Thursday, April 22, 2010

‘South Park’ Episode Altered After Muslim Group’s Warning

Published: April 22, 2010

“South Park,” the Comedy Central series, is an animated show that tries its best to push buttons and the boundaries of free speech by mocking every high-profile target in sight, from Hollywood celebrities to religious figures. But its creators may have gotten more than they bargained for with two recent episodes that satirized the Prophet Muhammad — one that elicited an ominous message from an Islamic group based in New York, and one that was censored by the cable network that shows it.


On April 14 Comedy Central broadcast the 200th episode of “South Park,” a cartoon that Trey Parker and Matt Stonehave produced for that channel since 1997. In honor of the occasion, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone populated the episode with nearly all the famous people their show has lampooned in its history, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand, as well as major religious figures, like Moses, Jesus and Buddha.

Cognizant that Islam forbids the depiction of its holiest prophet, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker showed their “South Park” characters agonizing over how to bring Muhammad to their fictional Colorado town. At first the character said to be Muhammad is confined to a U-Haul trailer, and is heard speaking but is not shown. Later in the episode the character is let out of the trailer, dressed in a bear costume.

The next day the “South Park” episode was criticized by the group Revolution Muslim in a post at its Web site,revolutionmuslim.com. The post, written by a member named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode “outright insulted” the prophet, adding: “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. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

Mr. van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker and a critic of religions including Islam, was killed by an Islamic militant in Amsterdam in 2004 after he made a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Younus Abdullah Muhammad, a member of Revolution Muslim, repeated the group’s assertion that the post was a prediction rather than a threat. He said the post on the group’s blog “was intended in a principle that’s deeply rooted in the Islamic religion, which is called commanding the good and forbidding the evil.” He tied the group’s complaints about “South Park” to larger frustrations about American support for Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Asked if the F.B.I. was investigating, Special Agent Richard Kolko, an F.B.I. spokesman in New York, said in a phone interview that the bureau did not “monitor people or groups, we investigate criminal activity.”

Mr. Kolko said: “The F.B.I. will investigate threats that occur over the Internet to determine if there is a potential for the threat to be carried out. However, in most cases these are First Amendment issues, and the F.B.I. vigorously defends people’s First Amendment rights.”

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the New York Police Department was “aware of the threat, and we’ve looked at it.”

He added, “We don’t think that this threat, as is currently assessed, rises to a crime right now.”

A law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing, said police investigators had met with people at Comedy Central and "made arrangements to address security concerns."

Comedy Central has previously given Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker a certain free rein with “South Park.” In a July 2001 episode, “Super Best Friends,” Muhammad was depicted alongside the founders of other religions, including Krishna and Lao Tzu.

But in 2006, when “South Park” wanted to weigh in on a controversy that erupted after Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published cartoons satirizing Muhammad, it was not given the same latitude: a character said to be Muhammad was concealed behind a large black box labeled “CENSORED.” The measure was taken by the “South Park” producers partly at the insistence of Comedy Central, and partly as a commentary on the network’s policy of not allowing them to show the character, which the episode equated with giving in to the demands of extremists.

In a new episode of “South Park” broadcast Wednesday on Comedy Central, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone exercised a degree of self-censorship. In continuing the previous week’s story line about the Prophet Muhammad, that character was hidden underneath a “CENSORED” graphic, and an audio bleep was heard when his name was said.

But in a message that appeared Thursday morning on SouthParkStudios.com, the Web site of Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker’s company, the studio said that Comedy Central had imposed further changes to the show.

“After we delivered the show, and prior to broadcast, Comedy Central placed numerous additional audio bleeps throughout the episode,” the message said. It added that the network was not allowing the episode to be streamed on the Web site, where “South Park” shows generally appear after they are broadcast on Comedy Central.

A spokesman for Comedy Central confirmed on Thursday that the network had added more bleeps to the episode than were in the version delivered by South Park Studios, and that it was not permitting the episode to be shown on the studio’s Web site. Comedy Central did not broadcast a repeat of the new “South Park” episode at midnight as it usually does, and instead showed a previous episode from this season. The channel was scheduled to do the same Thursday night.

Comedy Central declined to comment on the Revolution Muslim blog post or say if it was taking any precautions because of it.

In a statement, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone wrote: “In the 14 years we’ve been doing ‘South Park’ we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central, and they made a determination to alter the episode.”

The episode was to end with a speech “about intimidation and fear,” Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone wrote, adding, “It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.”

They continued, “We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different, and we’ll see what happens to it.”

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