The controversy is not new, but rather fresh. Interestingly and probably expected by many, the episode was first censored and then pulled from the South Park on-line archives.
Though portraying Muhammad is not explicitly prohibited in Islamic scripture, there is a strong, popular tradition that forbids any drawn depictions of both Allah and Muhammad, affirming the notion that there is “no likeness” that can accurately portray either of the two, while also strongly condemning the worship of any idols, be they drawn or physical structures. It is for this reason that the creators of South Park received death threats soon after the episode aired on television; accompanying these death threats was a reminder of the murder of a Dutch filmmaker for making a movie that attacked fundamentalist Muslim beliefs on women.
Just a few days ago, I opened the May 13 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, and remember quite vividly seeing a picture of Jesus with an over-sized phallic symbol on his stomach, with the caption commenting that there is now a “new reason to worship Jesus.” I immediately connected the feelings I had about this editorial to that which I perceived to be felt by those that take offense to any depictions of the Prophet. The similarities, as one might guess, ended when I turned the page and tried to simply accept the caption as an effort at humor by someone who does not honor or revere Jesus in any way
It is true that many Americans feel threatened by Islam because of the manner by which a few Muslims respond to events such as the South Park episode. It may also be one reason why, for some, there is a strong tendency to identify terrorists with male Muslims. For me, this is a final move toward ethnic and religious intolerance, and certainly a stereotype to be fought.
The question, however, becomes this: Why do some Muslims feel the need to call for the death of an artist or journalist who blasphemes the faith through a depiction of the prophet? How can this be rationalized? Is this not a disappointing example of extremism?
To me, I find it helpful to look to the sociological evolution of organized religions as context for what is right and wrong, and for what can be accepted as “understandable.” The organized societal expression of Islam, from its inception, which was the prophetic message provided to Muhammad in the 7th century, is 650 years younger than Christianity. Let’s consider what Christian leaders were doing in the 14th and 15th century: Banning and burning books; preaching anti-Semitic messages; executing heretics; fighting wars that God “approved”; using capital and political influence to widen the gap between those in power and those who were subservient.
In spite of the considerable good that many traditions, including Christianity, have offered human civilization, there are dark moments in the story from which much can be learned.
To this end, there has to be some degree of understanding offered when issues of faith become issues of life and death. We must oppose evil meted in the name of good, especially when the evil, in this case, is blatantly contradictory to scholarly interpretations of the Qur’an, and when it contradicts the example of the Prophet himself, a noted advocate of religious plurality and tolerance in a time when it was not common. I suppose that when asked to make a choice to support a slanderous, intentionally agitating, satire that stands behind a constitutional right to express one’s opinion, and to condone a religiously-justified killing based on sporadic, peripheral commentary emerging from the sacred scriptures of Islam, I would invite us to do neither.