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Islam Depiction in Media: an Overview

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A very popular ethical case in the past few years has been the issue of depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. It is commonly known that Muslim extremists have violently reacted to depictions of Muhammad, attacking and killing artists and threatening to do much worse. There is an interesting conversation in this issue, where we can examine the repercussions of free expression and if self-censoring due to terrorism is letting the enemies of free expression win.

In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten printed a series of comics depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in a very negative way, showing him as a suicide bomber and a sex maniac. In response, the newspaper received very harsh criticism from the Muslim community, in addition to numerous death threats. The newspaper was criticized for being Islamophobic, but they stood by their decision to not self-censor due to violent threats. (Anderson, 2006)

This paints a very interesting ethical dilemma. Should artists print cartoons they already know will be met with harsh controversy? Is it showing favoritism to Islam if news organizations choose not to show depictions of Muhammad? I do not believe there is an easy answer to this question. I do not believe artists should be offensive for the sake of being offensive, but sometimes important social messages can be embedded within something perceived as offensive, i.e. South Park. I believe that most Muslims do not think people should be killed for showing a depiction of Muhammad, but the backlash from the small number of extremists can cause people to be prejudiced toward moderate Muslims.

According to Encountering Islam, an organization dedicated to helping Christians understand an embrace Islamic people, only seven percent of Muslim people support extremist views and terrorism. I believe this controversy is extremely bad for the numerous moderate Muslims, and the hesitation of the mainstream media to show depictions of Muhammad only fuel the fire of the extremists. There are not enough extremist Muslims to attack every journalist who portrays Muhammad, but it is understandable that any individual journalist would be hesitant to put their life on the line. (Common Misconceptions about Muslims, 2015)

Even if we examine the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the right decision still isn’t entirely clear. The Code of Ethics says we are to seek truth and report it, “identify sources clearly,” and “provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.” I believe that withholding the image of Muhammad that caused controversy could be interpreted as oversimplifying a story, or not clearly identifying the source. At the same time, the SPJ Code of Ethics also tells us to “minimize harm” and “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Showing those images potentially could harm someone, most notably journalists and artists. It is hard to make the ethical call when the media needs to be as transparent with the public as possible, while at the same time minimizing harm and not causing further controversy. (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014)

A very famous and prominent example of this controversy came to light in 2010 when South Park, a satirical dark humor cartoon, aired their 200th episode. In the episode, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lampoon both Scientology and the media’s fear of terrorist responses to showing an image of Muhammad. The writers intentionally censor the image of Muhammad for comedic effect, but a speech toward the end of the episode focusing on the power terrorists actually have over our free expression was censored by Comedy Central, the network at airs South Park. The original airing included the speech, but it was censored in every subsequent recast and is the only version available through official channels.

South Park also caused controversy previously in 2006 in an episode that consisted of the residents of South Park literally burying their heads in the sand to avoid seeing Muhammad depicted in a cartoon that was to air in their town. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker received numerous death threats, including a note asking if “they have forgotten about [Theo Van Gogh.]” The episode was intended to show a neutral depiction of Muhammad, but the actual depiction of him was censored by Comedy Central. Curiously, a very neutral depiction of Muhammad appears in the episode “Super Best Friends,” which aired nearly a decade previously, but was later removed after the riots in Europe in 2005. (Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee: An Extensive Online Footprint, 2011)

Let us examine the ethical choices the creators of South Park and Comedy Central made during this controversy using Bok’s ethical decision-making framework. The first step tells us that we must consult our own conscience and decide how we feel about the action. Personally, I feel that the South Park creators were in the right here and that Comedy Central was in the wrong. Stone and Parker clearly understood the risk they were taking depicting Mohammad on national television. And as the faces of the show, they also knew they would be at the highest risk of anyone for backlash, which slightly reduces the harm they might have caused if the episodes were aired uncensored. I believe Comedy Central definitely made the incorrect choice. They effectively censored South Park even though those involved in the episode were willing to put their personal safety on the line in order to get their artistic message out there.

In the second step of Bok’s method, we have to look for alternatives to the situation. In our situation, there are, in reality, only two choices: run the show uncensored or run the show censored. Small edits or only changing a word or two is overall representative of censorship and I believe that changing the message even a small amount confounds the expression of free speech the satirical show thrives upon. In fact, many people were confused during rebroadcasts of the censored episode, as they couldn’t be sure if it was actually censored, or another tongue-in-cheek self-censoring by the South Park writers. I believe if something isn’t “okay” to make fun of, we need to examine the structure of such an entity and find out why we are scared to mock it. The network could have chosen to re-air the uncensored version later at night, or to release it online, but at the time of this writing, the uncensored version of South Park episode 200 is not available through legal means.

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Islam Depiction in Media: an Overview. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from
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