Op-Ed: You Can't Portray Muhammad On TV South Park satirized the uproar over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, placing him inside a U-Haul trailer and in a mascot style bear suit. Network censors bleeped out every reference. Columnist Ross Douthat wonders why Islam has become the only place in popular culture where we practice self-censorship.

Op-Ed: You Can't Portray Muhammad On TV

Op-Ed: You Can't Portray Muhammad On TV

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South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The show just passed the 200 episode mark. Michael Yarish/Courtesy of Comedy Central hide caption

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Michael Yarish/Courtesy of Comedy Central

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The show just passed the 200 episode mark.

Michael Yarish/Courtesy of Comedy Central

South Park satirized the uproar over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, placing him inside a U-Haul trailer and in a mascot style bear suit. Network censors bleeped out every reference.

Columnist Ross Douthat wonders why Islam has become the only place in popular culture where we practice self-censorship.


And now, the Opinion Page. There are no sacred cows for the team at "South Park." Matt Parker and Trey Stone make fun of everybody, from Jesus to Saddam Hussein, with their trademark brand of cheerful vulgarity. But there is at least one figure who still inspires fear in the network they work for, Comedy Central: It's the Prophet Muhammad.

In a recent episode of "South Park," they satirized the uproar over cartoons of the Prophet by placing him inside a U-Haul trailer, and later inside a mascot-style bear suit - not enough for the network censors, who bleeped out every single reference.

In The New York Times today, columnist Ross Douthat wrote about why one line in popular culture that can't be crossed is painted in Islamic green. We want to hear from you. Do you think there's a double standard? We particularly like to hear from Muslims in our audience today. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Ross Douthat joins us today here in Studio 3A, the New York Times columnist. Nice to have you back.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Columnist, The New York Times): Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And you point out five years ago, Muhammad appeared in a "South Park" episode, which is no longer available.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Actually, it was 10 years now.

CONAN: Ten years ago.

Mr. DOUTHAT: It was 10 years ago, and it was, remarkably, two months before 9/11. And the "South Park" creators did an episode with a team of Super Best Friends, which was composed of major religious figures, including Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and so forth, and Muhammad. And apparently, this passed without anyone batting an eye. And five years later, after the Danish cartoon controversies, where there were riots worldwide after a Danish newspaper published unflattering caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, they went back to the well and tried to do an episode.

It's kind of complicated, but the episode was about a fictional appearance of Muhammad on the Fox TV show "Family Guy." And it was about a fictional controversy surrounding this fictional appearance. But in the end, Comedy Central blanked out the fictional controversial appearance of Muhammad. So this time, as you said, they tried to not portray him, but make fun of the fact that they couldn't portray him.

CONAN: Couldn't portray him.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And they got away - the first episode, they got away with it. But then, a New York-based Web site called Revolution Muslim posted not a death threat technically, but a statement that Parker and Stone will probably end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who was murdered for his scathing critiques of Islam. This site posted to the bloody photo of van Gogh, at least originally. And "South Park" responded in a follow-up episode by, yes, as you said, bleeping out not just - not showing - the not showing of Muhammad, but bleeping out every reference to the Prophet on air.

CONAN: And this is hardly the only example. I mean, there are any number of instances where people writing stories or writing magazine articles or blog posts about the Danish cartoon controversy were not allowed to show the cartoons or decided not to show the cartoons.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Or decided not to. I mean, I think the most remarkable case is that Yale University Press published a book about the Danish cartoon controversy, and apparently a very good book that - and the author wanted to show the cartoons that all of the controversy was about. And Yale, on the advice - it wasn't just one person's decision. It was the advice of scholars and the advice of frankly, no doubt, people worried about security at Yale University Press, decided to run the book without the cartoons.

What's different in this case is that it's "South Park," you know? And it is - oh, I think what's so striking in this case is you are dealing not with a University press, not with the publishing company, not with a normal, run-of-the-mill television network, but a show that takes pride in crossing every single line. It's not like - I wouldn't be surprised if an episode of NBC's "Law & Order," for instance...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: ...didn't want to show an image of the Prophet Muhammad. But, you know, anyone who's watched "South Park" knows that there are no lines they won't cross. And they tried to cross this one, and this was the one-time where Comedy Central slapped them down.

CONAN: And this, you suggest, is - well, it tells us something much more broader about our society.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Yeah. I mean, I guess I had a fairly negative take on what it has to say. I think that it tells you something when a society is only anxious and only eager to self-censor, you know, sort of avoid blasphemy, avoid offense in cases that involve threats of violence and particular minority groups. I think that it would be one thing if there were a general, well, you know, let's-try-not-to-be-terribly-blasphemous standard.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: But I don't think that's the standard that Western culture has, and I think there's something, at the very least, disquieting about saying, well, you know, we have this fast-and-loose, anything-goes kind of culture, except if somebody freaks out and threatens violence, in which case well, of course, we'll, you know, we'll sensor ourselves.

CONAN: Yet, isn't - there's some degree of - if these were your employees, if these were your - wouldn't you think twice about it?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Certainly, you would absolutely think twice about it. And it is - I don't want to say that it isn't, in a way, understandable what Comedy Central did. And yet at the same time, I mean, if you imagined a similar - imagine a similar circumstance. Imagine if - I think it's Doubleday, I'm not sure who publishes "The Da Vinci Code," right?

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: ...in a book that I think you could reasonably argue is just if it's blasphemous in Islam to portray an image of the Prophet, I think it's certainly arguably blasphemous in Christianity to argue that, you know, Jesus had a wife and children and all the rest of it. Imagine if a, you know, rightwing Catholic posted on a Web site that the editors of Random House are going to get in a lot of trouble and maybe get killed for publishing Dan Brown, and then they pulled every copy of the "Da Vinci Code." I mean, I think people - it's an almost impossible to imagine that happening.

CONAN: We're talking with Ross Douthat of The New York Times on the Opinion Page. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Email us first -email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go to Muhammad(ph), Muhammad with us on the New Jersey Turnpike.

MUHAMMAD (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi. Welcome.

MUHAMMAD: Hi, your honorable guest. Sorry, I didn't remember your name. Hello?


Mr. DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

MUHAMMAD: Yes. If you want my comment about this, you know, I don't see what's going to really achieve - what's the achievement by just making fun of other people's faith or what they really hold dear about whatever they believe in. I don't see it. I don't see this is really productive. I don't see it's right. You know, I would say, you just leave us alone. It's better.

CONAN: A lot of people, I think, might agree with you, Muhammad, but should these people be attacked - physically attacked for doing so?

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely not. No way. This is one thing I'm calling you about. You know, I don't want to see, like, a young Muslim youth or something getting, you know, hard-headed or something and do something dumb. I don't want to see my name - or not my name, like, a Muslim person on TV on something doing something not right. This is wrong. And you know what? We all love America. This is - that's where you live. Freedom, right? But every freedom have limit. Every freedom have limit. There's no unlimited freedom. This is bogus.

CONAN: The First Amendment does not seem to have a lot of limits in this country, except shouting fire in a crowded theater.

MUHAMMAD: And I think what happened is exactly shouting fire at a crowded theater, specifically the one episode your guest mentioned from 10 years. This was horrible. And believe me, I had this thing, and I had to burn it, throw it away. I don't want nobody to see it.

CONAN: Well, Ross Douthat?

Mr. DOUTHAT: But here's the interesting thing about the situation we're in. Five years later, when "South Park" did the episode where Muhammad was supposed to appear on "Family Guy" and they ended up blacking out the Prophet's appearance, the creators of "South Park" - in, I think, an effort to expose the hypocrisy of the Comedy Central - proceeded to follow that up by, I think it was having a video created in revenge -again, a fictional video - created in revenge by al-Qaida showing something like - I'm going to get the exact details of this wrong - but it's something like Jesus defecating on George Bush and the American flag, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And, of course, that was fine. Comedy Central pushed it forward. So I think, I mean, I think what's striking about this - and I take the caller's point about the issue of blasphemy. What's striking about this is what seems like a particular fear related to Islam that doesn't exist for anything else and that, I think, is a problem for a free society if you have double standards in how you look at issues like blasphemy.

MUHAMMAD: If I can add something.

CONAN: Go ahead. Quickly, if you would. We want to give other people a chance.

MUHAMMAD: Sure. You know what? I would just replace the word fear by the word respect. It would be much, much better if we all respect everyone's faith, you know what I mean? And I love America because they really care about what they believe in, about their faith, about their love of the country, all right? And, you know, I wouldn't say fear. I would say respect.

CONAN: Muhammad, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to, this is Jimmy, Jimmy calling us from Johnson City, Texas.

JIMMY (Caller): Yeah. Hello.

CONAN: Excuse me, Tennessee.

JIMMY: In northeast Tennessee, Johnson City, to exact.

CONAN: Yup, go ahead.

JIMMY: You know, in our area, we're steeped in the Christian religion and very old-fashioned. The people in this area, they don't like it when their - our religion is made fun of, but we just don't have a lot to say about it. It's ignored, and I think that with the world the way it's, you know, that it's so open now with the Internet and, you know, it's like the communication is just everywhere that I think that Muslims need to lighten up a little bit, because it's going to happen.

They're not going to be able to stop it in this world, and best thing to do is just if you don't like it, turn it off. Because we've all seen "South Park" and, you know, we're the last place on earth people would think that - or at least in the U.S. that we, you know, it would be televised, because we are in the Bible Belt, right dead center.

CONAN: Okay, Jimmy. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JIMMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Ross Douthat, it's interesting that there's a similar story that appears to be happening on Facebook, where somebody proposed an Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, and now the person apparently most responsible for that circulation is saying, wait a minute. I did not ask for this kind of attention and publicity. Pullback, if you would.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Yeah, no. I saw that this morning. I - and I mean, you did - you had the recent case where one of the - and this is probably in this artist's mind - one of the artists involved, I think, in the original Danish cartoon controversy was attacked, I want to say, with an ice pick, either an ice pick or an ax...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: ...in his home. And I think that that's undoubtedly - I mean, the problem is you often have a response where people say, well, the answer to do is, like I said, everybody do it. But there's always somebody who is the instigator in that situation. And if there's somebody looking for a scapegoat in that situation, they aren't going to go to the 57th guy on Facebook who draws Muhammad. They're going to go to the first guy. So you can, again, it's a tough issue. You know, as we were saying before, you can see what Comedy Central was thinking. You can see what this guy's thinking.

CONAN: We're talking with Ross Douthat, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Russ, Russ with us from Kansas City. Russ, are you there?

RUSS (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ALI(ph) (Caller): Yeah, sorry. This is Ali within Dearborn. Actually, I'm from Michigan.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

ALI: Okay. Well, you know, I followed the story on the Internet. You know, the saddest thing probably for me is actually even from - when you hear a callers, they're calling about this saying that Muslims need to lighten up, there's - there are, you know, lots of people that are immediately convinced that there is actually - that us Muslims are running around right now looking for somebody to kill because of this story. A Web site that, you know, that posted this (unintelligible), to me, I always wonder, who are these Web sites who always are very convenient when it comes to, you know, pounding on the same propaganda that's creating more hate for Islam. In another way...

CONAN: Oh, you think it might be a provocation?

ALI: Yeah. I absolutely think so. You know, whether you want to consider this a, you know, conspiracy theory or not, I don't care. What I'm saying is there's always a systematic way of creating more - or making the propaganda of hate toward Islam and this country in a very systematic fashion, especially with, you know, with whatever we know in the media about al-Qaida. Every time, we want to create - or not us, but every time more hate needs to be created toward this religion, who is the number one servant of that? Web site will say that we're al-Qaida...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALI: ...we're al-Qaida, or al-Qaida (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Let me ask Ross Douthat. Did you look into this Web site?

Mr. DOUTHAT: Oh, yeah. I mean, it is - I don't want to use the term legitimate to describe a Web site that's trafficking in sort of passive-aggressive death threats. But it isn't - you know, there are - the person who wrote this stuff is a real - he's a real person. He's actually an American convert to Islam. What I would say to the caller is to keep in mind that two things can simultaneously be true. It is simultaneously true that 99.99 percent of Muslims or, you know, run out however many nines you want on that, would never, obviously, participate in any kind of violence against the creators of "South Park." But it's also the case that there are people who have an interest in riling up that last .0001 percent, and it's not necessarily because they want to inspire hatred towards Islam. It's because they want to empower themselves.

And this is what you see again and again in extremist groups in other places besides Islam. But certainly in al-Qaida, you have small groups of people who feel empowered by riling up, you know, by - if they start a riot somewhere in the world, they feel like they've succeeded. So it's not a question of, you know, people trying to make Islam look bad. It's a small group of people trying to make themselves feel powerful.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this time I do think, if Mr. Clever pushed the right button, this is Russ in Kansas City.

RUSS (Caller): Yes, hello?

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead. I'm glad I succeeded there. Go ahead.

RUSS: Yes, hi. Just very quickly, I wanted to say, you know, I think that censoring this is - was a bad idea as much as I find this to be -you know, I understand how it could be offensive. Why I think so, you know, we have certain freedoms we enjoy - Muslim Americans, as well - in the United States that many other countries do not have.

Once you start censoring, eventually, this will affect that population, as well. You know, any restrictions on speech, once courts makes their decision that something is allowed, it is not always a case-by-case basis.

CONAN: Yeah. It's the slippery-slope argument: Where do you stop once you start? And Ross Douthat, I don't think anybody wants to go there.

Mr. DOUTHAT: No, and I think that this is, you know, this is the recurring problem. If you try and, you know, if you try and establish any kind of regime of formal censorship, it's like you - you know, you start out trying to censor pornography and you end up banning "Lolita," right? I mean, that's sort of the classic example, but it's a fair example. I think there is room for what you might - for restraint and for self-censorship in the old, in the classic sense. Or if people say...

CONAN: Or as Muhammad told us, respect.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right, respect, where, you know, maybe - yeah. You don't show the image of Muhammad. But it's one - there's a difference between actual self-censorship and respect, and self-censorship created, you know, at the barrel of a gun, basically.

CONAN: All right, Russ thanks very much for the call.

RUSS: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

You can read Ross Douthat's column every Monday in The New York Times. He also blogs there regularly. And you could read a link to his article "Not Even in South Park" on our Web site, at npr.org.

Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Ross Douthat, with us here in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, the financial reform bill: We'll tell you what's in it for you. Join us then.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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