South Africa: Zapiro's “Muhammad” Cartoon Controversy

Zapiro, South Africa's premier cartoonist, known for his controversial style in picking on politicians and commenting on social inequalities, has come into the limelight in South Africa for jumping on the “Draw Muhammad Day” bandwagon. “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” is a drawing event organised inspired by a comment by Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris in a radio interview about Comedy Central's decision to censor a South Park episode that had depictions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Here's two articles from South Africa's premier newspaper, the Mail and Guardian on the issue:The cartoon, the prophet and suburban radicals and Uproar over M&G Prophet Muhammad cartoon.

From the Blogosphere, as you can imagine, two camps distinctly emerge… those in support and those against.

First, let's examine arguments against the cartoon simply because arguments in support have already been well represented in the mainstream media. To set the scene, we'll begin with a piece I posted on my own blog, Waiting in Transit:

I can’t understand why the media, the west and everyone else who engaged in the “Let’s Draw Muhammad” contest recently couldn’t, in all their secular intelligence, attempt to first UNDERSTAND and then to act instead of the other way round. I am also extremely disappointed with Zapiro for simply “jumping on the bandwagon” which is very unlike him. The Zapiro I’m used to has deep insight, sharp wit and gets to the heart of the issue at hand. Zapiro’s cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) shows only deep ignorance… but I’ll analyse that later.

First, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Why are Muslims going crazy when this happens? Well, at the essence, we do not draw the Prophet Muhammad or represent him in any way or form even though we do have detailed, verified and ratified descriptions of him because it is mentioned in the Quraan not to fall into the trap of our Christian Brethren and end up worshipping the Prophet instead of God. Secondly, Muslims believe in ALL of the prophet’s of God – Moses, Jesus, Noah, Jonah, Adam, etc. (peace be upon them all) and we don’t DRAW any of them.

But still… why is there so much passion in this issue? well look at the content. The depictions are ignorant and horrible. There is no mistaking the intent behind them. It more represents some Hard-line Iranian ‘Terrorist’ Mullah than have any insight into the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Muslims LOVE the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I mean truly love. For Muslims he is the ultimate example of what a human being is supposed to be. We actually implement the idea that whenever we’re faced with any situation in life the question is automatically… “Well, what did the Prophet (pbuh) do?” You can’t underestimate this point, it leads to the next point in this issue.

Let’s make it personal. Take someone you truly love and would do anything for… say it’s your mother. Now, if someone was talking badly (or drawing nasty pictures) of your mother but did it amongst themselves and, obviously, they have a right to say what they want. It’s all absolutely fine. But when someone comes up to you and waves it about in your face and swears your mother to your face, what would you do? Yes, it is the ultimate example we need to follow to hold our peace and deal with it in an intelligent and civilised manner (in fact this is what the Prophet (pbuh) himself would have done. But being realistic… Your first move would be a punch in the gut of the offending perpetrator. This is the line between having the freedom to say what you want, but respecting the people around you.

A blog post written by Khadija Patel has garnered some media attention. Khadija is an editor of Al Huda, a community newspaper in South Africa. She appropriately entitled her post “Lest we become caricatures of ourselves”:

That message plays into the victim mentality so many in this community are handicapped by and it is disappointing that most Muslims, myself included, don’t batter an eyelash when other religions are made the butt of the cartoonist’s pencil. There certainly is a duplicity of values that needs to be addressed.

It is interesting too that on the two occasions publishing cartoons of the Prophet has been made an issue in South Africa, both times the judges deciding the matter were Muslims. A clear indication of how much more integrated Muslims in South Africa are. In the first case of the infamous Danish cartoon, the late Judge Mohamed Jajbhay decided that publishing it would amounted to hate speech. A reminder that even the most liberal constitution recognises limits to free speech but the ruling came under great scrutiny as it was felt the judge was ill qualified to hold an objective perspective in matters pertaining to his namesake. This time the Judge was a Judge Mayet who insisted that her Muslim identity would not interfere with her ability to judge the matter.

I’m not sure if Zapiro’s cartoon can be judged a victory for free speech. As I conclude this a couple of friends are coyly tweeting admission they find the cartoon funny, that’s all. And that doesn’t make them any less Muslim. Nor does my disappointment in the cartoon make me any less South African.

It seems in one way or another there is some disappointment with Zapiro's drawing and it does prompt a lot of soul-searching amongst the more intelligent of the community and amongst the supporters and those against.

Undiagnosed ADHD points out in his post that the cartoon shows a total lack of respect some people have towards others:

The campaign to draw the holy Prophet (PBUH) has garnered all sorts of support and opposition. Personally I don’t care. Why? Because I am not the one doing it and secondly, it underline the ignorance and total lack of respect some people have towards others. Zapiro’s Cartoon was published by the Mail and Guardian. You can access it here. The argument is that Zapiro is exercising his right to expression and press freedom. Press Freedom is one of those tricky areas of democratic society that will never be settled in a Capitalist Democracy. Agreed that Press Freedom is vital for safeguarding the values of democracy, but its also used as a shield for sensationalist journalism. The people have the right to know and the media carrier has a right to make a profit. But consider this, what harm does exercising your right to press freedom cause when it insults the belief system of another group. In that case I would argue that the Mail and Guardian are acting in a deliberate manner with the aim of creating an unfair prejudice against the Muslim community. Could we call it incitement?
While press freedom is vital cog in the protection of human rights, it is also a self serving weapon. It cares not for the greater good or for other democratic values which protects every group within society from prejudice. For those people unable to understand, Islam specifically forbids the depiction of God, the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] and other prophets. Muslims are to be blamed here as we have not stood up and voiced our disapproval of the various prophets in film, television and other media. But this is no excuse for the specific day set aside to, in effect insult the belief system of Muslims. Zapiro might call it not having a sense of humour but where a religious injunction exists, who of the believers would be brave enough to challenge that.
Here are the questions which you as the pretend judge have to ask yourself: Who will be harmed by my actions? Will harm occur? Is this harm justified in a civilised society? In other words, is it unfair discrimination?

The Voice in the Wilderness asks “Freedom of Expression or Freedom without Responsibility?”:

A cartoonist makes fun of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be on him) and a court rules in his favor citing ‘freedom of expression’. Welcome to our insane world and the new definition of the word ‘freedom’ which seeks to absolve the one who exercises that freedom from the consequences of his actions. Effectively what this means is that when we exercise our freedoms, the rest of the world can go to hell. How many of you want to live in such a world? If you don’t then you’d better consider doing something about those who seek to change your world for you. At the very least raise your voice and speak out against unbridled freedom without responsibility – which until now used to be called anarchy.

I don’t agree with the ruling of this court. I will continue to do what I can to show that freedom of expression does not mean freedom without responsibility and that when your freedom of expression hurts someone else it is not freedom but oppression. I’m sure we can think of many ways in which we can make fun of Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh and other beliefs. Should we do this and claim this is our freedom of expression even though it would hurt people and insult their beliefs? I don’t share their beliefs but I still hold myself to the creed that I will not say or do anything that hurts the beliefs of others, even though I don’t share those beliefs. This is not a question of a sense of humor but of manners, being appropriate, being sensitive to others and being civilized.

Just ask yourself, ‘Which kind of world do I want to live in and leave behind? A world in which people are considerate to one another or a world in which each of us will do whatever we want in the name of freedom of expression’ and to hell with the rest? Ask yourself because we will have to lie in the bed we make.

MyUmmah blog has a piece written by a Muslim Scholar, Imam Suhaib Webb, during the first time the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) was drawn in Denmark.

Of course, there are those in support of the cartoon in South African Blogosphere such as Pessimist Incarnate who writes:

People need to learn that if you ignore this kind of thing it goes away but as a religion if you keep attacking all and sundry it won't go away in fact people will keep challenging you. However I think this religion likes the controversy as it is actually publicity even though it is negative and probably in the long term doing more harm to there cause than good

Synapses comments on public response to the cartoon:

If you are a believer who is not inclined to fanatical – and criminal – action, you certainly should feel aggrieved when cartoons like this are published. But the cause of your aggrievement should be your less civilised brothers and sisters, who make such comment necessary – not those who make the comments. The points made by Zapiro, as well as by past examples of this same issue, are a reminder to you to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule. You do this most effectively from the inside, by persuading people who take faith as a way to justify paedophilia, homophobia, oppression, murder, censorship and all sorts of other social ills that they have lost their way, and that surely a god worth taking seriously would not want you to do those things.

MarkLives blogs about the support Zapiro has gotten from the Journalist association, ProJourn. It is more of a press statement, but it does make its point:

The Professional Journalists’ Association supports the court ruling, made late last night, that has allowed the Mail & Guardian to publish a cartoon, drawn by Jonathan Shapiro/Zapiro, depicting Mohammed in today’s edition.

The Association supports the ruling on the grounds that it is an important ruling in support of the right of the media to comment on important issues without fear of intimidation.

In Islam it is forbidden to depict Mohammed, in any way, hence the objection to the cartoon, and while ProJourn supports the ruling, the Association notes that issues like these need to be dealt with with tolerance, respect and consideration for our fellow human beings. We are a country in transition, with very disparate communities, we’re still getting to know each other, and people need to be aware and mindful of each other’s differences.

ProJourn recognises that there is a need to balance the requirements of strengthening our democracy through vigorous debate and interrogation of social issues – even in a humorous or tongue-in-cheek fashion – and of strengthening it through the mutual appreciation of our differences and diverse beliefs. While we have constitutional restrictions relating to hate speech that do not exist in some other democracies, these have so far been interpreted in the courts, correctly in our view, in a narrow fashion so as not to unduly limit healthy public debate and engagement.

The balance between rigour and tolerance in the media’s coverage of socially sensitive matters needs to be read through the lens of the intent of the cartoonist, writer, or other media worker. In this case, we believe that fair comment and not insult was Shapiro’s intent so we welcome the court’s decision. However, we recognise that South Africa’s very diverse social landscape does make social commentary difficult, so we urge journalists to professionally apply their minds to these complexities in a way that is unbiased and respects the dignity of people adhering to differing creeds.

We take note of and salute leaders in the Muslim community who, although they do not agree with the judgement, have urged restraint by their community and respect for the law of the country.

Finally, I'd like to end with a quote from a friend, Ayesha Jacub, who had mentioned this in an email discussion around the topic of drawing the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), “The Sacred is not so fragile that it NEEDS our vehement defence. We feel thwarted, a little disappointed in Zapiro. But generally… we need to get over ourselves.”


  • hayley sherwood

    hey guys i ain’t a muslim but all this draw muhammad(pbuh) day has blown totally out of propertion and i think it should have never happened i personally have no religion but i respect each and every single one and i have also checked this out that muslims aren’t allowed to make fun of other religions and all my friends are muslims and each and everyone one of them respect all religions also muslims must defend their religion same anyone one else would so it should just stop

    • Suppose Mohamed was depicted at his therapist’s behind a screen with a cartoon bubble asking the same question.

      Would this have made it any more palatable to fundamentalist?

  • AKA

    First, this is not a debate, you’re only stating views from the same position instead of trying to give (non-hateful) counterarguments behind the rationale. And behind the simple mask of freedom of speech. Especially in the case of South Park in which the representation of the Prophet is not AT ALL harmful. What they were trying to say is that if you had to care for the whole world’s multifarious ethnics you would end up not saying anything anymore. It’s the old story of each religion saying that if you’re not its believer then you shall go to hell. Then everyone should go to hell unless you believe in all religions which is also usually forbidden. There are already hundreds of different branches in christianity (with their own specific bans and proscriptions) and I assume just as many in every other religions. This is an “impossible situation” (check the 38:00 mark of this lecture by the academic Zizek

    If it’s the case that in Islam you can’t draw Moses, Jesus etc then it’s just a matter of time before you start forbidding that too? Or if you were really consistent then you should forbid it too. Why tolerate just half of a proscription? And then… how can you dare pretending having the authority to speak for other people’s religion and beliefs? If their religion allows it then it’s their business. And that’s the trick: the constraints on representation of Mohammad are your business. Who knows maybe in a 100 years a new guy will proclaim having seen a new prophet, initiate a new religion that encompasses islam, christianity and jews (just as islam did for christians and jews) and proclaim new rules concerning the 3 religions, thus arguing that they’re outdated and that this new religion only detains the one truth. What would be its legitimacy to speak for others? None. And yet you claim having legitimacy to speak for Christians and Jews. Worse, 2 muslims that worship the same god and prophet(s) might act in completely different ways (regarding whether they’re moderate or not, from a specific branch of islam) in the name of the same god and prophet(s). So who’s right? No one. No one has a tangible proof of divine legitimacy.

    So the previous “impossible situation” would lead us to live in constant fear of hurting one another (to exaggerate a bit). Seriously, why not just close your eyes, ignore it. If it’s really stupid, if it’s just humor, whatever why taking it so bad? Because no one did it before…? Yet the Christians, the Jews, the Bouddhists, the Indians are super-used to having their gods made fun of by secular institutions/journalism and don’t take it seriously. Because it’s been done so many times, it’s okay now. You might get offended quickly but you learn to live with one another (even if it means that the another can be stupid too). And you can and should reply!! With constructive arguments and (maybe) funnier jokes. I guess it’s going too far to assume that, but still this is exactly what happened to the christian church in the last 200 years.
    How many times did Freud and other philosophers argue that God was dead, that it was a trick of the mind to compensate for the lack of maturity or guidance…How many caricatures have been drawn in the last weeks of Jesus, God or the Pope following all the scandals of paedophiles priests and the backing of the Church ?
    In the end it’s probably a good thing, it helps religions question their practices, agency etc… and adapt to the changes of the world. Several countries have adopted a rather moderate islam that is not (too much) in conflict with modernity or identity politics such (moderate feminism, heterosexuality). Civilizations change, traditions change, people change, and admit it or not it is a historical fact that ALL religions have changed over time. It is a normal thing and there’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.

    At this point I don’t know who’s still reading this comment or cursing my life (so much for the respect of everyone’s life and culture, right?) but I just want to go back to the notion of debate. A debate doesn’t mean a situation in which you fire all your arguments and then hope you killed your enemy. It’s all about an exchange in which you should try to understand the other’s position, maybe not accept it but at least reckon that it makes sense from his point of view. Then gradually things can change.

    Hope you can see that there is a lot more at stake in long term stakes. However I must say I totally agree that with freedom comes undisputable responsibility. Of the author, not the whole nation. It is everyone’s responsibility and not institutions who are asked to cover for everybody’s mess. But this is another chapter. You can write 20 books on responsibility.
    Until then, I sincerely wish you all a good day

  • nirvana demon

    Dear Global Voices,
    There are 2 issues here, and they have been unthinkingly merged.
    Point 1: The cartoons of the prophet by Shapiro (yeah that’s what they call him in SA) are representations, but by no means ment to be derogatory. Muhammed is shown as slightly elderly man with a beard and a turban. That is how I picture the local Mullah in my neighbourhood mosque, all twinkling eyes and soft voice, and I think as a man of God, and sanctified by the personal Law board, it is not really derogatory to represent any person as such.

    Point2: The Quran forbids the representation of the Prophet by any MUSLIM/believer, for reasons stated earlier. To expect non-muslims to follow this dictum is unfair and foolish. To forcibly enforce this thorugh death threats, petulant acts of childish censorship, etc is dangerous. Muslim opinion groups around the world have to get past their trigger-happy prickliness over all matters religious. After all, most practising muslims see their religion as an integral part of their individual makeup and identity. This is bound to invite comment, and opinion, and that is the price for being public about their beliefs. Giving death threats when someone breaks the tenets you follow is silly, and illegal, not to mention impossible to enforce.

    Zapiro’s cartoon is apocryphal: life is certainly imitating art.

  • @AKA I had rounded up all of the blogs I could that were writing about the sitaution at that time. The main point is that both sides have their rights and wrongs. What’s needed is a greater understanding on both sides.

    Right now all it’s looking like is two 8 year olds fighting on a playground.

    @nirvana demon I agree with some of your points. But keep in mind that a few radicals don’t represent the whole.

  • AKA

    @Muhammad Karim: couldn’t agree more… unfortunately it seems to be the case in most conflicts of whatever kind. The term “adult” seems to be only an ideal to reach in a person’s life :). As long as there’re people to talk and discuss, there’s hope… somewhere.
    I guess there’s also a big room for media’s responsibility in providing this space for dialogue and enhancing mutual understanding.

  • Aaron Worthing here, proprietor of

    I don’t agree that our view has been well represented. Let me quote from my own site to explain what we are about:

    “We are calling the terrorists’ bluff.

    “The terrorists threaten to murder anyone who insults or even depicts their prophet in a cartoon. And as long as it is a handful of individuals being threatened—Salman Rushdie, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the Danish cartoonists—that threat is effective. You might even look at the murder of Theo Van Gogh and conclude it is not a bluff.

    “But it is a bluff. Because if enough people do it at once, they will not be able to carry through their threat. They can’t kill us all. It’s that simple.

    “That is why we must draw Mohammed. May 20, 2010 may have come and gone, but I urge people to keep drawing, and as long as people send them to me, i will keep publishing them.”

    In short, we are exposing ourselves to the same dangers that Salman Rusdie, Matt Stone et. al. are facing now, and saying to the terrorists “if you are going to kill them, you will have to kill all of us.” I mean at least their beheading arm will get tired. Maybe they will get tennis elbow!

    On a serious note, of course the mechanism by which we expose ourselves to this danger is to depict and more often than not, insult Mohammed. This means that the vast majority of Muslims who don’t condone censorship by government or by violence still has to see their faith or beloved prophet insulted. As I say over and over again, but for the danger to freedom of expression, I wouldn’t have started this site and I suspect the majority of us wouldn’t have drawn anything. That seems particularly true of our “Dreaded Stick Figures of Blasphemy.”

    But we have been left with no other choice. Our free governments have failed to stand up for freedom, and big media has, too. So it fell on us, in the grassroots media such as facebook and the many blogs, to step up.

    And if you complain that we are doing it, it will fall on deaf ears unless you offer a viable solution to the problem.

  • The reactions of most of the people show that the cartoonist is, after all, right in making the person on couch think that his followers have zero sense of humor.
    If one wants to follow his religion according to some strict rules it is his own business but one can not force others to follow those rules.
    Please see this site and let every one know whether the assertion that prophet’s images are not depicted according to Islam.

  • I enjoyed your article.
    I just pray we all come out the other side of this with more understanding!
    Molly Norris

  • Jay Kactuz

    MK, good post, but let me say a few words…

    Quote: Muslims LOVE the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I mean truly love. For Muslims he is the ultimate example of what a human being is supposed to be.

    That is the problem. First of all, Muslims only care about Mohammed. They say they respect all the prophets but the fact is that only Mohammed counts. Have you ever seen a Muslim mad about drawings of Abraham or Jesus? In fact, Muslims don’t even care about Allah. You can joke about Allah and even draw him, and Muslims couldn’t care less.

    Second. This “to draw = to worship” idea is silly. Who ever came up with this idea is stupid. Note that there are hundreds of pictures of Mohammad by Muslims from the middle ages, mostly Iranian. The current debate is mostly about Muslims being able to get angry at infidels. For some reason this them a measure of happiness.

    Third. Contrary to comments above, Muslims not only make fun of other religions, they routinely condemn them. Imams regularly say all kind of vile things about Non-Muslims.The Quran is full of hate against unbelievers. Not only that, Muslims actively descriminate against non-Muslims in all Islamic societies. Since Muslims don’t respect others, why should non-Muslims then respect Muslims?

    Fouth. Once again, contrary to what is stated above, according to those detailed accounts and descriptions mentioned above, Mohammed engaged in a series of agressive wars against his neighbors. He attacked villages and caravans. He killed and plundered. He took slaves and let his men rape captives. These things are found in Islam’s own traditions (ahadith). These were wars of conquest, and not self defense. So do non-Muslims have to respect this too? Muslims refuse to condemn these actions and make silly excuses or ignore these things.

    Fifth, regarding the statement “not to fall into the trap of our Christian Brethren and end up worshipping the Prophet instead of God” I assure you that Christians don’t worship Mohammed. I think you meant Jesus, but since they consider him God, what is the problem? Do Muslims have the right to tell Christians what Christians should believe? Once again, to this infidel, it sure looks like Muslims worship Mohammed.

    Sixth. Personally I find this whole worship thing to be silly, but why should people that bow down to a rock condemn other people for worshipping a picture? Or can you say that Muslims don’t bow down to a rock, it just looks like they do, but Christians and or Buddhists really really worship statues and people not god or whatever. yeah, right.

    Muslims need to grow up and/or be honest. If they want respect, they have to respect others. They also need to be honest about their religion and prophet. As AKA said, people need to question their faith and practices. Muslims never ask questions. They have double standards, one for Islam and another for non-Muslims.


    • Firstly, I recommend this articleby Azad Essa on Thought Leader. It really made me laugh :)

      Okay, let’s get to it… I’ll respond point by point respectively…

      1) Wrong… Muslims do care about all the other prophets and don’t condone their drawings or there derogation in anyway. Granted, the uneducated and hot tempered don’t get as violent about it but Islam teaches us not to.

      2)Ever heard of ‘idols’, ever seen Hindu worshippers? what do they worship apart from sculptures of their gods? it’s Photographs of them. Christians too, every church has a sculpture or some form of Jesus (pbuh) and his pictures everywhere.

      3)I would recommend you not reading Hadith and Quran off of the Internet, if you pick and choose verses and base your idea of the whole solely on that, it’s very myopic and does not represent the Truth. Also, Don’t base your view of Islam off of the views and actions of a few uneducated radicals. Hitler was a Christian.

      4)Once again. You seem to be reading Hate Websites rather than the actual Seerah(History) of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). I suggest you watch the DVD “Legacy of a Prophet” done by PBS. Google it. It’s not detailed but has enough scholars of History and Islam to paint a picture. Also, when reading Hadith, Like the Quran… Please take context into account as well the sum whole of the topic under discussion. There are thousands of Hadith. Don’t pick one and assume the whole.

      5)I don’t understand your point.

      6)Again, please clarify.

      On your last point, I agree on the ones committing violence to grow up, the same as I propose the one’s drawing pictures with ill intent to grow up as well. We are honest about our Religion and Prophet. Try to understand rather than come in with evil intent and try to justify your misguided beliefs.

      And finally, Don’t Judge Islam by the actions of a few Muslims.



  • Andrew Piglet

    Cartoonists have the luxury of artistic license, which means they can draw whatever they want and be beyond reproach. So everyone should just shut their cake-holes!

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