South Park goes too far or just full circle?

Hey, guess what! South Park offended someone! I know, I know — is it Thursday already?

In all seriousness, this time Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s pathological need to be irreverent earned them what looks like an honest-to-goodness death threat, despite protestations saying otherwise from the person issuing the threat. The 20th episode of the venerable cartoon featured not one but two depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Or rather, they were jokes about how they can’t depict Muhammad — so one time the Islamic prophet was shown behind a black “censored” bar. Another time, he was said to be inside a bear suit.*

In any event, as a result of their alleged blasphemy, this happened:

The website has since been taken down, but a cached version shows the message to “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The article’s author, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the men “outright insulted” the religious leader.

The posting showed a gruesome picture of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was shot and stabbed to death in an Amsterdam street in 2004 by a fanatic angered by his film about Muslim women. The film was written by a Muslim woman who rejected the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for today’s morality.

“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,” Al-Amrikee wrote. “This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

The posting listed the addresses of Comedy Central’s New York office and Parker and Stone’s California production office. It also linked to a Huffington Post article that described a Colorado retreat owned by the two men.

Yikes. But I have to give the Associated Press credit. They actually tracked down Al-Amrikee and spoke with him. Suffice to say, he was quite weaselly in his defense of his posting, claiming it was only done to “raise awareness.” However, he later said “they should feel threatened by what they did.” He also added that couldn’t legally say whether he supported jihad, but did have some words of praise for Bin Laden. So yeah, good guy.

Of course, this is hardly the first time South Park has taken on the subject of religion. AP noted this is not the first time there’s been controversy over the cartoon’s attempts at depicting Muhammad:

In 2006, Comedy Central banned the men from showing an image of Muhammad on their show. They had intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of the Islamic leader. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

Instead, “South Park” showed an image of Jesus Christ defecating on President Bush and the American flag.

That last little tableaux occurred to me when I saw the headline on this CNN story:

Has ‘South Park’ gone too far this time?

So Jesus Christ defecating on an American flag, yawn. Muhammad in a bear suit — they’ve gone too far! (NB: I don’t normally hold writers accountable for their headlines, but in this case the fourth graf is “But have they gone too far this time with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit?”) In any event, the CNN article tries to put the program’s religious irreverence in context:

In the beginning, it wasn’t so much the religion that bothered observers but the language used by the series’ pint-sized cast, [Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark] said.

“The most shocking thing back then was, you had little kids exercising a vocabulary that you hadn’t heard before [from children],” he said. “I go back to the days when [the sitcom] ‘Uncle Buck’s’ ‘You suck’ was a major point of contention on a CBS sitcom and everybody went crazy about ‘how can they have an 8-year-old kid saying this?’ And then ‘South Park’ ratcheted that way up.”

Of course, maybe a TV critic isn’t the best judge of how offensive the show is with regard to religion. The CNN article does quote one Muslim who writes for Beliefnet, but doesn’t otherwise talk to one Christian, Jewish, Scientologist or any other authority affiliated with one of the show’s many religious targets over the years. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are about to do a satirical Broadway musical based on the Book of Mormon. The CNN story mentions this, but doesn’t talk to any Mormons as a point of comparison for what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this kind of irreverent satire.

It’s also worth bringing in religious perspectives from non-Muslims because the show’s religious themes have in fact been very controversial — for instance, the show was banned in Russia on the grounds of “religious extremism.” Some context would be in order here. The contrast to how different Muslims and different religions react to the show’s satirical intentions would be instructive. I understand the death threats from Muslim extremists are the newshook here, but it doesn’t need to drown out other relevant religious perspectives to inform the story.

But the CNN piece did get one thing very right. GR’s own Brad Greenberg, who’s something of a South Parkologist, informs me that there’s one ginormous elephant in the room here that’s gone unmentioned in the vast majority of reporting of the latest South Park controversy.

In season 5 of South Park, in an episode that aired two months before 911, the show actually did depict Muhammad. And not in an oblique or fleeting sort of way. Check it out. The CNN story is the one story I’ve seen that mentioned this:

It wasn’t the first time Mohammed was featured on the show. In the July 2001 episode “Super Best Friends,” he appears as “the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame,” along with other religious figures — Buddha, Moses and Mormon founder Joseph Smith among them — who help the other “South Park” kids rescue Kyle from a cult devoted to magician David Blaine

But that, said Stone and Parker, was before September 11, the van Gogh murder and the 2005 Muslim protests over the Danish cartoons that appeared in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“Now, that’s the new normal. Like we lost. Something that was OK is now not OK,” Stone said.

I give CNN big props for catching this, but they give it pretty short shrift considering what a sea change this represents. (And again, the headline — how can South Park go to far when they crossed this boundary nearly a decade ago without incident?)

So here’s decree from my imaginary assignment desk: I’d really like to see some enterprising Godbeat reporter ask Matt and Trey about how they got away with their previous depiction of Muhammad and what has changed since — in detail. You just know they give good quote and are awfully thoughtful for guys who write poop jokes for a living. Any takers?

UPDATE: Looks like Comedy Central caved in the face of the threat, and is now censoring a good bit of the episode. Read Brad Greenberg’s take here. He makes a good point:

Which leaves me wondering: If “South Park” doesn’t have the license to satirize the hypersensitive, who does?

*It’s something of a non-sequitur, but here’s one of the many reasons why Christopher Walken is the best Saturday Night Live host ever.

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  • Jon in the Nati

    One of the things that has always interested me about Parker and Stone is that, for everything they do on their show (and how juvenile it can be at times), they are both incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, articulate guys who are both at least somewhat conservative politically and personally fairly respectful of religion in general. What I mean is that they aren’t just some clowns out to p*ss people off.

    I am very impressed that the AP picked up on the appearance of the Prophet in the Super Best Friends episode (which, incidentally, is one of my favorites). I think they could even have gone a little farther with it; I know this was pre-Jyllands Posten, but there has to be something more to it. After that episode aired, no on died, no one threatened anyone, and indeed almost no one took notice of it.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    And as all true SP fans know, the coartoon was actually born as an offend-religion short. A Jesus Christ versus Santa Claus deathmatch.

  • Jerry

    This is a needle in the haystack situation that I mentioned in my post about why I hate CNN from the later topic.

    The point about now and then is I think one of the “trees” in the forest of the fight between the fanatics who hate and fear the future and want to stuff humanity back into the past and those who either welcome or are open to the future. Their ever escalating fanaticism is part of that picture.

  • David Morris

    Don’t forget the episodes where the warring atheist leagues of the far-future come in for mockery. They are at least wide-ranging in the targets they pick.

  • Alan

    I have to take a contrary opinion regarding the talents of Stone and Parker. While they may be clever at being funny and offending people, I don’t think they’re that politically astute.

    The episode dealing with the morality of veal basically concluded that “Eating veal is bad but vegetarianism is going too far”, hardly an original or daring sentiment.

    The episode dealing with hate crimes stated outright “Every crime is a hate crime”, an awfully simple take on the subject and actually a quote from our former president (not exactly know for his intellectual heft).

    And so on.

  • Steiner

    Nice insights. It was completely new to me that the show had been banned in Russia. By the way, there are three different illustrations of Muhammad in the episode, not two:

  • Jerry

    The episode dealing with hate crimes stated outright “Every crime is a hate crime”, an accurate take on the subject…

    Fixed that for you.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Um…I realize this isn’t a journalism question but: Jerry, *every* crime is a hate crime? Really? Every burglary, robbery, embezzlement, and arson? Every drug-driven assault, DUI and narcotics purchase? By what possible definition of the word “hate”?

  • Jerry

    Um…I realize this isn’t a journalism question but: Jerry, *every* crime is a hate crime? Really? Every burglary, robbery, embezzlement, and arson? Every drug-driven assault, DUI and narcotics purchase? By what possible definition of the word “hate”?

    Well, one could argue that a certain level of hate, directed at the government and its laws, is required to break them, but that might be more precisely called disregard than hate. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that “every crime that can be potentially classified as a hate crime is, in fact, a hate crime,” insofar as (1) hate crime deals with the motive behind violent crime and (2) all violent crime involves some degree of hatred.

    The language may have been precise, but the general point is that murder is murder, and the kind of hate that motivated it shouldn’t matter so much as the fact that it’s murder. Similarly, assault with a lethal weapon is assault with a lethal weapon, and the kind of hate that motivated it shouldn’t matter so much as the fact that it’s assault with a lethal weapon.

    Mens rea alone is not and should not be a crime to itself. There should not be a distinction in culpability based on whether the intent sprung from broad or specific hate.

  • Jerry

    “The language may have been imprecise…”

    Fixed that for myself. :)

  • Chris

    In regards to the show, I’d like to point out that the episode mentioned in the article in which Jesus defecates on George Bush and the American flag may have been taken out of context.

    In that episode, they were about to show an image of Muhammed (they had been building up the controversy over it for two episodes), then showed a black screen with text saying that Comedy Central wouldn’t allow them to show an image of Muhammed because of threats.

    They then showed Jesus defecating on the American flag as if to say “We can’t show Muhammed because it is offensive, but we CAN show THIS!

    They were only doing it to point out the hypocrisy, NOT for shock-value.

  • mark

    Okay, guys. This is not a forum to argue over what constitutes a hate crime. Keep your comments related to the post and and the relevant journalistic issues. Thanks.

  • Chris

    But “Hate Crime” IS relevant to the post; we’re discussing “acceptable and unacceptable forms of intolerance”, why certain misdeeds/jokes are called “intolerable” while others are simply called “edgy”.

  • tmatt

    Back to journalism folks!

  • Nick

    Um…I realize this isn’t a journalism question but: Jerry, *every* crime is a hate crime? Really? Every burglary, robbery, embezzlement, and arson? Every drug-driven assault, DUI and narcotics purchase? By what possible definition of the word “hate”?

  • Pencil

    Join in on “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.” It will be May 20th. I expect to draw Mohammed and post my picture in the window of my house. If I’m murdered by muslims, at least I will have died exercising my right to free speech and not cowering in a condo in a gated community in a wealthy neighborhood like the heads of Comedy Centra.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Maybe we could play with the heads of hypersensitive homicidal Muslims by drawing cartoons of people in traditional Middle East dress–in fact a group of several–and tell them to guess which one is Muhammad. Are they then going to start targeting any depiction of any person who looks Arab?

    The notion that depicting Muhammad is “blasphemous” is not a consistent one in Islam. There are numerous historical depictions of Muhammad from Persia (modern Iran) that show him, e.g., ascending to heaven from Jerusalem on his famous night journey.

    Second, all sorts of things that people do in their own religion would be considred “blasphemous” if done by a member of another religious group. For example, eating pork would be blasphemous for a Muslim, offensive to an Orthodox Jew as violating kosher food rules, offensive to a Hindu as the eating of meat, but religiously neutral for a Christian. Every day, a typical Christian does things, like invoking his belief that Jesus is the Son of God during prayer, that is blasphemous to Muslims. If we start playing the game of banning the depiction on TV, movies, internet, newspapers and magazines of not showing or saying anything that some Muslim thinks is “blasphemous”, we will be censoring everything except certain home improvement shows.

    Furthermore, if being offensive to someone’s religion is enough to have a TV show or cartoon or story censored, this Mormon wants to know where we can start sending the complaints. People say outrageous and false things about Mormons and their beliefs every day. Are the censors going to work on them? No? I didn’t think so. I guess if you don’t kidnap, murder or blow up people, they figure you are fair game for ridicule and defamation. It is just the religious affiliations that harbor crazies who get that kind of consideration.

    So murdering thousands of people guarantees you don’t get criticized for being mass murderers. Even smaller scale murderers, like the Muslim Army psychiatrist, can’t provoke the Army into stating that extremist Muslims are a specific threat to American soldiers in Texas, because tne people who identify with the killer might get upset and kill more people.

    Being able to live with being offended is part of the price Americans pay for having freedom of speech. Those who cannot tolerate such freedom are invited to relocate to one of the many countries that do not value freedom. Because the one thing Americans have no duty to tolerate is threats of violence.

  • Xavier Watson

    Southpark is quite funny but some of the scenes maybe a bit too morbid even for adults.’.-