/ 27 May 2010

Bigotry rides rampant

Bigotry is again riding rampant in reaction to last week’s Zapiro cartoon in the Mail & Guardian. Tolerance and even facts of religious history have become strangled by distorted theology, mouthed by authoritarians claiming to represent divine power.

Zapiro’s cartoon depicted the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, on a psychologist’s couch bewailing the fact that “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour.” It was instantly condemned as blasphemous or insensitive. Such reactions revealed clearly that the context of the cartoon had been missed: a cloud-littered afterlife in which the psychologist could only have been, for believers, one of the heavenly host, or even God himself.

As such, the cartoon achieved a level of greatness in that it showed that religion, however it is observed, promotes the principle of tolerance, of which humour is an integral part; that the proclaimed messengers from the divinity all too frequently have their messages corrupted and distorted by bigots professing to be devout followers.

This was a cartoon that should have been hailed as a breakthrough from the narrowly focused bickering that followed the rumpus in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. Zapiro’s cartoon did not denigrate Islam. Instead it underlined the fact that professed followers who lack humour and tolerance are the denigrators.

But there were other theological arguments — and these should apply only to followers of the Muslim faith — levelled against the cartoon. Prime among them was that it is forbidden to have any pictorial representation of the Prophet Muhammad. This is historically — and in terms of Qur’anic scripture — incorrect.

Nowhere in Islam’s holy book is there such a prohibition and there exist many representations of the prophet in ancient Islamic art. But, in more modern times, there have been hadiths (interpretations) of the Qur’an by scholars that order such a rule.

The other theological argument is that no words should be put into the prophet’s mouth that he did not utter and that were not incorporated into the Qur’an. This clearly applies to claimed instructions within a more that 1 000-year-old religious context, not to a contemporary commentary by a cartoonist about the foibles of followers.

Theological contradictions
But then Islam in South Africa — and particularly in the Western Cape — has long managed to live with theological contradictions. Cape Town, for example, has many kramats, shrines to Muslim holy men, something which is harram (heretical/unclean) to most orthodox Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia. Nobody seems to suggest that anyone who tends these kramats and prays for the intercession of saintly holy figures should be attacked or condemned.

Such theological arguments are, however, secondary: they belong in the realm of Islam and the believers in that religion. But there is a much wider context in which these debates must be evaluated: that of freedom of speech and expression and any reasonable limitations that may be said to bear on these.

My own position is that there should be no restriction whatsoever on freedom of speech and expression. This is completely in accordance with the Bill of Rights (15.1): “Everyone has the right of freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.”

Not to accept this merely drives underground opinions that may be considered unacceptable or unpalatable by one or other section of society.

It is much better to debate various opinions in the open, or even in the courts.

In terms of expression, for example, our laws already provide for the prosecution of anyone promoting hatred “that constitutes incitement to cause harm”, along with anyone inciting “imminent violence” or making “propaganda for war”. If and when anyone oversteps any marks drawn by anyone else, objections may be lodged, and debate or even legal contestation engaged in. This is a healthy example of democracy in action: the right to freedom of expression clearly extends to the freedom to express objections.

To call for the banning of any point of view reveals an insecurity of faith, not a defence of religion; calls for bans emanate from politically manipulative latter-day Sirens who lure the faithful to wreck themselves on the rocks of bigotry and ignorance in the service of zealots.

Zapiro was not ridiculing Islam or any religion. What his cartoon did was to hold up to deserved ridicule those bigots who distort the professed message from their prophets and, indeed, from their God or gods. He should be hailed for his perception and sensitivity, not damned for doing a good job.

Terry Bell is a political analyst