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Grin and Bear It

by FARZANA VERSEY

I don’t think teddy bears are mentioned anywhere in the Quran. Therefore, is the animated satirical series ‘South Park’ well within its rights to portray Prophet Mohamed dressed in a bear suit? What was the pressing need for such a depiction? The latest bit of news is that in the episode they have added the word Censored and replaced the image of the Prophet with that of Santa Claus in a similar suit.

Is there a message here?

Both convey in the popular imagination the spirit of giving. However, since the tele-series is known for its “biting satire”, it cannot be all about nurturing. As has become the norm, the makers have been threatened. By whom? A website called RevolutionMuslim.com that has 20 posters. In their enthusiasm to appear significant, they put up a picture of the Dutch filmmaker who was murdered for portraying violence against Muslim women. "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," the posting said.

I would like to know what makes this group important. Are they not akin to criminal gangs that operate in every society? Anyone can upload a picture and post a threat. Why has it been given this much mileage? Why are people like Sudanese writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali appearing on television to speak out almost immediately? If the channel, Comedy Central, wanted to ultimately censor the reference to the Prophet, it ought to have done it without too much noise. But would it have grabbed eyeballs? Would someone like me who has never watched the show even know about it? How many more viewers did they manage to get? How many hits did this website garner? It is commercial interests at work. Isn’t Santa also about marketing? Christmas is less about Christ than what you put on the Christmas tree.

The ‘South Park’ team as well as this kneejerk Muslim group are part of the same construct – to capitalise on people’s emotions. Normally, satire has a different purpose and anyway the show’s targets are celebrities and media icons. The Prophet, despite a huge following, does not quite fit in.

This really is not about the Prophet, but about profit. One in every four people in the world is a Muslim. It is a captive audience. Every once in a while, this happens and there is the usual ‘backlash’. Someone ought to conduct a study as to where and how this backlash begins? Is it engineered by vested interests rather than upholders of the faith?

Flashback to 2007. In Sudan a teddy bear was named Mohammed. This was in a school and from all accounts the Muslim students chose the name and the parents agreed to it. Again, there was a ruckus.

The ‘South Park’ protest group is based in the US. No one is asking the American establishment to waste its drones; they can simply give a warning as they would to a group of petty thieves. It is crucial that not every little organisation becomes the spokesperson of a faith.

There will be many fans of the series who will be disgusted because the new episode showed Jesus Christ watching pornography and the Buddha snorting cocaine. How liberal we are, they’d say. The only problem is that both these figures have been depicted in various forms and are recognisable. The Prophet is not. The Danish cartoons too had the typical bearded Bedouin look, but we do not know.

‘South Park’ uses animated characters, so it will not be an adequate representation. It is not meant to be. It might help Muslims to realise that when Barbie was taken off the shelves in the Middle East, she was replaced by Fulla, who was quite similar but was dressed in a black robe and matching scarf and promoted as espousing ““Muslim values”. There was a counter-reaction by a French sociologist who thought it was an Islamist strategy!

Did I not mention commercial interests? You take the mickey out of the Disney Mouse or the bluster out of Barbie and the world loses a huge market. No one is interested in really hurting religious sentiments if those sentiments can be reined in. Did not these same Muslims ask the buyers to get Fulla her “new spring abaya”? At one level, it really was a great move. But it was paying obeisance to Mammon.

It is the attitude that makes even Barbie’s makers, Mattel, have the audacity to create a doll called Leila who was supposed to represent a slave girl in the Ottoman court. This is pandering to several fantasies – the master syndrome, financial superiority, and a backwardness that people are expected to hark back to. Barbie gives no lessons in history, so this was deliberately vicious.

Given that this is the social structure, I would think sensible Muslims should just give ‘South Park’ a miss. Don’t watch it if it bothers you. Your god lies within you or, if you insist, in the holy book. If you want to play into the hands of those with dire motives, then be ready for more such ridicule. This is what they want.

Deny them their archetype and they will get tired. As I have said several times, there are people with the name of the Prophet who are unsavoury characters. You cannot go about changing all their names. If you believe in the Prophet, then there is nothing to defend. If you are insecure enough to become a chattel of muckrakers, then you are in no position to stand up for the belief system or the believers.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com

 

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