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South Africa: Zapiro's “Muhammad” Cartoon Controversy

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Religion

Zapiro [1], 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 [2]. “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” [3] is a drawing event organised inspired by a comment by Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris [4] 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 [5] and Uproar over M&G Prophet Muhammad cartoon [6].

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 [7] on my own blog, Waiting in Transit [8]:

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” [9]:

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 [10] 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?” [11]:

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 [12] 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 [13]:

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 [14]:

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 [15]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 [16]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.”