Anyone who has ever watched an episode, or even just 10 seconds, of the biting satire of "South Park," the cartoon show for adults that airs on cable's Comedy Central channel, knows that its language is as crude as the animation, and that no topic is sacrosanct -- especially not religion.
So it was no surprise when the creators of "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone, included Islam among their targets in a two-part show to mark the program's 200th episode.
But it was surprising that Comedy Central wound up censoring parts of the second episode that aired Wednesday night after a small web-based group called RevolutionMuslim.com posted a message warning creators Parker and Stone "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." (The RevolutionMuslim website has been down for days.)
Theo Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by an Islamic militant over a movie he had made that accused Islam of condoning violence against women. RevolutionMuslim.com posted a graphic photo of Van Gogh's body and posted a link to a news article with details about a house in Colorado where Parker and Stone apparently spend time. The website also posted the addresses of Comedy Central's New York office and the California production studio where "South Park" is made.
For some Muslims -- though not all, by any means -- any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is considered blasphemous, and of course the standard "South Park" treatment is anything but reverential.
In the first installment, aired last week, the Prophet Muhammad was depicted in a bear outfit (itself part of a joke about how Muhammad could not be portrayed), and in last Wednesday's episode Jesus Christ -- a stock character in the series -- was shown watching pornography, and the Buddha was portrayed snorting cocaine.
But when the second part aired, the name and depiction of the offending character was blocked out with audio bleeps and images reading "CENSORED."
Moreover, Comedy Central bleeped out a speech about intimidation and fear that comes during about 35 seconds of dialogue among the cartoon characters of Kyle, Jesus Christ, and Santa Claus.
"South Park" routinely skewers minorities, the disabled, Canadians, gays, Satan, Santa Claus, liberals, and almost every religious group possible, from Mormons to Jews, including a famous episode about Scientology that infuriated celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise and his fellow believer, Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character "Chef" and left the show a short time later.
Parker and Stone even satirized atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins, who was shown converting the boys' science teacher to atheism and consummating the event with a graphic sexual encounter and a pledge to convert the entire world to unbelief. Dawkins was irked that his character couldn't even do a decent British accent, telling me later: "I don't get 'South Park' at all. It just seems to be juvenile, puerile and unfunny."
Because RevolutionMuslim.com went a step further than mere criticism, however, Comedy Central censored the bits related to Muhammad and has not as yet put the episodes on the website. All of which has not pleased Parker and Stone.
"In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part," the pair said in a statement posted Thursday on their website, SouthParkStudios.com. "Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it."
In an interview last week with the website Boing Boing -- which RevolutionMuslim.com included in its warning post -- Parker and Stone made it clear they were going to try to push the limit on the Muhammad story line. The co-creators noted (see video here) that they had in fact shown Muhammad in an episode several years ago titled "Super Best Friends."
But that was before the September 2005 Danish cartoon controversy in which a newspaper published a dozen cartoons and caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as a commentary of the issue of criticism of Islam and self-censorship. The publication sparked widespread violence by Muslims around the globe and there are ongoing threats to some of the cartoonists. A book about the controversy published in the United States even declined to include reproductions of the cartoons that the book discussed.
Parker and Stone told Boing Boing they just had to go there.
"We're just having fun with the same fight," they said. They added that it would be hypocritical of them to satirize other religions and leave Islam alone.
The head of RevolutionMuslim, Younus Abdullah Muhammad, 30, has insisted that he was not threatening "South Park" or its creators.
"Showing a case study right there of what happened to another individual who conducted himself in a very similar manner?" he told Reuters. "It's just evidence."
Abdullah Muhammad described his group as an alternative media outlet with about 20 active posters to the website. He told Reuters the group "didn't tell anyone to go to their houses and conduct violence" against Parker or Stone.
If some Muslims aren't exactly amused by the "South Park" episode, they are hardly pleased with Younus Abdullah Muhammad and the co-founder of the website, Yousef al-Khattab, a former secular Jew who was born Joseph Cohen but converted upon moving to Morocco. Islamic experts note that Muslims from the Shi'ah stream of Islam have no objections to portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, and not all Sunnis, who are from the largest Islamic denomination, object either, as long as the images are not for worship purposes.
"The reality is that Revolution Muslim has no understanding of the faith, other than what will get them on TV," Hussein Rashid, a Muslim theologian and widely cited commentator wrote at ReligionDispatches. "They know nothing of tradition, history, or culture. It is a sad state of affairs when two lonely boys with an internet connection get as much airtime, or more, as legitimate news stories and community leaders. Unfortunately, these two, unlike the creators of 'South Park,' are not funny. They are just in poor taste."
At Beliefnet.com, Muslim blogger Aziz Poonawalla agreed.
"I just want to reiterate here that the American muslim [sic] response to insult to the Prophet was mostly indifference and wounded silence," Poonawalla wrote. "Only one lone nut on one lone website made any threat -- the rest of us have behaved as anyone would to an impolite fool slandering our loved ones: by ignoring them."
Will this controversy blow over? It's doubtful Parker and Stone will spend much time waiting to find out. They're already on to the next outrage. The duo is readying a musical based on the Book of Mormon that is set to debut on Broadway next spring -- and already has the Mormon "bloggernacle" buzzing with reaction, most of it apparently positive.
Click play below to watch Jon Stewart's take on the controversy:
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