Self-Censoring South Park
Unless we resist intimidation, this will be only the beginning.


Nina Shea

Comedy Central’s censorship of a recent South Park episode after threats over a caricature of Mohammed is the latest evidence that the West is slowly surrendering, institution by institution, to diffuse but determined demands to suppress anything possibly deemed as blasphemy against Islam.

These demands are new — beginning only with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie — and are little understood by the West. Far more is at stake than a profane and intentionally crude cartoon show.

The controversy began on April 14, when, for the show’s 200th episode, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker decided to bring back controversial characters, mostly celebrities, from its past — “everyone who’s [ticked off] at us,” as Parker explained to the press. In the episode, these characters threaten to file a class-action lawsuit against the fictitious South Park unless the town can bring Mohammed to them — in a previous South Park episode, an image of Mohammed was censored, and the celebrities believe they can steal the prophet’s mysterious power to be free from ridicule.

At various points in the episode, Mohammed’s figure is blacked out, hidden in a U-Haul trailer as the townsfolk debate how to bring him into the open, and eventually disguised in a goofy mascot-style bear costume. The audience hears him, but never sees his face. Meanwhile, Jesus is shown watching pornography, Buddha snorting cocaine.

A group in New York called Revolution Muslim promptly posted a message on its website that appears to incite violence against Stone and Parker. It “warns” that they “will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show,” driving home the point with a graphic photo of the Dutch filmmaker after he was slain by Islamists in 2004. It also includes Stone and Parker’s photos and their production company’s addresses, as well as pictures of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Westergaard, and others who have been targeted by fatwas for purported blasphemy. There is an audio overlay of American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki reading a fatwa against blasphemy: “Harming Allah and his messenger is a reason to encourage Muslims to kill whoever does that.”

For the follow-up 201st episode, Comedy Central ramped up the self-censorship, replacing with audio bleeps not only every mention of the word “Mohammed,” but also the entire speeches with which Parker and Stone had intended to conclude the story — speeches that, ironically, were about standing up to intimidation. In the words of the Hollywood Reporter, this rendered the entire episode “practically incomprehensible.”