Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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Editor’s Pick
APRIL 23, 2010 11:32AM

Censorship in South Park?

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I have to confess: I'm a long-time South Park watcher. Like, since 1997.

I'm not sure why, really. Being over the age of 14, I don't find great humor in foul language or bodily fluids. Trey Parker and Matt Stone tend to hit at easy targets with obvious jokes. Nine times out of ten, even if an episode starts out strong, they have trouble bringing it in for a solid landing.

Still, I used to laugh hysterically when poor little Kenny met his inevitable, gruesome fate. And even though Kenny now lives through most every episode, there are those occasional moments of sheer creative brilliance that make it worth coming back on a regular basis.

Team South Park has been much in the news this last week, after a two-part episode that featured a character based on the Prophet Muhammad.

Shortly before Part Two aired this Wednesday, the website of a fringe group called "Revolution Muslim" vented their umbrage. "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," said Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee in a post on the site, since removed. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."

This, and the posting of the addresses for both Comedy Central headquarters in New York and South Park's California studios, prompted Comedy Central to insist on on running a heavily-edited version of the this week's episode. They have also prohibited the posting of the show online.

 Parker and Stone released a statement on Thursday. "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. 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."

Actually, the whole thing was a massive meta-joke....perhaps just not an intentional one.

It's a joke to think that the South Park creators are all that upset over the censoring of the episode. While they like to come off as typical slacker-stoners, Parker and Stone have survived for 14 years in a industry that doesn't necessarily reward longevity. They're  smart guys: they know controversy means coverage. Without the "Revolution Muslim" story, Episodes 200 and 201 were fairly weak offerings that highlighted, primarily, the amount of low-hanging fruit they've picked over the years. (Tom Cruise! Scientology! Mormonism! Brittany Spears!) Instead, they get to portray themselves as free-speech -- well, I'm tempted to use the word "martyrs," but that may be inappropriate in this particular instance.

It's equally funny to argue that it's not a win-win for Comedy Central as well. They get to look like they're responsive to the Muslim community (who do, theoretically, buy stuff from network advertisers) and the safety of their staff and content providers (who are still many more times likely to be injured or killed by a car on their way across the street to Starbucks than by a Muslim terrorist). Meanwhile, their other flagship shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, can make some comedy hay and keep the story running for a couple more days...all of which brings in more viewers.     

The real joke is, as always, on the public at large. It drags us back into a increasingly meaningless argument about Free Speech vs. the Evil Muslims.

Zahed Amanullah, associate editor of altmuslim.com, points out in a blog post on The Guardian's "Comment Is Free" that this has thus far not much of a topic of discussion in the Muslim world, evil or otherwise. He describes the situation as a controversy "manufactured by two Muslim converts who have been reduced to sidewalk rants because they are not welcome in any mosque in New York City," helped along by legitimate media outlets like CNN, who "dutifully treat them as representative of Muslim opinion."

"I am not at all insensitive to the strong feelings most Muslims, including myself, have of depictions of Muhammed," he explains. "And yet, we are seeing this issue exploited to absurdity. The traditional aversion to show the likeness of Muhammad has its roots in avoiding idolatry, which is explicitly prohibited. For many Muslims, pointing to a cartoon, a teddy bear, or a voodoo doll and saying it's the prophet, doesn't make it so. We know better than to worship them."

Amanullah certainly doesn't deny there have been acts of violence against those who have been seen as giving offense to Islam. Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered; novelist Salmon Rushdie did live for years in fear of a Iranian fatwa; Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has survived two murder plots in the last two years for his 2005 depiction of Muhammed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. "But that's three incidents over a 20-year period from amongst 1.6 billion people," he says in a response to a comment left on his blog. "These things do happen. But we all need a bit of perspective." 

We also, I would argue, need a bit of perspective on free speech.

Was the right to free speech really abridged here? Matt Stone and Trey Parker have the same right as any American to say anything they want. They can't put anything they want on their show, because they have to conform to their contractual arrangement with their network. As individuals -- and world-famous ones at that -- they have any number of platforms they can utilize outside network control, to portray Muhammad (or anyone else) in whatever way they choose, if they were interested in doing so. Who knows? They still might.

Freedom of speech means you have the right to say what you want. It does not mean you have the right to expect others accept your point of view. Whenever you put something out into the world, you have to be aware that there may be consequences, both positive and negative. It doesn't matter if you're talking about Islam or Christianity or Judaism, whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, a vegan or a carnivore. Because we are human beings living amongst other human beings, even in a free society there is a level of risk to speaking one's mind.

It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It doesn't mean you shouldn't expect the full protection of law enforcement or the courts. It simply means that, like anything worth doing, it involves an element of risk.

We all pick our battles, and our battles define us. 

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I cannot lie: I thought the creators incorporating into the script their dilemma at being "respectful" by trying to "hide" the Prophet in a trailer and then dressing him in a bear suit was brilliant. I don't always like the show -- I am frankly squeamish about some of the more scatological bits -- but the genius of the creators is impossible to deny.
They are brilliant writers. I'm sorry that censorship stepped in because of fear. Lady liberty lowered her torch a little.
It's fun to play with comedic hand grenades in America. Just don't try it the Middle East or South Asia. Likewise it would go down like a lead balloon in Londonistan.
@Firestorm -- This is perhaps my bad: I didn't mean that Trey and Matt, per se, expect people to agree with them here.

I was thinking more of how we, as a society, tend to talk about free speech. There is more than a whiff of: "I have the right to say what I want, but you don't have a right to voice your offense at what I've said."

That's one of the most striking things I see when these issues of depicting Mohammad periodically arise: we know that it's an something that a lot of Muslims around the world take seriously, but there's a general attitude of "quit yer bitching, you big (possibly homicidal) babies. My right to offend is more important than your right not to be mocked for your religious beliefs."

Nobody has the right to hurt or kill or violate an artist for creating such a work -- I'd underline, highly and bold that if I could in the comments section -- but I'd like to see more respect for the feeling of those who are offended, and I admire non-violent attempts to challenge that work...to ask why it had to be done, to question if it moves interfaith communication forward, to try and educate those of us who many not understand why this is troubling to some Muslims.

In general, I think it's disingenuous to think that Matt and Trey don't expect most of their audience to agree with them in any given episode. Satire mainly appeals to those who are already predisposed to agree with that viewpoint. (Those who don't agree don't get the joke, after all.) They occasionally take on a real sacred cow, and usually come up with something pretty interesting, but for the most part, they're preaching to the choir. And it is funny.

I know: it's a cartoon. It's not meant to be a philosophical exercise. It's meant to make people laugh, and maybe sell some condoms and Ax body spray.
Having a voice to raise when one is offended is not the same as implying that a person will be murdered for saying or depicting an image or idea that someone may find offensive. If te media rolls over and allows one group or another to control content then we have no freedom of speech anymore. I may have this wrong but the point here seems to be that if a group takes offense at an issue then it is irresponsible to not bow to their demands and claims. That telling them that they will just have to live with it is not an option in light of threatening murder. I'm not trying to fight here, I'm just not sure that I understand your point of view.
Bobbot has it exactly right. And I have to wonder at the editor's choice of this article for an editor's pick on the subject which appears to legitimize through respecting the Muslim threats by putting the responsibility on the South Park guys to say what they want but be prepared for the consequences, rather than Catherine' Forsyth's excellent articles on the subject stating clearly that the censorship now applied to the episode shows that intimidation works.

Caving in to Muslim demands of respect to their prophet and religion and just how that respect must be given at the expense of Ameican and human values of freedom and human rights is just what Islam wants to see from the Infidel world. It shows them that they are strong now, as they desire to be in continuing the stated goal of subjection of the entire Earth to Islamic rule. This is why their Koran encourages emigration of Muslims in the cause of Islam.

"Whoso emigrates in the cause of Allah will find many places of refuge in the earth and plentiful provision. Whoso goes forth from his home, emigrating in the cause of Allah and His Messenger, and death overtake him, his reward is due from Allah. Allah is most Forgiving, Ever Merciful." 4:101 Koran, Muammad Zafrullah Khan Translation.

I purchased my copy of the Koran after 9/11 because I wanted to see what was in that book that would cause so many to kill themselves in its cause. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

"If We had comanded them: Kill yourselves in striving (jihad: my note) for the cause of Allah or go forth from your homes for the same purpose (i.e. emigrate; my note): they would not have done it except a few of them; yet if they had done what they are exhorted to do, it would surely have been the better for them and conducive to the greater firmness and strength. We would then bestow upon them a great reward from Ourself, and We would surely guide them along the straight path. Whoso obeys Allah and the Messenger shall be among those upon whom Allah has bestowed His favors -- the Prophets, the Fathful ones, the Martyrs and the Righteous; and excellent companions these are. This is Allah's grace, and Allah is All-Comprehending." 4_67-71, ibid.

So when you wonder why they there are som many Muslim suicide bombers, this is why. And just as he said, only a few would do that. But in a religion of a billion and more followers, that few amounts to a significant number. We cannot trust in our location in America to keep us safe. Islam divides the world into two parts: Dar al Islam, the land of Islam, and Dar al Harb, the land of war. Guess which one we American infidels live in?
I should add that in Khan's translation, the verses are numbered one higher than in other translations, because Khan includes as the first verse of every Sura, or chapter, "In the name of Allah, Nist Gracious, Ever Merciful" where other translations include that as a subheading of the chapter title. So if you have a Koran by another translator, look for these verses one verse earlier than what I have stated here in the given chapter.
I should add that in Khan's translation, the verses are numbered one higher than in other translations, because Khan includes as the first verse of every Sura, or chapter, "In the name of Allah, most Gracious, Ever Merciful" where other translations include that as a subheading of the chapter title. So if you have a Koran by another translator, look for these verses one verse earlier than what I have stated here in the given chapter.
I should add that in Khan's translation, the verses are numbered one higher than in other translations, because Khan includes as the first verse of every Sura, or chapter, "In the name of Allah, most Gracious, Ever Merciful" where other translations include that as a subheading of the chapter title. So if you have a Koran by another translator, look for these verses one verse earlier than what I have stated here in the given chapter.
Whoops! Sorry for the extra posts. It wasn't posting them, so I clicked on "Post this comment" again, then again. Please delete a couple, and this one too if you like.
Freedom of speech doesn't mean you have a right to cable network access. Comedy Central has every right to control what goes on their network. They knew Parker & Stone were tweaking the limits yet again; if they're that concerned they should've just vetoed the episode altogether. And to top it off, it wasn't nearly as funny as the Facebook one.
I'm afraid I cannot agree with this point of view at all. The monotheist religions of Judaism and its offshoots, Christianity and Islam, have bullied, tortured and murdered anyone who does not adhere to their beliefs for centuries. Christians, Muslims and Jews expect the rest of the world to bend over backwards to cater to their beliefs, but have no compunction at all about insulting the adherents of other religions and atheists. Decent people of the world must start standing up to these religious bullies.

You write, “Was the right to free speech really abridged here?”

ABSOLUTELY. No question, and what’s worse, it was done in favor of RELIGION. I don’t care which religion you choose, they are all detriments to society. Some are worse than others; particularly, the three major monotheistic religions and their offshoots.

You write, “helped along by legitimate media outlets like CNN, who "dutifully treat them as representative of Muslim opinion.”

This is endemic of the entire problem that is religion at its very roots. Because the majority of religious people in this country are Christian, the division is easily accepted. Simultaneously, because there are so many religious people, many will jump to defend the act of an entire society bowing to a backward belief system such as religion because they’re also religious.

Then, you write, They can't put anything they want on their show, because they have to conform to their contractual arrangement with their network.

They did “conform to their contractual arrangements with their network”, otherwise the network would have planned on airing the show as submitted. All we see here is the continuing bending of civil society to an ignorant, backward cult, which essentially describes all religions.

Can we all just admit that religion is a societal retardant?

Having said that, I think you’re right that the controversy is a good P.R. event for South Park, which is a good thing. As has always been the case, religion shoots itself in the foot.
I haven't the possibility to see this episode until it finds its way to Norwegian TV, but the idea of putting Muhammed in a bear suit sounds like a brilliant way of exposing the ridiculuosness of this whole situation.

I'm pretty sure that they expected to be censored, and there's no doubt that Comedy Central has the right to limit what they allow people to say on their network. But it does once again remind us of the absurdity of living in a world where people are expected to avoid any statement, drawing or joke that might conceivably offend some crazy extremist somewhere in the world. There's not one of us who will ever be able to live up to that standard, and we might as well say that right now and be done with this nonsense.
AIPAC has been controlling content for years. True criticism of Israeli policies is very rare in American media. Intimidation works. It doesn't have to be threats of violence.

American media is so heavily censored, but Americans are largely ignorant of that fact. We have a propaganda system that would make The Soviet Union proud. When is the last time there was an anti-war advocate on a mainstream news program. Before the Iraq invasion in 2003, Phil Donohue had the highest rated show on MSNBC and he would sometimes include guests with an anti-war position. He got canned just before the invasion because the network didn't think that would be a good image for them when the country was at war. We are being lied to. Wake up.
It all comes down to the fact that certain people (cough..extremist muslims..cough cough) don't have a healthy sense of humor. They have disobeyed the commandment "Thout Shalt Not Take This Shit So Seriously," which is really the only sin.

As for south park and the headlines and all that, it was a great marketing move because now I actually want to see the episode(s) in question, when before I had stopped watching when the cow cult killed itself over the clock.
I'm always a little puzzled by the assertion from radical Muslims/Islamists that insulting Allah is even remotely possible. Allah is, to a Muslim (and followers of several religions), all powerful AND… all knowing. And yet much of the argument against insulting Allah and his Prophet is based on the notion that the Duo might somehow be harmed by it (Obviously it’s Their egos and self-esteem we’re worried about here, not Their physical well being).
So, are we to believe that Allah and Muhammad are petty? I personally don't picture Muhammad or Allah lounging around heaven complaining about insults from those earthbound. Perhaps standing up for Allah and "protecting him" from insults is something the old Boy might appreciate, an action He might reward at some later date. That’s what His devotees hope for, no doubt. But I have to say, it seems just a tinge shallow.
The real question about freedom is are we free to offend. If one is atheist does he have the right to tell Christians and Muslims that they are both wrong and that God is just an imaginary human invention? And after all what does it matter what somebody thinks it is important what he does. gamucci micro electronic There are so many people who can talk for hours, just so that they can avoid doing work and listen to their own voice.
Post 9/11 logic, 19 guys attacked two towers, the free of speech thing was suspended,thousands of innocent Muslims wear put in Guantanamo camp, and millions other were denied the right to speak, we understood all this in the 9/11 context. We never understood the reaction of some Muslim to the like of South Park comedy regime. Muslims have been under assault for more than 500 hundreds years, their country under western occupation, only in this context we can understand the so called Muslim reaction!
“Was the right to free speech really abridged here?”

Yes, that's pretty much the definition of censorship. Trey and Matt have the right to air criticism of any religion on their show, and the fact that Comedy Central has allowed them to air such content when Christianity, Judaism, Scientology, Hinduism, and Mormonism are the targets proves that they don't have a problem with offensive depictions of religious figures (didn't South Park show Jesus shitting on Santa after the last censoring?)--except this one special magic religion that is above criticism or ridicule. Bullshit. Since CC is absolutely fine with many, many episodes ridiculing many religions, the South Park creators shouldn't HAVE to use platforms outside of network control for this one pristine faith.

Living in a free society means that you have just as much right to be offended as any other group. And by treating Muslims as if they are too "special" or "delicate" to handle the same ridicule that every other religion is subject to is infantilizing and condescending. Muslims deserve to be treated as equals--subject to equal respect and equal offense. And just like any other extremists, those who respond to offense with threats and violence deserve to be punished.

Matt and Trey deserve praise for pointing out, in extremely graphic terms (especially the shitting Jesus), just how different and unequal the standards are for Islam vs every other religion on the planet.

Welcome to America--here's your "Kick Me" sign. We ALL wear them.