I do not purport to watch Comedy Central’s “South Park,” a cartoon show that constantly pushes the envelope and which, frankly, I thought had gone off the air long ago. I remember immature young boys going crazy over it when I was in high school and me thinking it was a childish show even then. One of the recurring characters is a piece of fecal matter, for goodness sake.
But last week, Comedy Central and the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, found themselves embroiled in controversy—a position they are not unfamiliar with. The dividing point? Whether or not to depict the Prophet Muhammad.
There is no consensus in Islam about how forbidden visual depictions of Muhammad are, but it is clear that such action is very upsetting to at least some subset of Muslims. The Koran does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad, but some supplements (called hadith) have overtly prohibited Muslims from creating visual representations of any figure. The point arose centuries ago when people worshipped idols, and prohibiting pictorial representations of the prophets helped discourage this practice. Even Christianity went through periods of iconoclasm (during the 8th and 9th centuries) where only the cross could be portrayed in churches.
The writers at “South Park” found some humor, or at least satire, in this whole idea that they would not be able to depict Muhammad. So in the April 14 episode, the show’s characters agonize about how to bring the prophet to their fictional cartoon Colorado town. At first, he is confined to a U-Haul trailer and is heard speaking but is not shown. Then, he is let out of the trailer but is dressed in a bear costume.
It’s hard to judge how offended the average Muslim was by this, but a member of Revolution Muslim wrote on the group’s website that the episode was very insulting. He added, “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.”
Theo van Gogh was killed by an Islamic militant in Amsterdam in 2004 after he made a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.
Of course, the more extreme event associated with visual representations of Muhammad occurred when a Danish newspaper printed editorial cartoons depicting the prophet on September 30, 2005. As protests erupted and the controversy flared, newspapers in more than 50 countries reprinted the cartoons as a nod to free speech, further stoking the fire. Police firing into crowds at protests resulted in more than 100 deaths, and protesters set fire to the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.
Keeping these events in mind, Comedy Central decided to play it safe with last week’s episode of “South Park.” Rather than allow the show to continue to portray Muhammad in disguise, the network blacked out all of his non-depicted depictions and bleeped over every single reference to him. They even removed a 35-second speech on fear and intimidation that did not even mention Muhammad.
Many people are calling the decision by Doug Herzog (president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which oversees Comedy Central) a gross overreaction and pandering to terrorists. Others, including John Stewart, are defending his action and insisting he did it to protect the network’s employees. What do you think? Herzog had censored the show back in 2006 from visually portraying Muhammad, but this time around, he went further by bleeping out auditory references and extracting a soapbox lesson. Did he go too far?
Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris thought so. In response to the Muslim Revolution’s threat to Parker and Stone, she created a drawing in solidarity with what “South Park” was trying to accomplish. Her cartoon shows everyday objects, such as a box of pasta and a domino, who all claim to be Muhammad, and she calls for May 20 to be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Of course, when the backlash started, she reneged as quickly as she had acted. She wrote on her website, “I am NOT involved in “Everybody Draw Mohammd [sic] Day! … I made a cartoon that went viral and I am not going with it. Many other folks have used my cartoon to start sites, etc. Please go to them as I am a private person who draws stuff.”
She took the original cartoon down, but The Atlantic has no problem posting it. You can view it here.
So I guess what I’m interested to know is whether non-Muslims should have the responsibility to respect a Muslim rule (especially one whose very legitimacy is questioned by believers). Many nations, including this one, pride themselves on free speech. And when the forbidden depictions of Muhammad are not even negative, is this just silly? In early centuries, there were no cameras, televisions, or newspapers, and the prohibition might have made more sense. But today, visual media is probably the most widespread and express method of disseminating ideas. Perhaps Muslims could benefit from putting positive portrayals of Muhammad out there.
For example, one of my favorite movies is 2006’s Superman Returns. Of course, there are many analyses of the film and what it means, including that it is nothing more than a superhero tale. But one of the readings is that it is a Christ allegory, and when I watch it, I can see countless examples of how this fits. Superman is from another world but was raised by humans. His father sends him, his only son, to save them. And when Superman does save them by lifting the gigantic land mass into space, he falls back to Earth in the same position as Jesus on the crucifix.
Does this interpretation in any way discredit or insult Christ? I don’t think so. If anything, I would think of it as a positive portrayal that Christians would encourage. Do Muslims not wish for any visual image to be used even as a metaphor for Muhammad? Or if metaphors are okay, how is that so different from drawing the prophet disguised in a bear suit?
I will be honest, though. I can understand where the protesters of these depictions are coming from. If it is their firm belief that visually illustrating their prophet in any way is a direct insult and is prohibited by Islam, then why shouldn’t they be offended? People who believe no one should take the lord’s name in vain are often quick to share their displeasure. Granted, they do not threaten to behead anyone, but this subset of people is certainly firm in believing that others (even nonbelievers) should respect their religious ideas.
How do you feel about this whole thing? Should newspapers, bloggers, television shows, and other media cater to the Muslim prohibition on visual depictions of Muhammad? Who do you sympathize with—Parker and Stone or strict believers in their faith? Is this a battle between free speech and respect for religion, or is it something else?
I greatly appreciate anyone who wants to share an opinion!