong (unless your Muslim) and Im truley upset that Comedy Central laid down for a group of extremist.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Paul

    Typical Muslim responce show a picture of Mohammed and we'll kill you. Get a life and a sense of humor. My Lord and Savior and God have all been made fun of over the years and yet do we see Christians going out and killing over this no. Get a sense of humor.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
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