“South Park” Controversy and Wearing America on Our Backs

When Aasif Mandvi, the Muslim-American correspondent on “The Daily Show,” was asked to comment on the threats made against the creators of “South Park” for depicting the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a bear costume, his frustration was not unfamiliar to most Muslims, especially those who are also citizens of the United States.  Even though the character in the bear suit was revealed to be Santa Claus at the end of the show, Mandvi explained to viewers that, yes, insensitive cartoon representations of the Prophet do offend Muslims, including himself, as do ridiculous and reactionary threats made against the creators of “South Park.”  Mandvi then rose to his feet and turned around to reveal a suit with a large American flag printed on the back.  “I don’t like walking around wearing this suit,” he said.

Like many Muslims I’ve spoken to, I do take issue with how mainstream and popular western media is blowing this story out of proportion.  What I find highly significant to point out is how the threats against “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone came from 5-10 individuals who, according to Ahmed Rehab of CAIR-Chicago, “are widely reviled by the mainstream community for their radical and confrontational style including harassing Muslims outside mosques (where they tend to be banned) with outlandishly provocative anti-American rhetoric.”  This is not to say that the threats shouldn’t be taken seriously, but why are media outlets like CNN treating these few extremists as representative of the entire Muslim community?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper called the internet threats against the “South Park” creators “chilling” and even resorted to unpleasantly familiar Islamophobic rhetoric:

A threat against the creators of “South Park,” a warning from a radical Islamic group, right here in America, right here in New York, that they will end up dead because of a cartoon…

Note how Cooper emphasizes on “radical Islamic group” being “right here in America, right here in New York,” as if to promote fear and mistrust of fellow Muslim-American citizens.  He continues:

We live in a country which prides itself on its freedom of speech, in which we can say whatever is in our hearts, in our minds, as long as it’s not threatening to someone else– as long as it’s not calling for violence against somebody else. Now, you might not like South Park the cartoon, you might think it’s offensive, you might decide it’s not something you want to watch– that’s up to you. But the notion that some radical Islamic group in America would make a threat, even a veiled one, against two men’s lives because of it is chilling. And for the people making this threat, that is precisely the point– to chill discussion, to chill debate.

Not only does Cooper fail to mention that the threats came from a few Muslim extremists, but he also speaks about the “radical Islamic group” as if it is a massive and growing terrorist organization seeking to “Islamize” American society.  Cooper is not incorrect when he describes intolerant individuals as people who want to chill discussion and/or debate, but instead of bringing voices from within the Muslim community on his show, he invited radical Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Why?

Hirsi Ali spewed out her usual nonsense, hate speech and lies about Islam, going as far to say that scripture – Islam itself – told Muslims to kill anyone who criticized the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad.  It is absolutely appalling and insulting that Anderson Cooper would exclude Muslim voices on his show in favor of someone whose sole agenda is to fuel fear and hatred of Islam.  At one point, Cooper asks Hirsi Ali why Buddhists didn’t make the same kind of threats when Buddha was mocked on the show.  The implications are disturbing — that there is something inherently violent in the religion of Islam; that people of other faiths are “superior” and never make threats or commit violent acts.  With such inflammatory attitudes and ignorant generalizations, how is Cooper any different from the people he accuses of wanting to chill discussion and debate?

With this in mind, it is crucial to recognize that the stigmatization of Muslim-Americans, which Aasif Mandvi alluded to in his suit display on “The Daily Show,” is not and should not be seen as the result of a few extremists making threats against the creators of the show, but rather as a result of Islamophobia. In other words, it is society’s inability to distinguish between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and the marginalized extremists that generates stigma, fear, mistrust, discriminatory acts, hate crimes, and so on.

This is one of the many reasons why I do not like when some Muslims say, “Islam has been hijacked by extremists,” or “the extremists are giving Islam a bad name.”  These are expressions that we have internalized from non-Muslim politicians, pseudo-experts, and certain social commentators who, no matter how well-intentioned, are oblivious to our experiences as Muslims in the west.  I find it difficult to imagine that “South Park” never received death threats before, but when it’s from some extremist Muslims, it is widely reported in the news.  Would media coverage be the same if 5-10 unpopular Christian extremists made the internet threats?  Would people say, “Christianity has been hijacked by these extremists,” or “They give us Christians a bad name?” to the effect that every Christian is stigmatized and expected to answer for the actions of a few?

In any case, the reality is that many Muslim-Americans are pressured to “prove their loyalty” in the United Sates.  It gets to the point where it feels like we are wearing American flags on our backs (or stapled to our foreheads on some occasions).  And a lot of Muslims have come out to speak on the “South Park” controversy.  Zahed Amanullah, Arsalan Iftikhar, and Imran J. Khan have all published their opinion articles on Guardian, the CNN website, and Elan Magazine respectively (I’m sorry if I missed others).  Wajahat Ali even wrote a brilliant satirical piece on AltMuslim.

However, the question is:  Is anyone listening to us?

10 thoughts on ““South Park” Controversy and Wearing America on Our Backs

  1. I think it is stupid of the South Park creators to attack Islam, but please realize the have been relenetlessly attacking Christianity on this show in the most vile ways (much worse than just a bear costume) for *many* years :( We Christians are sick of the double standards and sick of having our Lord Jesus Christ mocked and ridiculed. I stopped watching the comedy show The Colbert Report for this very reason, on almost every show he would attack the Christian faith. Enough is enough. Christians are still the majority faith in this country and Hollywood better watch it before they wake a sleeping giant!

  2. I think you hit the core of the issue here:

    “Would media coverage be the same if 5-10 unpopular Christian extremists made the internet threats? Would people say, “Christianity has been hijacked by these extremists,” or “They give us Christians a bad name?” to the effect that every Christian is stigmatized and expected to answer for the actions of a few?”

    But I would go one step further and say it isn’t just about religion but about colour.

    Recently in the UK (I know these issues differ in the UK compared to America but I think this is relevant) a group of people were in court for preparing for acts of terrorism and producing a chemical weapon, using homemade ricin. It wasn’t a very big story – in fact, you’d probably only find a few stories on it if you googled it. These people were white. They were part of the Aryan Strike Force and computers seized in a police raid showed that “ops” involving bombs were in the early stage of planning.

    This was not a big story. It was not on the front of papers and it was not on the news. It was a story confined to the back pages of newspapers.

    I have no doubt in my mind that if these people had been brown or Muslim then it would have been national headlines and everyone would have been talking about. But they were white so no-one cared.

    People are happy to tar Islam as a “religion of extremists” over the actions of a minority but will also turn a blind eye when those threatening terrorism (and manufacturing chemical weapons!) look like they do.

  3. I also did a post on the South Park controversy and in doing the research for it came to the conclusion that South Park only claims to offend everyone equally, whereas there is a character who is Matt Stone’s mouthpiece who ensure a pro-Jewish presence. A Desi-Saudi commentator who actually does watch the show, or did in the past (maybe when he was studying in the US) agreed, and agreed that at least one episode was dedicated to defending Judaism.

    Contrast that with how the Prophet Mohamed and Islam were treated.

    Anderson Cooper like all CNN reporters likes to exaggerate the “what if’s”.

    I agreed with you that the Islamophobes make this an issue for all Muslims.

  4. Very well put together piece with some important and valid points. And to answer your question, no I don’t believe most are listening to us. It’s the old adage ” a few bad apples spoil the bunch”.

  5. I will probably come back and comment further on your excellent essay at some point, but right now all I can bring myself to say is that South Park offends me on just about every level of which I can think.

    That’s all for now.

  6. Pingback: Nima Shirazi – The Ridiculest: Bill Maher's Cultural Supremacy and Religious Hierarchy | Palestine Think Tank

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