The Mail & Guardian today published a cartoon by Zapiro that has caused considerable controversy and deeply offended some of our readers.
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.
No hate speech
Of course the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. I would not have published a cartoon that amounted to hate speech or incitement to violence, both of which are debarred by the Constitution.
Nor would I have published the cartoon if I had felt that it was a gratuitous attack on Islam. Of course I understand that others may feel that that is precisely what it was, but I hope that they will accept that this was not the intention of the M&G.
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.