'South Park' episode 201 and the frustration of being Muslim-American

The Muslim-American community overwhelmingly condemns any threat of violence over the depiction of Mohammed in 'South Park' episode 201. But the frustrations are real.

Chris Pizzello/AP/File
A radical Muslim group has warned the creators of 'South Park' – Matt Stone (l.) and Trey Parker – that they could face violent retribution for depicting the prophet Mohammed in a bear suit during 'South Park' episode 201. In this Sept. 21, 2006, file photo, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker arrive at a party to celebrate the 10th season of the animated Comedy Central television series.

Cable channel Comedy Central delayed the release of “South Park” episode 201 online Thursday as part of its cautious approach to the episode, which drew veiled threats of violence for its depiction of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit.

Absurdity and insult are the stock in trade of “South Park.” But episode 201 was censored heavily after the website RevolutionMuslim.com insinuated that the “South Park” creators might suffer the same fate as Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was assassinated for upsetting an Islamic group in 2004.

To mainstream Muslims, insinuations such as the one on RevolutionMuslim.com merely reinforce the worst stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant and prone to violence. But beyond the inexcusable behavior is an anger and frustration felt by many Muslim-Americans who struggle to reconcile the American freedoms they cherish with the often-callous ignorance of their faith here.

“What is clear is national Muslim organizations … reject the threat of violence against anybody voicing their free speech,” says Ihsan Bagby, general secretary of the Muslim Alliance in North America.

What is more difficult is coming to terms with the fact that, particularly in a post Sept. 11 society, being a Muslim-means having to endure satirical works that are often offensive.

“We’re still negotiating that,” Mr. Bagby says.


In the case of “South Park,” the context is clear: It is a comedy show and is designed to satirize everybody and everything in its path. In that case, “it’s a waste of time” to get offended, says Bagby.

Yet “South Park,” too, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the most deeply held beliefs of devout Muslims. In Islam, it is not merely the lampooning that is offensive. The physical depiction of any of the prophets – in a bear suit or well clothed – is considered blasphemous, a form of idolatry.

RevolutionMuslim.com posted a photo of the assassinated Mr. Van Gogh, who had made a movie asserting that Islam condones violence against women. The text of the website stated that “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker “will probably wind up like” the filmmaker for their actions.

A news article that listed the home addresses of Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker accompanied the posting, according to Reuters.

The group is not facing criminal charges. Leader Younus Abdullah Muhammad defended his actions to Reuters, saying they were just “showing a case study right there of what happened to another individual who conducted himself in a very similar manner.”

Cues from the civil rights era

For the vast majority of Muslim-Americans, it is clear that living in a non-Muslim country means making certain compromises. But when the misunderstanding turns to discrimination, many are trying to raise their voice in a more constructive way – organizing protests, much in the same way civil rights pioneers did 40 years ago.

That effort redefined the standards of what was appropriate in the language used to describe black Americans and how they were depicted in the media. Bagby hopes the same thing will happen for Muslims here in years to come.

“Everybody has a right to free speech, but what is acceptable in mainstream media is a different question,” he says. “The advocacy of Muslims … is to push the mainstream media to realize that too much blatant prejudice is still out there and is still acceptable.”

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