Wednesday, April 21, 2010

South Park vs. Radical Islam

Cross-posted to Fluffy Iguana Cookies.

The South Park creators have received a death threat over last week's episode, "200". I was going to do an in-depth review of the episode, but that's unlikely now, because this news is far, far more interesting.

The episode in question was, as I mentioned in this post, an enormous pile of references to old episodes, gags, and plots. One of these references was to two past episodes dealing with the Prophet Muhammed.

Way back in the fifth season, in the episode "Super Best Friends," Muhammed was portrayed as an otherwise stereotypical Bedouin man with fire powers, a member of the titular superhero team of religious icons (the other members were Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Sea Man (an Aquaman parody), and Moses was their computer). The primary focus of the episode was making fun of Scientology (a recurring theme in the series), and it ended with the Super Best Friends teaming up to defeat the "Blaintology" cult. This was before I started paying attention to the series, so I'm not sure if there was any backlash; if there was, I suspect it was from Scientologists, not Muslims.

Five years later came the Danish cartoon controversy, in which the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons, most of which depicted the prophet Muhammed, and at least some of which did so quite negatively. (I cannot read Danish, but one of the cartoons has no text and is obviously negative, while others have no text and appear neutral or positive). A few Danish-Muslim organizations held protests in response, which resulted in the cartoons being reprinted around the world, sparking more protests and even violence, including setting fire to the Danish embassies Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Notably, most American media did not reprint the cartoons, even when reporting on the controversy surrounding them.

With this controversy only a few months old, the two-part South Park episode "Cartoon Wars" used the refusal of American media to print the cartoons as a jumping-off point to mock Family Guy and The Simpsons. The plot of "Cartoon Wars" is that Muhammed is going to shortly appear in an episode of Family Guy, but the Fox network is considering self-censoring and either not airing the episode, or cutting Muhammed. Kyle and Cartman travel to the Fox network, Kyle to help make sure the episode is broadcast, and Cartman to support the censorship.

In real life, Comedy Central stepped in at this point, and banned South Park from displaying Muhammed in the episode, even though he had been in the opening credits since the fifth season. As a result, even though the dialogue in "Cartoon Wars" says that the Family Guy episode aired uncensored, the scene in the South Park episode is replaced by a black screen and text explaining that Comedy Central would not allow an image of Muhammed to be broadcast.

And that brings us to last week. In "200", every celebrity South Park has made fun of teams up to sue South Park. However, this is actually a complicated gambit for them to get ahold of Muhammed, whom no one can make fun of. The celebrities (and other forces, revealed later in the episode) seek to steal this power, so they can never be mocked again. Stan is thus forced to seek out the Super Best Friends so he can trade Muhammed to the celebrities in exchange for the safety of South Park. Unfortunately, as Jesus explains, times have changed and it is no longer permissible for Muhammed to be seen. Thus, he is dressed in a bear costume, so no one can see him.

The poster at (Fox News has his name as "Abu Talhah al Amrikee", but it's Fox News, so who knows) seems to have missed the point completely. The episode isn't about making fun of Muhammed; South Park has never made fun of Muhammed. It's about making fun of American media, who cravenly bow to the fear of "controversy" and terrorist attacks, creating a culture in which the biggest bully wins. And it is, of course, about making fun of those bullies -- that'd be you, al-Amrikee.

I hope very much that tonight's South Park depicts Muhammed by the end -- and that it mocks al-Amrikee. South Park uses a frankly ridiculous level of technology to produce such crude results, and thus is able to make or alter episodes ridiculously quickly -- so it should be completely possible for them to make the change. Stone and Parker are among the few people working in television today who understand that blasphemy is one of the most important social functions of humor. By mocking the sacred -- whether it is a religious icon such as Muhammed or Jesus, or a secular sacred cow such as the innocence of children -- humor forces us to think, and reduces the ability of such images to manipulate us, while leaving us free to continue believing in them if we so choose.

Blaspheme away, Messrs. Stone and Parker. I know you know it's the right thing to do.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The young man's "nom de guerre", as it were, is indeed "Abu Talhah al-Amrikee", sometimes spelled "Amriki". He adopted the name of a prominent Companion (ally, friend) of the Prophet Muhammad, probably Talha ibn 'Ubayd Allah, which is combined with "Abu" and then added a nisbah, a marker that denotes nationality/geographical origin or profession. In his case, "Amriki" translates to "the American," masculine. It would be "Amrikiyya" for feminine.

    Apparently, he went to George Mason for one semester:

    Abu Talha al-Amriki, George Mason University

    I would also point out that the mainstream and right-wing media has blown this entire affair out of proportion. Basically the only "Muslims" carrying on thus far have been the literally half dozen to a dozen wankers of "Revolution Muslim." The media has made it sound like this is a repeat of the Danish cartoons affair, which it clearly is not. Many of the protests, particularly in places such as Lebanon and Syria, against the Danish cartoons were also organized by governments or political factions and had more to do with politics than religion. In Lebanon, the protesters, who torched the Danish embassy, were organized by the Future Movement of the current Lebanese prime minister, Sa'd al-Hariri, the same guy the U.S. media told us was "pro-Western/American" during the last Lebanese parliamentary elections.