The Comedy Central show South Park is no stranger to controversy. In fact, in last week’s 200th episode, every celebrity South Park has ever made fun of - from Tom Cruise and Tiger Woods to George Lucas and even Mickey Mouse – came together to protest against the town, which they called, “a hotbed of hatred and lies.”
Last and this week’s episodes also dredged up far more real-life controversy when a U.S.-based Muslim group, Revolution Muslim, compared South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, after they showed a character in a bear suit said to be the Prophet Muhammad. According to the NY Times, the post on the group’s website, written by Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode “outright insulted” the prophet, adding:
We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.
For those of you who don’t know, Theo Van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam in 2004 after making a controversial film about the abuse of Muslim women in some societies. So, as much as Al-Amrikee insisted the message wasn’t an incitement for violence, it at least attempted to stir the pot of discontent, particularly since the group also attached a news article listing the home addresses of Stone and Parker, as well as a photo of the assassinated Van Gogh.
Comedy Central responded to the Revolution Muslim message by bleeping out any references to the Prophet Muhammad in the second of the two episodes. According to BBC News, “Wednesday’s 201st episode saw any spoken references to Muhammad bleeped out, while a prominent banner stating “censored” was used in the program. The images of the Prophet in a bear outfit were substituted with Santa Claus in the same costume.”
In the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy as well as the death of Van Gogh, television networks, newspapers, and film companies have learned to err on the side of caution, so as not to incite tensions and violence. But at what cost? The South Park development raises the raging debate over freedom of expression another notch. Yes, depicting the Muslim Prophet in a bear suit is disrespectful and would make most Muslims uncomfortable, but South Park as a show practices “universal discrimination” – everyone and everything is satirized, disrespected, and made fun of. In the case of the anniversary episodes, Stone and Parker also depicted a drug-snorting Buddha and a Jesus watching pornography.
Interestingly, this is not the first time South Park has depicted the Prophet Muhammad. In 2001, the show featured several religious figures and Prophets, including Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and Prophet Muhammad, in an episode entitled, “Super Best Friends.” In the segment, Prophet Muhammad is a super hero with “the powers of flame,” who, when a character says, “Even though people fight and argue over different religions, you guys are actually friends,” he answers, “More than friends, we are super best friends with the desire to fight for justice.”
The episode obviously aired before the Danish cartoon controversy (a later attempt by Stone and Parker to air another Prophet Muhammad-related episode in 2006 was blocked by the network), but the difference between then and now is also an interesting commentary on a society much more on edge today. But it still begs the question – In our effort to remain politically correct, do we blur the line between freedom of expression and censorship? In the post-9/11 period, where Muslim stereotyping, prejudice, and anti-American sentiment have become a self-enforcing monster, how often do we lose sight of the bigger picture in our effort to maintain some semblance of order?
I am a Muslim and I am a fan of South Park. To make those terms mutually exclusive is polarizing and frankly, unproductive. Aasif Mandvi over at the Daily Show summarized my sentiment exactly when he said last night, “Yes, it [the depiction] would make me uncomfortable and I can understand people being upset about it…but here’s whats more upsetting. Someone, in the name of a faith that I believe in, threatening another person for doing it.”
Below is Stone and Parker’s interview with Boing Boing, incidentally before the 200th episode aired: