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. Trey

    Never mind, if you feel so offended by what you're watching, don't watch it. God said we got free will for a reason, and that means if you don't like something, don't watch it...no one is forcing you.

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

    Did no one actually pay attention to what else was going on in the episode? TO MUSLIM FANS OF SOUTH PARK: You CAN NOT laugh at a mocking depiction of Jesus, Buddha, or any other "religious figure" and then be so hypocritical as to become offended when the tables are turned. The point of this episode was NOT to isolate and humiliate Muslims, rather the idea that they are above criticism. Besides, regardless of your beliefs, who are you to condone violence against another? Let God decide how to handle them.

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

    This is flat out ridiculous! I commend the South Park Boys for inciting this debate and bringing to light the absolute stupidity of the whole event.

    why was there no uproar in 2001 when they actually SHOWED Mohammed, what has happened in 9 years that all of the sudden sparks such outrage on the part of so called Muslims.

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

    South Park by its very nature is deeply satirical. If someone is offended by any one of its episodes, then chances are you won't like the rest. So don't watch it.

    Doesn't mean you should want to ban it. Its not promoting hatred, its breaking taboos of what's considered 'holy'. That's not a crime. In my book, that's a good thing.

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

    "Many groups will use these excuses to hire more people to work against western interest."

    Until that doesn't make me I'm not too concerned. Since that'll always make me , I'll always be not too concerned.

    How much will they be paying btw?... 🙂

    April 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Matt

    "What these cartoonist are trying to do is tarnish the image of Islam and it wont work" – You're right, Muslim extremists are doing a good enough job of that themselves.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mike

    You people didnt watch the show...it WAS NOT Mohammad...it was Santa. Intolerant people should at least try to understand the topic before they pick up their guns.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Susan

    How can you publish this as serious when you don't even mention that Muhammad was never in the bear costume? It was Santa Claus!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Tom

    I agree with William...we are letting these fanatics win. This is the United States. We have free speech. If you have chosen to be here then you have chosen to accept the rules of the game. Here's a thought...you can just turn the channel. Those of this violent fanatical religion who want to destroy, burn, riot, murder, and terrorize this country because we actually have freedom, I leave you with this thought. We as American will allow you your folly for only so long. At some stage when we have had enough of your violent religious based crap you will see a very bright light in that part of the world followed by a mushroom cloud. Sad but as these people continue to try to exercise their domination of other countires...it may come to that.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  10. LR

    I'm glad to see that primitive, ignorant barbarism is still alive and well in the modern world. Keep up the good fight against those who would dare speak their minds and offend you!

    April 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Everyman USA

    I will help them end this debate. America is a free country. End of story.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. neutal

    Why not just get rid of Islam, Christians, all religions and bad cartoons like south-park the world will be better off.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Super Best Friends

    I completely agree with MuckRaker's remark. I don't remember any riots back in '01 when they showed "the prophet."

    April 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Andrew

    Why do the so called "moderate" muslims never raise their voice against Islamic extremism? Why do they let the radicals taint their religion in barbaric violence? This should all be sorted out within the Muslim community. Muslims who live in North America and Europe enjoy the freedom to practice their religion and other social freedoms as well. Why do so many in turn cry out against the "evil" western society while enjoying our freedom? If they want to live in a homogeneous muslim culture then they should be living in Arabia and not in democratic countries. I'm proud to live in a society where I can freely cry out against all religions if I wanted to. I should be able to criticize any religion, institution, philosophy and scientific theories that exist in this world. I do not need any institution to tell me what I should believe in. It's time for the moderate muslims to do some serious PR work on behalf of their religion. It would also be nice if people in general developed a better understanding of satirical humour and had a laugh every now and then.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Anon

    I am sure that in the past muslim cartoonists have made sketches of jesus and of other religious deieties who are not muslim and everyone laughed about it. I sure can't remember a case where muslims have been critisized about doing something like this. Why? Because the people of other religions understand that everyone has a right to free speedh no matter how distastful an image can be and they know that this is more important than getting angry at what one reads or sees.

    April 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15