Guest Post: “Muhammad in South Park”

Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.


MUHAMMAD IN SOUTH PARK
By Katherine Chapel, Matthew Hurd, Ethan Lawless, and Andrew Moore

Your most meaningful religious figure is portrayed in a bear suit; how do you react? To a certain Islamist organization, threats and radical statements against the portrayers were the way to protest it. Most would think this is a little harsh, but an understanding of Islamic views gives insight into this situation.

What happened:

South Park, an animated series shown on Comedy Central, has depicted Muhammad several times. The first depiction was on July 4th, 2001, when Muhammad was shown and described as “the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame” (as shown in the figure). This episode did not cause much controversy at the time, but would get brought up later when South Park portrayed Muhammad again in 2006.

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Two episodes in 2006 portrayed Muhammad and caused the nationally recognized controversy. These episodes are poking fun at Family Guy and even proclaim that some Muslims found it insulting that Muhammad was depicted in a Danish newspaper, but further into the episode an uncensored, cartoon version of Muhammad is shown. Soon after this aired, the episodes were later ran with a black screen that proclaimed Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad.

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Yet again, in 2010, South Park portrayed Muhammad in a giant bear costume and within no time at all, the creators of South Park received death threats from an extremist Islamic group. In the 200th episode, titled “200” (the one aired in 2010), Tom Cruise is ridiculed by South Park character Stan Marsh and Cruise becomes filled with rage. Cruise, as well as 200 other celebrities mocked by South Park, file a class action lawsuit against the town. Stan attempts to apologize, Cruise accepts his apology only if they help him meet the prophet Muhammad. The characters in South Park go to the “Super Best Friends”, a team of religious superheros to request Muhammad. He eventually accepts the invitation and is hauled to South Park in the back of a U-Haul truck. As he is getting taken to Cruise in the bear outfit (shown in the side figure), they are interrupted by the Ginger Separatist Movement and they take Muhammad away from the people of South Park.

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So what’s the big deal?

For most Americans, the airing of an image of Muhammad over broadcast television is not an offensive act. The United States is a country rooted in the first amendment, but in a post 9/11 society where Islamaphobia exists; there is little understanding for the Muslim community. The show South Park is widely popular in the United States because it does not discriminate against those that it insults. No person can escape from the satirical comedy that Stone and Parker produce.

The beginning of each episode of South Park even has a disclaimer, warning that the program has insulting skits that none should view;

All characters and events in this show-–even those based on real people–-are entirely fictional. All celebrity voices are impersonated…..poorly. The following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone. (South Park Studios)

Many would argue that this should be enough to ward off anyone who may be sensitive to certain viewpoints, and that the show should not be taken seriously, because the creators do not take it seriously themselves. The goal of Stone and Parker is to be comedic, nothing more. South Park “tackles subject matter that (they) think is funny and unique” and their only concern is that they “make people laugh” (Lim). Often times, the show can appear to be sexist, anti-Semitic, grotesque, bigoted, or racist, but that is just the point; the creators find funny subject matter while offending all of their viewers; all facets of society are fair game.

Another contributing factor to the insensitivity towards the American-Muslim community is the Islamaphobia stemming from the attacks by an extremist Muslim group on September 11, 2001. As defined by Berkeley University, Islamaphobia is “a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure and is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat” (Berkeley).  While most Americans are accepting of the Muslim culture, there are still a few who have been misguided by the attacks of a few Muslim extremists. These extremists give the culture of Islam a bad name in the United States, but while most can see through these terrorists, there are still a few who generalize the entire Muslim community.

Islamic View of Muhammad

It may be difficult to understand why a relatively frivolous cartoon could anger an entire group of people to such an extreme degree as to warrant death threats. To understand this, it is vital to understand why exactly Muslims are angry about this issue. In Muslim tradition, there are two main religious texts: the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an is a piece of literature that is believed by Muslims to be the Word of God, transcribed by Muhammad. This is comparable to the Christian belief that the Book of Revelation was a vision experienced by the apostle John, who then wrote down what he saw. The Hadith is a collection of teachings, laws, and history of the Muslim faith that are connected to Muhammad. This is comparable to the Jewish Talmud, or Catholic magisterial doctrine. The Qur’an does not specifically rebuke the depiction of Muhammad. However, the Hadith contains several passages that impugn upon not only depicting Muhammad, but any living creature as well (Anonymous).

Now that we understand the root of the issue, we must ask, “what about this South Park incident was offensive?” One very common theory that explains why depicting Allah or Muhammad is disparaged is that there is a concern that iconography will develop into idolatry, which is considered a very serious offense in Islam. This is similar to the concern held by many Christian Protestants that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are committing idolatry by depicting and venerating saints. A more specific explanation as to why Muslims find this offensive is that they believe that Muhammad is being portrayed in the fashion of a terrorist, which reflects upon all Muslims. A third explanation could be that Muslims, who revere Muhammad above all other human beings, believe that it is wrong to mock a figure that is vital to their religion (“Chicago Tribune”).

One more question we must ask is, “are all Muslims upset about this?” The answer is clearly “no.” Why is that? Why do some people want to have legitimate discussions about Muslim relations in America, others threaten violence, and still others seem completely unphased? The answer is simply “differences in religious opinion.” There are two main sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi’a. Sunni is the larger, more dominant group, generally interpreted to be the more orthodox version of Islam. This is the group that was generally more offended. Shi’a Islam is considered schismatic and liberal. Shi’ites have even been known to tolerate and even create religious art depicting Muhammad. Shi’ites would not be nearly as likely to be offended by incidents such as the South Park episodes. However, this division does not necessarily create a strict outline for who was or was not offended by the episode. There were members of each sect that were offended, and others that weren’t.

Backlash

The backlash from the American-Muslim community was mostly restricted to a small group of radical/extremist Muslims. The website “RevolutionMuslim.com” based out of New York was the most prominent entity to speak out after the episode aired (lDanios). The page showed a photo of Theo van Gogh who was murdered in 2004 because of documentary he made about violence against Muslim women. The page gave the caveat that the photo of this Dutch film maker was “not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them,” them referring to the creators of South Park. Abu Talhah al Amrikee authored this post to make the mocking of Muhammad known to the general public. When asked why the graphic photo of van Gogh was necessary, he said it was “meant to ‘explain the severity’ of what Parker and Stone did by mocking Muhammad,” (Miller). What might be even more panic-inducing to the general citizen is that the web posting also included a sermon of a extreme U.S. preacher named Anwar al-Awlaki, and it also gave information about Stone and Parker’s residence in Colorado (Miller).

Differing Reactions

It is important to note that American-Muslims were themselves divided on the issue of this South Park episode. There were a significant amount of American-Muslims that were not mad at South Park, but rather at CNN  and Revolution Muslim. They were unhappy about the way CNN covered the story (Danios). Anderson Cooper devoted ten minutes to it and did not even interview an American-Muslim but included an interview with Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Danios). Loonwatch.com argues that this gave the impression to the watcing public that Revolution Muslim was representative of the general American-Muslim which is simply not true. The website also states that Revolution Muslim only has two to ten members at any given time. In reality. “The vast majority of Muslim Americans despise Revolution Muslim and their hate-filled ideology. . . Many Muslim Americans question whether Revolution Muslim are real Muslims, and instead hold them to be agent provocateurs who wish to smear Islam,” (Danos). This small group of radical Muslims is obviously not indicative of how most Muslims in America are choosing to react to South Park.

Conclusion

South Park has depicted Muhammad over the years through a couple variations. Upset by this, a portion of American Muslims have reacted strongly. The depiction of Muhammad is offensive to Muslims because the Hadith, a collection of teachings connected to Muhammad comparable to the Catholic magisterial doctrine or the Jewish Talmud, contains passages that strongly forbid this. It was also offensive for a couple other reasons as well. Idolatry is a serious offense in Islam, and they fear that these depictions of icons will breach their laws. They also believe that South Park mocked their religious figure throughout their depictions, especially in the bear suit. Albeit a reaction like this came about, only a very small portion of Muslims in America reacted with threats. Most Muslims were passive or indifferent on this issue.

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