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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