Recently, South Park aired their infamous episode, ‘201,’ in which they depict the prophet Muhammad. South Park has a real knack for satire of the unjust use of power, inequality, hypocrisy etc in the public realm, but they are sometimes careless too, and despite all of those that have sprung to the show’s defence (especially after Comedy Central heavily censored the episode), I personally can’t see how the content of this episode is defensible.
The intention of the show was, make no mistake, to cause offence (while the prophet was not personally shown, he was depicted in a goofy mascot outfit). They wanted to show that nothing should be sacred in a world where we have freedom of speech. This is an acceptable point, and one that is seen as synonymous with democracy and freedom. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have, over the years, been given free licence to offend. But I think this comes with an important caveat. By far the best South Park episodes are those which mock distasteful social trends or self-important antagonisers, a case in point being the recent episode “Sexual Healing” criticised the elitism present when celebrities (Tiger Woods is the prominent example in the episode) defend their infidelities with the excuse of ‘sexual addiction’ and are enabled to do so by the media and the cult of celebrity that maintains them.
It seems to me that ’201,’ however, has little claim to the same social significance. While drawing Muhammad should have no legal or violent repercussions, the question remains: why would you want to? The positive aspect of political correctness is really political tact: the desire to express views in a way that avoid needlessly offending sacred sensibilities. While some sort of legal censorship of the cartoon would be wrong, the fact remains that drawing the image is simply tactless. While I may not personally feel the offence caused by drawing Muhammad, I can certainly understand why it is offensive. Muhammad is considered such a holy entity that any attempt by a human to render his image necessarily depreciates from his status. With this in mind, I can’t think of any situation in which there is an urgent need for anyone (especially a non-Muslim) to draw Muhammad. Matt and Trey’s point is valid but a little platitudinous, and it seems to place the dogma of the satirist – that nothing should be above mockery – above the equally important need to respect the sincere beliefs of others, even if we don’t understand them. The questions raised by the episode seem to be something like ‘Why is it wrong to draw Muhammad? And why can’t the Islamic community just accept, like anybody else, the mockery of their religious figures?’ The answer to this is that it isn’t necessarily ‘wrong,’ but that it is needless and insensitive, and seen as it’s hardly a huge sacrifice, you should respect Muslim discomfort at seeing their prophet drawn. Returning to the Tiger Woods example, he is a worthy target because it is unreasonable for him to ask to be excused from the moral codes of fidelity, whereas with this episode, there is nothing unreasonable in the Islamic community asking that no-one draw Muhammad.
There is also a dangerous generalisation implicit in the episode. Though there are (as ever) an unrepresentative band of Islamic extremism that have been inexcusably violent towards those that have depicted Muhammad in the past, and though the South Park episode suggests this, there is nonetheless a sense of an instant and omnipotent threat posed by the Islamic community in general in the episode, a suggestion that the sight of Muhammad will put the whole community in instant danger. This is clearly not the case as – though it is a well-trodden point – the vast majority of the Islamic community are peaceful. Unfortunately, the only general consensus between the Islamic viewers of this episode will be one of hurt and marginalisation.
Like in so many cases that are deemed ‘political correctness gone mad’ the Islamic community are criticised for their censorship when, in fact, they have no part in anything of the sort. Indeed, the episode depicts the Islamic community as some sort of global malevolent censor. This is highly objectionable and incorrect. Indeed, the only group censoring the episode were Comedy Central. This has come in for huge amounts of criticism from the show’s satirical brethren (e.g. The Simpsons, Jon Stewart), but what it really shows is what I’ve called for throughout this article: if not political correctness, then a more personal application of political tact. I don’t believe the creators of South Park needed to use the image of Muhammad to make their point, and it is therefore a shame that they couldn’t exercise some self-censorship when making it.
by David Jackson