‘This is not the Muhammad of the Danish cartoons’

Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes reiterated this week that the decision to publish Zapiro’s controversial cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad on Friday did not imply that the newspaper supported the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook group that had sparked outrage in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

The controversial Facebook group, which claims to be a protest against restrictions of freedom of speech and religious fanaticism, has seemingly become a forum for the venting of Islamaphobic sentiment.

The group has led to Facebook, as well as other social networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube, being banned or severely restricted in Pakistan.

“I’ve consistently said I do not support the Facebook group, and would not have run the cartoon if it was racist or islamophobic. It is neither. It is a gentle attempt to enter the debate,” Dawes said. “This is not the Muhammad of the Danish cartoons, with a bomb in his turban and a wicked grin. No one has suggested otherwise, including our staunchest critics.”

“Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” was thought up by cartoonist Molly Norris, in response to the censorship of an episode of South Park.

Death threats
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone received death threats when an episode of the adult cartoon showed Muhammad in a bear suit, and Comedy Central, the network who produce the show, decided to cut parts of the episode.

Norris originally created a poster calling for “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” to take place on May 20 2010. The poster was illustrated with pictures of various inanimate objects arguing about which one was the “real likeness” of the prophet. The poster was credited “Citizens Against Citizens Against Humour”, a fictional organisation.

In an interview with Seattle-based radio station KIRO, she stated “As a cartoonist I just felt so much passion about what had happened I wanted to kind of counter Comedy Central’s message they sent about feeling afraid.”

The cartoon gathered publicity, with the cartoonist appearing on a number of chat shows, and a Facebook group was soon started, sparking a number of copycat groups. However original founder Jon Wellington soon disassociated himself with the group, posting a statement saying: “I am aghast that so many people are posting deeply offensive pictures of the prophet.”

Norris herself suggested that “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” be called off, posting a video on her website where she said: “Enough Mohammed drawings have already been made to get the point across. At this juncture, such drawings are only hurtful to more liberal and moderate Muslims who have not done anything to endanger our first amendment rights.”

Still active
Despite these statements, the original Everybody Draw Muhammad Day Facebook group is still active, with many similar groups being added to Facebook since the controversy started. While some of these sites have become forums for the discussion of free speech and expression, many posts have spiralled into Islamaphobic and other racist attacks.

Offensive images on the original group include: Muhammad being involved in sexual acts with animals, Muhammad drawn in the shape of a phallus, various images of Muhammad with bombs strapped to his chest, as well as pictures of excrement captioned with the phrase: “This is a picture of Muhammad.” The comments on the group’s wall include statements such as: “Careful, they might fly a plane into your house. That’s how they fight.”

However, between these images and comments, there is also real debate taking place between Muslims and non-Muslims, and condemnation of the overtly Islamaphobic images from both groups. An American posted a statement saying: “C’mon guys. Just because you have the right to draw Muhammad, doesn’t mean you should rub it in peoples face. It’s very insensitive. Yes you have the right to do it, but launching a visual smear campaign against a revered religious leader will only contribute to further strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Meanwhile Dawes has expressed his “regret for the distress we may have caused our readers”. The editor, along with Zapiro, were meeting with the Muslim Judicial Council on Wednesday to further the discussion.

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