WHEN Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, drew a cartoon in the Mail and Guardian of the beloved Prophet (s) on a therapist’s couch complaining that his ummah didn’t have a sense of humour, I winced – or as I wrote – “dug myself a trench”.
As a journalist and talk-show radio host, this was an issue that wasn’t going to go away after my weekly read of the M & G. It was going to confront me, head-on. And as someone who believed in freedom of speech, I was going to be under the hammer.
It’s not that I would have done the same myself, no. I wouldn’t have. But there was an underlying principle – paradoxical if not problematic, but still a principle: as a non-Muslim in a non-Muslim country Islamic rulings did not apply to Zapiro.
In an op-ed published by the Independent Newspaper Group (also featured on my blog), I wrote that South Africa’s public spaces, a mirror of traditional modernity, were not sacred ones. I added that the constitution, the mechanism that guaranteed our rights, was a legal document. It was not a manifesto of sacred law.
I argued that for me at least, freedom of speech was sacrosanct – even if it meant Zapiro depicted the Prophet (as unadvisable as it was). Freedom of speech had to reflect an equality of standards.
In other words, one value couldn’t apply to one party, and a different one to another. Were we being consistent, I asked, if we kept silent when Zapiro lampooned Jews or Christians? Freedom of speech meant we also had to take punishment sometimes ourselves too.
I also reflected on the Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses saga. I felt that Muslim over-reaction had alienated non-Muslims from condemning his blasphemy – something that would have had more impact than creating the innate curiosity (and the good book sales) of banned, or forbidden fruit.
Having worked as a journalist during the apartheid era, I warned against us of going back to the old days of fear, intolerance, unbridled censorship and the shutting down of democratic space.
I pointed out the peaceful and reasoned ethos of Muhammad (s) – would he have been so offended? I concluded by asking why no South African judiciary had ever really taken the step to explain exactly why the Muslim community would take offence at a depiction of the Prophet (s).
A dignified public explanation – as opposed to the righteous indignation of the moment – could have gone a long way after the Danish cartoon debacle to diffusing the situation, even before Zapiro put pen to paper.
However, in retrospect, I must admit that after the Mail and Guardian’s apology – and the maturity of our community in creating a common platform to responsibly address the issue – we can all walk away from the South African Muhammad (s) cartoon incident with pride.
Would the same have happened elsewhere in the world? I doubt it. And this says a lot. As South Africans we have triumphed in this instance, traversing the embedded social barriers, contradictions and rainbow mirages of the post-apartheid era.
Another thing that struck me was the level of discourse – it went way beyond the Muslim space, although Muslims were part of it. Gone werethe predominating psychosis of the death threat and the flag-burning mentality of previous debates.
Ebrahim Rasool, Faried Esack Naeem Jeenah, Jonathan Jansen, Alan Boesak, Mufti Zubair Bhayat, Auwais Rafudien, bloggist Azad Esa, M & G editor Nic Dawes, Zapiro, SA Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee and a host of letter-writers, SMS commentators and callers to radio stations all hugely enriched the dialogue.
Professor Mahmoud Mamdani, addressing the University of Johannesburg, provided some interesting insights. His view that slander from inside Islam was blasphemy, but that from outside Islam it was bigotry was a subtle, but telling distinction. Bigotry could not fight bigotry was the wisdom I extracted from his talk.
Naturally, there were those who pilloried me for my stance on freedom of expression. No problem. However, I do feel a few responses would be in order, just in case their misconceptions linger and I become forever labelled as they say in the Cape, “water-slams” – weak in my Islam.
Firstly, I was accused of believing in freedom of speech before my faith, family or profession. However, my stance was primarily based on faith. It was because of my Islam that I entered the debate. The Prophet (s), as a principle, did not apply Shari’ah to non-Muslims.
He gave the Jews of Quraidha the choice of being punished by their own laws for their treachery against him. Furthermore, Jews and Christians in Islamic rule were classified as dhimmi, and allowed full exercise of customary law and religious practice separate from Shari’ah.
Secondly, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was “no freedom of speech in Islam”. To this there is a simple answer. There are enough precedents to show that there have always been historical examples of freedom of speech in Islam.
The Prophet (s), informing his Companions he wasn’t speaking through Revelation, solicited opinions and advice on the principle of shura, or consultation, at Khandaq. There, he listened to the advice of the Persian convert, Salman al-Farsi.
Then there was the election of the Four Righteous Caliphs after the death of the Prophet (s). If their appointments were not fully democratic in the sense of full community participation, they were based on consensus – and the speaking of public minds on who should be the next leader.
And what about Caliph ‘Umar? A paragon of piety and justice, and a towering personality, here was a giant of man; but here was a leader humble enough to allow a woman to correct him in public.
Why, for example, would the greatest scholars write books on the topic of “adab ul-Ikhtilaf”, the ethics of disagreement? Why is this very term even in Islamic discourse? And what about the madh-haib, the schools of Islamic legal thought?
If there was no expression in Islam, let alone freedom of expression, would they have developed into the dynamic legal instruments they are today?
In conclusion, judging from the debate, most have agreed that freedom of speech – inviolable as a principle – does have its boundaries. The Qur’an, for instance, stipulates that Muslims must not revile others, and I think it’s exactly why traditional Islam – proudly – has no history of xenophobia.
Of course, it does raise another question: freedom of speech has to be applied equally within its paradigmatic boundaries. And that’s the challenge. There will only be consistency once the double-standards and untouchable holy cows of modern society have been herded into the corral too.