When I saw Zapiro’s cartoon in the Mail and Guardian depicting an image of the noble Prophet Muhammad, I started digging myself a trench.
Zapiro’s drawing was a response to calls on Facebook for people to celebrate, of all bizarre things, a “draw Muhammad day” in response to the irreverent TV programme, South Park. His point was that our community lacked a sense of humour, and the Prophet is depicted complaining to a psychiatrist about this.
As a journalist aware of community sensitivities, especially after the Danish cartoon saga of 2006, I knew there’d be heated indignation. South Africa’s Muslim community does have a sense of humour, but on the matter of faith and the Prophet Muhammad it has always been serious business.
However, at the same time, whilst appreciating the above I also have to accept Zapiro’s view that the drawing was not intended to be an insult to the Prophet, but rather a commentary on the community. M & G editor Nic Dawes and academic Faried Esack have described it as more a gentle poke, and that’s something I tend to agree with.
Okay, let it be said, I certainly wouldn’t have done the same myself, but as someone who believes in freedom of speech, I would be seriously betraying my own values by supporting a censoring of Zapiro via the courts as the Jamiat-ul ‘Ulama (the Council of Theologians) wished to do.
We have to understand that South Africa’s public spaces, a reflection of traditional modernity, are not sacred ones. South Africa is no longer a Calvinistic entity, where the Dutch Reformed Church is said to be the government at prayer.
The constitution is a legal bill of rights, not a manifesto of sacred law.
Nor for that matter is South Africa an Islamic country. Zapiro, a non-Muslim, is not legally bound by notions of Islamic sanctity. What is customarily forbidden to me is not forbidden to him. Ours is a democracy of pluralism, a democracy in which we have all implicitly agreed to embrace the principles of freedom of association and speech.
That means I have to defend the freedom of someone else to criticise me, satirise me, and yes – even offend me. And that is why I’ve had to dig a trench to hunker down as the guns of indignation boom across the country via newly formed community alliances, and their invective is diverted at a bothersome journalist.
For as a South African Muslim, I regard freedom of speech as sacrosanct, even if it means I have to defend the right of Zapiro to depict the Prophet – as unwise as it may be for him to do so.
I accept that not everybody in the community will be comfortable with that, but life is sometimes a paradox, a philosophical imponderable.
Then there’s the issue of consistency. Freedom of speech involves equality of standards. One value can’t apply to one party whilst we apply a different one to another.
Those who cheered, or remained silent, when Zapiro lampooned Jews, Christians, Zuma, Malema, Zille or Mbeki need to remember that it’s our turn – we’re now on the sharp end of the pen.
Naturally, if there’s offence taken – and offence has been taken – it behoves us to treat the matter with dignity. Muhammad, the very man whom Zapiro has drawn, was celebrated for his tolerance and inspiring behaviour.
This is a man whose Meccan neighbour used to throw her trash on him in the street. And yet when she fell ill, he was the first to visit her. This is a man who forbade his followers to beat an ignorant Bedouin who urinated in his mosque.
The Prophet understood better than most that preaching hellfire from pulpits, screaming racist insults in public, slapping lawsuits, angrily burning effigies and God forbid, issuing death fatwas, never persuaded anybody to look favourably on a cause.
Salman Rushdie merely laughed all the way to the bank after the ayatollahs put a bounty on his head for Satanic Verses. I wasn’t comfortable with Rushdie, but I was seriously concerned about suggestions of book burnings and bannings – especially by those who hadn’t read his book.
I was even more concerned with his public death sentence. It was unconstitutional by Islamic legal standards as religious judges cannot issue cross-border legal edicts, let alone absentee ones in which the accused is not allowed a defence in court.
It also saw fair-minded people, who would otherwise have condemned Rushdie’s blasphemy, turning away in disgust from the Muslim community at the Iranian decision.
Having worked as a journalist during the apartheid era, I think I’m a little qualified to understand freedom of speech, and what it means. During the State of Emergency we were governed by over 100 extremely restrictive laws.
If you wanted to tell the truth, things such as banning, security police visits in the dead of night, detention without trial and censorship could become your occupational hazards. If you worked in the alternative media, as I did, access to government was impossible.
Nor during the apartheid era would I have had the space to pen op-eds for a mainstream newspaper, and neither would angry Muslims have been afforded the opportunity to write letters to the editor, or form associations of protest. Our debate would have been summarily closed down.
So to silence Zapiro, I feel, is to re-enter that apartheid space again, where fear, intimidation and intolerance are the watchwords of a society. The Islamic world, peopled as it is with tin-pot dictators and corrupt monarchies, needs no further bad examples from South Africa.
And finally, Islamic traditions have detailed descriptions of Muhammad right down to the length of his eyelashes, yet no South African Muslim judiciary has ever publicly debated – let alone explained – exactly why Muslims might regard it as offensive to depict images of the noble Prophet Muhammad.
Surely, given the sensitivity of the issue after Denmark 2006, that would have been the most logical step, and the wisest way to enter the debate?
PS: These views are my own, and yes, you can disagree.