/ 24 May 2010

Zapiro’s cartoon: A lesson in democracy

Three days later and South Africans are still talking about That Cartoon.

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.

Remember the Danish cartoons in 2005? The Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the prophet. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described it as Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II. It resulted in worldwide protests that often turned violent. Some put the death figure at over a 100 as police fired into various crowds.

Five years later, this was the first South African cartoon tackling the subject matter. With our national predisposition towards civil action and violence, things could easily have gone pear-shaped. Instead our national predisposition for dialogue proved stronger.

Could it be the legacy the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? I attended a retrospective on the TRC in 2008 at which journalist Max du Preez spoke about his travels to countries torn apart by ethnic violence. They could not believe his stories of how South Africans frankly and honestly discussed their problems with each other at the commission. Our dialogue isn’t perfect, but it’s there, which is more than can be said of a lot of nations.

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.

Ahmed Kathrada stayed alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, giving their lives for their country’s freedom. Fatima Meer, a committed Muslim and South African, was a lesson in conviction and courage, while Kader Asmal and Naledi Pandor are both highly respected politicians. The Grey Street Mosque in Durban is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and the abiding faith of the Cape Malay Muslim communities is part of their celebrated culture and lifestyle.

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.

In this case our often-fragile legal system proved successful. People used the system and followed the processes open to them to make their voices heard, and it worked. A decision was made in court — by a Muslim judge — and the Council of Muslim Theologians respected her decision. While the spectre of violence was raised a few times in some of their legal argument, and of course the obligatory anonymous death threats made, there has been no blood spilt on the streets or on our hands.

Critics have slammed the M&G for publishing the cartoon so close to the World Cup. Foreign media have latched on to the story as yet another swart gevaar-type news item that has characterised coverage of our country ahead of the tournament. But they’re missing the real success story here. As Dawes put it, “I know that Muslims share our constitutional values, and are capable of having the most robust, angry and painful conversations in rigorous and peaceful fashion”.

Calls for more discussion are being heeded and Jonathan Shapiro, the M&G and Muslim leaders will likely sit down sometime this week to talk things through.

Dawes noted that the “Muslim leaders with whom I have spoken have been unfailingly courteous and thoughtful, and I will be meeting with more of them in the coming days to hear their concerns, and communicate my own approach”.

As he put it, in a quote that defined the moment: “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.”

It did the rounds on Twitter instantly.

Religious row and possible backlash? More like democracy in action.