MJC: Freedom of speech should not lead to hate speech

South Africa's Muslim Judicial Council has condemned the attacks on French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, but says freedom of speech must not lead to hate speech. (Reuters)

South Africa's Muslim Judicial Council has condemned the attacks on French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, but says freedom of speech must not lead to hate speech. (Reuters)

Freedom of speech is to be respected, but does have limits when it borders on what could be perceived as hate speech, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) said on Saturday.

“If someone criticises your place of work, your car, your shoes, these things are fine – but when someone insults, humiliates or degrades a personality that is connected to the heart of the Muslim, you have overstepped the bounds of freedom of speech,” said MJC spokesperson Nabeweya Malick.

“We accept freedom of speech, but there is a limit to your freedom of expression when there is something that could potentially lead to hate speech.”

Charlie Hebdo
On Wednesday, two brothers – reportedly linked to Al-Qaida – staged an attack at the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. 

Twelve people, including the editor and three cartoonists, other magazine staffers and two policemen were gunned down. Associated Press has reported that Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the Hebdo attack as retaliation for the magazine’s frequent satirical portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad. The brothers were killed during a shootout with police on Friday. 

However, in the interim, France was hit by two other terrorist attacks; one when a police officer was shot and killed and another when four people were murdered in a kosher supermarket.

‘They don’t speak for Islam’
Responding to these attacks, Malick said those responsible were “criminals” who should not be seen as connected to a religious group. “They don’t speak for Islam ... Any terrorist group that attacks – We condemn that, as human rights are sacred,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that there are efforts made to link crime to a broader religion.” 

On Saturday, Malick provided an explanation of the Islamic principles relating to the depiction of religious figures. “Out of respect for the prophet’s noble character, we believe that no human being could do justice to the prophet in drawing.”

She said, however, that violence would never be an acceptable reaction to offensive depiction in the media and, in fact, went against Islamic law’s principles condemning the loss of even one innocent life. “Nothing could justify [violence]”.

Rather, Malick said, legal routes could be taken to ensure all communities felt their rights in the media were respected. “If someone crosses the line, ideally, I think the government and lawmaker can be approached.” She said there were numerous organisations in South Africa that could assist when work “bordering on hate speech” was created. 

Nevertheless, she said that if an offensive depiction – especially of the Prophet Muhammed – was published in the South African media it would be a “sad day” for the country’s Muslim community. “What would you achieve out of that? Do we need to punish the Muslim community for the crime of a few? At this point in time, we are so sensitive. It would be extremely sad and hateful.”

Malick said that, particularly given the country’s apartheid past, South Africans knew the pain that came with causing harm to others. 

She said however that the community believed the South African media tended to avoid the trend to “focus on the sensational”, which some international publications appeared to follow. 

“South African media in general are more mature and understand the bigger picture.”

Zapiro cartoon
In May 2010, South African satirist Jonathan Shapiro, widely known as Zapiro, raised controversy when he depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon. The cartoon showed Muhammad lying on a couch complaining to a psychiatrist: “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!” 

A meeting was subsequently held between the Mail and Guardian newspaper that published the cartoon and Muslim community members. Then-editor Nic Dawes later said that the newspaper regretted the offence caused by the cartoon and that it had decided to review its editorial policy on religion, especially where it concerned the Prophet Muhammad.

Later, Zapiro himself responded by publishing another cartoon, in which he drew himself on the same therapist’s couch and poured his heart out on the difficulties of censorship on religious grounds. 

Malick said that the South African Muslim community had not experienced any reported incidents of prejudice in the wake of this week’s terror attacks. She also said that the Muslim community did not believe there was any rise of extremism in South Africa and rather prided themselves on their integration amongst all people. 

“Muslims have integrated and contributed ... We are just like any other group that are wanting to do good.” – Sapa



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