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The appearance of the cartoon caused a huge controversy in South Africa. The Council of Muslim Theologians got wind of its existence prior to press time, and attempted without success to block its publication. Muslim groups expressed their customary indignation and anger. The CMT issued the obligatory veiled threat that is routinely employed by CAIR and other Muslim groups throughout the West:
[The Council of Muslim Theologians] added that while it wouldn’t advocate violence, it couldn’t necessarily guarantee that there wouldn’t be any.
Muslim spokesmen invariably disclaim any personal intention of reacting violently, but they also assume that their co-religionists are so primitive and childlike that they can’t control their own behavior in the face of cartoons and jokes. Are these spokesmen unaware of how badly this reflects on the people to whom they give voice? Or do they simply not care?
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes gave the most cogent summary of the Zapiro Cartoon Affair:
“In my view no cartoon is as insulting to Islam as the assumption that Muslims are incapable of reacting to a challenging image with anything but violence.”
This is the same theme I broached last night in my EDMD post-mortem. It is patronizing and — dare I say it? — racist to assume that Muslims have any less autonomy, agency, and capacity for self-control than the rest of us do. The onus is upon them to learn how to behave in a civilized manner in a civilized country, not upon us to restrain our satirical impulses in order to avoid giving offense.
From what I can gather, the Mail & Guardian is not what I would call a conservative paper, and through his cartoons Zapiro seems to be a crusader for social justice and other progressive causes. The paper and the cartoonist did not embroil themselves in this controversy out of any Counterjihad sentiments. Quite the contrary.
Our British correspondent JP has collected a series of articles and op-eds about the Zapiro cartoon from various South African media sources. I’ll put the full text of each article in tonight’s news feed, but some relevant excerpts are below.
First, a letter from the editor of the Mail & Guardian:
The cartoon depicts the Prophet Muhammad reclining on a therapist’s couch and saying sadly “Other prophets’ followers have a sense of humour”.
When I first saw the image, and approved it for publication, it was clear to me that it was Zapiro’s contribution to the global debate around representations of the Prophet. This is an enormously complex and sensitive subject, but I felt that Zapiro had attempted to handle it with care. Unlike some other cartoonists who have tackled the same subject, he had not used Islamophobic imagery, nor had he mocked the prophet.
What the cartoon does do, is use humour to ask why the concerns of one religious group should be privileged above those of others, and above the freedom of expression rights enshrined in our constitution.
Zapiro’s talent for satirical analysis means that he causes offence from time-to-time — sometimes very profound offence. His very strong criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and of human rights abuses by the Israeli government, for example, angers many Jewish South Africans.
His depictions of the Pope in cartoons dealing with the policies and doctrines of the Vatican offend some of our Catholic readers, and his depictions of President Jacob Zuma have drawn not only anger from the President, but a multimillion-rand lawsuit.
It was against this backdrop that I made the decision to publish the cartoon. I understand that for many Muslims any representation of the Prophet, no matter how innocuous, is offensive and I genuinely regret any offence that the cartoon may have caused those who hold this belief dear. That regret does not, however, outweigh my duty to the principle of freedom expression. Zapiro expresses himself by drawing, and to deny him his pen would be to deny him his voice.
Some have suggested that it was irresponsible of us to publish the cartoon, knowing that it would anger a section of the community, and might lead to violence. Counsel for Jamiatul Ulama argued this point strongly in a court bid to prevent distribution of today’s newspaper.
I take a different view. I believe that it is more insulting to Islam to assume that Muslims will react violently to a challenging image, than it is to publish such an image. I have complete faith that local Muslim community holds dear the same constitutional values as the M&G. I will be holding discussions with Muslim leaders in the coming days in order to listen to their concerns.
South Africa is home to a multitude of faith communities, as well as to strongly divergent secular viewpoints. We possess an extraordinary talent for having difficult conversations, and emerging stronger from them. I welcome that conversation; on our website, in the newspaper, and in direct interaction with our readers.
From the comments section:
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We the South African Muslim community is deeply offended by your cartoon mocking the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and depicting him negatively. It is evident that this publication is aimed to demonise the character and personality of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is followed by 1.5 billion Muslims globally and who is admired by millions of others all over the world. After all, what was the intention of this publication by depicting the Prophet negatively when it is a well known fact that he was a paragon of peace, mercy, tolerance and forgiveness?
The publication of this cartoon demonstrates contempt for the religious beliefs of the Muslim Community. This cartoon has abused freedom of speech by taking it to a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable level by showing disregard for the sensitivities of Muslims of South Africa. The Muslim community views the publication of such offensive material as a serious attack on the integrity of their religion, and as an attack on the global Muslim Community.
The media has a duty to act responsibly in sensitive issues of this nature and not to push the right to freedom of expression to ridiculous levels where the lines of distinction between profound and profane are virtually obliterated. Freedom of expression is not an absolute; it is limited by the requirement of not causing offence or inciting racial or religious hatred.
The entire culture and value system of Islam is based on respect and reverence, such as respect for parents, wives, elders, religious symbols and so forth but for some respect means nothing at all. Such people satirise and mock anything and everything, including their own religion, all of which is done in the name of freedom of expression. They expect to also mock at others, in the name of freedom of expression. But Muslims, who are required by their religion to respect all of the Holy Prophets (peace be upon all of them), will not tolerate the mockery of any of the Holy Prophets. Hence when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was mocked in the cartoon, there is a furious reaction from Muslims.
Two things are wrong with the cartoon. Firstly, the illustrated depiction of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and worse, the intention to ridicule the Prophet (peace be upon him) through it. This is an explosion waiting to happen. We view this as an example of the ignorance and arrogance that you have displayed.
A summary of what happened, published in the next day’s edition of the Mail & Guardian:
Uproar Over M&G Prophet Muhammad Cartoon
It was a late night in court for the Mail & Guardian as the Council of Muslim Theologians on Thursday evening tried to stop the newspaper from publishing a Zapiro cartoon featuring the Prophet Muhammad.
An interdict was not granted, but on Friday morning M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes and other staff were fielding a flood of angry callers, and even death threats hit the newspaper’s office.
“You’ve got to watch your back” and “This will cost him his life” were some of the remarks made.
The cartoon followed the furore surrounding the Facebook page, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”, which was sparked by threats by a radical Muslim group against the creators of US TV series South Park for depicting the prophet in a bear suit.
Zapiro’s cartoon, published in Friday’s M&G, depicted the prophet reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch and bemoaning his followers’ lack of humour.
When Dawes first saw the cartoon he said he thought it “a gentle and irreverent poke” at the hysteria that had greeted the Facebook page. This week Pakistan ordered all internet service providers to block Facebook, as well as YouTube for carrying “un-Islamic content”.
Dawes recounted how he received a call from an attorney from the council at about 8.30pm on Thursday night — after the distribution process of the Friday paper had begun. “He asked for an undertaking that we would stop distribution of the paper and remove the cartoon.”
Dawes pointed out that this was impossible, and that in any event the M&G would not do so.
By 11.30pm the newspaper’s advocate had been pulled out of a dinner party and Dawes, along with the paper’s investigation unit, found himself in the South Gauteng High Court ready to defend the M&G’s right to freedom of speech.
However, the council, or Jamiatul Ulama as it is also known, failed to provide the necessary papers for the M&G to answer. It presented verbal evidence, but the judge ruled the interdict failed in terms of urgency, as the newspaper was already available in some outlets and the cartoon had already been published on the M&G Online.
It was a case of trying to close the stable doors long after the horse had bolted, the newspaper’s counsel pointed out.
Furthermore, the judge found that the newspaper’s rights had been compromised by not being provided with founding papers advising what the case against it was.
While the council pleaded with the judge not to throw the case out on technical grounds, she answered that “as a judge and as a Muslim I am bound by our Constitution and the rules of our courts”.
Earlier, the judge made a decision to not recuse herself, saying her own religious background wouldn’t influence her.
The Council of Muslim Theologians is the same organisation that succeeded in preventing the Sunday Times in 2006 from republishing the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet.
During Thursday’s application the council repeatedly raised the spectre of a violent backlash, saying that the timing of the cartoon was bad because of a possible threat to the Soccer World Cup.
It added that while it wouldn’t advocate violence, it couldn’t necessarily guarantee that there wouldn’t be any.
“We very much saw that as a threat, and our counsel vigorously objected,” said Dawes. The judge upheld the objection.
While the council was unhappy with the court’s decision, it agreed to meet Dawes to take the discussion forward.
“The M&G is a platform for debate,” Dawes emphasised, adding that everyone was welcome to engage in debate and discussion with the paper. “My view is no cartoon is as insulting to Islam as the assumption Muslims will react with violence.”
However, he also noted that had the cartoon been in any way Islamophobic, or crossed the line in terms of hate speech and racism, he would not have published it.
But Zapiro’s cartoons, he said, offend many people. Many noted that the award-winning South African political cartoonist, whose pen has repeatedly and poignantly exposed corrupt politicians and various hypocrisies in the public sphere, could have been far harsher if he wished.
As Dawes said: “If we had to pull every Zapiro cartoon that offended someone we wouldn’t have any Zapiro cartoons in the newspaper.”
From the Mail & Guardian:
Zapiro’s Cartoon: A lesson in democracy
Here’s a quick recent history in case you missed it.
- April 2010: Creators of the irreverent cartoon series, South Park, receive death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in an episode and elements of it are self-censored by the network.
- April 26: A global desktop activist drive launches on Facebook: “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” is set for May 20. Cue giant uproar in Muslim communities around the world, including Pakistan restricting access to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Wikipedia.
- May 20: South Africa: Ridiculously astute and talented South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro delivers a gentle poke at Islamic over-reaction in Friday’s edition of the Mail & Guardian, depicting the prophet reclining in a psychiatrist’s chair bemoaning his followers’ lack of humour.
- 11.30pm, May 20: Court room drama till the wee hours as the Council of Muslim Theologians attempts — and fails — to halt the newspaper’s distribution.
It was mayhem. M&G editor Nic Dawes was up till 2am with our legal team. The next day we were hit with a storm of angry letters and calls. Traffic volumes on this website went through the roof as the story went global. Lawyers were dragged out of dinner parties, people shouted at us, phones rang off the hook and Muslim leaders slammed our lack of sensitivity.
In other words, democracy happened. I staggered home after a long day of answering angry emails and moderating reams of comments on related articles. But I looked back proud of my country, our people and our Muslim community.
And it’s not just the war-torn developing world. In the West, Islam is the new Russia. Europeans and Americans seem not to know what to do with their Muslim communities — unless they conform thoroughly to the country’s cultural milieu they’re generally left out of its mainstream life. We’ve never had that problem in South Africa.
When I lived in The Netherlands for a few months in 2005, I was surprised — and disturbed — by the ghettoisation of Muslims. They seemed marginalised and maligned. Coming from a country where Muslims have been part and parcel of our national identity for centuries, it was a strange sight.
Perhaps it’s because our Islamic community is so firmly and unashamedly part of who we are as a nation that we haven’t had the same tensions that plague other secular countries with a significant Muslim population.
From the Cape Argus:
No apology from Mail & Guardian
The Mail & Guardian newspaper says it will not apologise for a Zapiro cartoon it published on Friday depicting Prophet Muhammad.
The newspaper was due to meet with the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) tomorrow to discuss the cartoon which has been greeted with outrage in the Muslim community. The cartoon shows Prophet Muhammad lying on a psychiatrist’s couch complaining: “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!”
MJC president Moulana Ighsaan Hendricks said they would discuss the matter further once the meeting had taken place.
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes said they would be going to listen to what the MJC had to say, but said they would not be offering an apology. “But we will express our regret for the distress we may have caused our readers,” he said. He confirmed that Zapiro would be present at the meeting tomorrow.
Muslims consider any depiction of Prophet Muhammad as offensive. Dawes said: “My view is no cartoon is as insulting as the assumption Muslims will react with violence.” In an online statement he said: “When I first saw the image, and approved it for publication, it was clear to me that it was Zapiro’s contribution to the global debate around representations of the Prophet. This is an enormously complex and sensitive subject, but I felt that Zapiro had attempted to handle it with care.”
Several Muslim organisations met yesterday to discuss the cartoon of the Prophet and said it was “blasphemous, insulting, insensitive and hurtful to the Muslim community. Organisations formed a committee, the United Muslim Forum of South Africa, who said they had a mandate to obtain an apology and appropriate assurances from the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
Hendricks said the organisation respected Zapiro’s right to freedom of expression, but that the cartoonist had to apply this with sensitivity to religious beliefs.
Zapiro was not willing to comment when contacted last night to discuss the matter.
From The Guardian (UK):
South African paper refuses to apologise for cartoon of Prophet Mohammed
A row that blew up last week in South Africa over another newspaper cartoon featuring the Prophet Muhammad shows no signs of dying down.
Nic Dawes, the editor of the Mail & Guardian, has made it clear ahead of his meeting today with the Council of Muslim Theologians that he will not apologise for running the cartoon last Friday. Drawn by Zapiro (the pen name of Jonathan Shapiro), it depicted the prophet reclining on a therapist’s couch and saying: “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!…”
The Muslim group, alerted on Thursday evening to the contents of the cartoon, tried to prevent its publication by launching a late-night high court action. Copies of the paper were already being distributed when the judge ruled in the paper’s favour.
Staff at the Mail & Guardian, a weekly tabloid regarded as a serious newspaper, have since received threats.
From Thought Leader (a production of M&G):
So what’s the big deal with drawing the prophet?
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 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 (pbuh) 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 Qur’an not to fall into the trap of worshipping the Prophet instead of God. Secondly, Muslims believe in ALL of the prophets of God — Moses, Jesus, Noah, Jonah, Adam etc (peace be upon them all) and we don’t DRAW any of them.
Finally, I pray … that intelligence dawns on both sides of this conflict. It’s a shame on humanity that BOTH sides are acting like this. Let’s grow up.
Muhammad Karim is a blogger on Tech Leader and a contributing author on Global Voices Online.
From the Cape Argus:
Why I’m crossing swords with Zapiro
One of my prized possessions is a 1987 United Democratic Front calendar by Jonathan Shapiro, or Zapiro, which has accompanied me in almost every office I’ve occupied. It has served as a summary of most that I have valued in my participation in the Struggle, and a reminder of the power of the arts to communicate when intolerance shuts down other, more linear voices.
In the battle for ideas and a better life, there is a genre that pushes back boundaries, can be iconoclastic and subversive, surface truth and expose falsehood, and yet leave the powerful that are challenged perplexed, because no tangible law was broken. They feel subverted, but bear no external wounds.
This sense overwhelmed me on seeing Zapiro participate in the “Draw Muhammad Day”. I was perplexed. I can well imagine how delicious the prospect must be to take on one of the remaining boundaries in an increasingly post-modern world.
The prospect of “drawing Muhammad” is alluring to those who pride themselves on iconoclasm and subversion.
Put at the service of a higher purpose like extending the boundaries of free expression, the campaign to “draw Muhammad” has just the right mix of nobility that comes from extending the truth, and danger that comes from taking on a group of people who appear to have long ago traded reason for the more instant elevation to paradise.
So why would I, in my state of ambiguity, even dare to cross swords (or pens) with Jonathan Shapiro about a cartoon?
Maybe because I suspect that he identifies himself with higher purposes and that he is in a space of values that sets him apart from his contemporaries who initiated the campaign to “draw Muhammad”. Maybe it’s just useful to seize the opportunity to debate and tease out the complexities of an issue so as not to cede the ground to those who label, threaten and harm in a battle of higher purposes.
What does all of this have to do with Zapiro’s cartoon? I raise this, I think, to invite Zapiro to understand the whole and to work at even higher purposes, and to fight real enemies. We need to distinguish the powerful from the victims. When we “draw Muhammad”, are we not helping powerful extremists by indignifying and mobilising already emasculated victims? For those who write, draw, speak and act with conscience, is our higher purpose today not to defuse the fundamentalist instincts — whether they sit in the Pentagon, wear explosives in Palestine, march into Gaza, peddle fast-food salvation or instant paradise, or make the poor invisible in the economic forums of the world?
We need to understand that we, too, are capable of advancing a fundamentalist agenda when we fail to advance rights, freedoms and values in relation to each other, and instead choose one or a few that we are closest to. We adopt unwittingly the mantle of those we challenge when such distinctions evade us.
To this day, Muslim antipathy toward depiction persists because it detracts from purity of faith. The Islamic heartlands have been denuded of relics and artefacts in a sometimes overzealous interpretation of this. To not know this, and to want to wage war against the intolerant fundamentalist strain in the Muslim community by using as the weapon of choice the very thing — depiction — that Islam emerged against, is to perpetuate the very conditions in the Muslim world that have bred violence. Muslims are brought up not to visualise or imagine the Prophet, but to mould their lives on the practice of the Prophet.
Zapiro, therefore, assists in convincing the majority of Muslims, who are ordinary, peaceful, tolerant, joking and humorous, that maybe there is something in that siren song which attempts to seduce them with the idea that there is only hostility with a world that disrespects their precepts of faith.
We need to nurture a gentler, more caring and free world with an enormous capacity for humour, that comes from those who are secure in their sense of dignity.
We must resist the siren songs of fundamentalists of all kinds. By pushing the boundary of Muslim aversion to depiction, we disturb the equilibrium that holds us all in check.
As for Zapiro, I refuse to burn my 1987 UDF calendar.
Ebrahim Rasool is an MP and founder of World for All Foundation