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Why draw the Prophet?

From very early last Friday, the protests began rolling in. At the time of writing, my inbox alone has 79 complaints; many others came directly to the newspaper or were posted online.

Most were angry, a few abusive or threatening. Late on Thursday night, an attempt to persuade the High Court to prevent the Mail & Guardian publishing Zapiro’s by now famous cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad had failed.

Let me say right at the outset: I think the cartoon was ill-considered.

The complainants saw it as disrespectful to make fun of the Prophet and, by implication, of the religion he founded. More fundamentally, the complaints are based on the fact that the cartoon violates a Muslim prohibition against images of the Prophet.

Ahmed Akoob, of Pretoria, wrote to me: “Trying to visualise the face of a man so impeccable is an image that will be left unseen for eternity by even his own followers.”

In their court application, the Jamiatul Ulama (the Council of Muslim Theologians) used another argument, saying it could spark violence. I don’t think this holds water, and I am glad the court did not agree to stop the newspaper. It would be an infringement of freedom of speech for a court to intervene in a publishing decision.

This principle is at the core of editor Nic Dawes’s defence of the cartoon. He writes that he regrets the offence caused to Muslims, but this does not outweigh his duty to the principle of freedom of expression. “Zapiro expresses himself by drawing, and to deny him his pen would be to deny him his voice,” he writes.

I think there is a fundamental mistake here. A newspaper is put together in a process that involves hundreds of decisions on using — and not using — material. Freedom of speech is not at stake when an editor makes those decisions, that’s what the job is.

On the same basis, the Sunday Times could not — and did not — use the defence that David Bullard’s freedom of speech was at stake when a furore arose around one of his columns that many regarded as racist.

I accept that the Zapiro cartoon was not intended as a gratuitous insult to Islam, and it’s certainly not hate speech.

But it did cause offence to a large number of Muslims. There have been voices from within the community challenging the theological argument. It has been said, for instance, that the Qu’ran is not as clear on the matter as is generally thought, or that the prohibition on images does not apply to non-Muslims. But it is clear that this is a minority view: the dominant position is that there should be no representations of the Prophet at all. It’s certainly not something a non-Muslim can easily evaluate.

There are occasions when causing offence is enough of a reason to step away from publishing a particular item. Newspapers do this all the time, around graphic images of sex and violence, for instance. These are never easy decisions, and involve weighing up the importance of a particular story against the degree of offence caused.

Few sensitivities run as deep as religious ones. Most people feel very strongly about their faith — even atheists can be extraordinary zealots. There is a difference between the hurt caused by drawings of political leaders or of the state of Israel and that caused in this case. Even drawings of other religious figures don’t carry the same meaning: Jesus Christ has been painted and drawn for centuries, for instance.

The reaction must also be seen in the context of the recent history around cartoons and Islam. It all began with the international row about cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper. At the time, it was clear that the initiative had a political agenda to challenge Islam and assert the dominance of the West.

This led to the silly Facebook initiative “Everybody draw Muhammad day”, apparently since withdrawn.

What is disturbing is the undertone of a “clash of civilisations” in all of this, which has surfaced in the discussion of the Zapiro cartoon. While cartoonist and newspaper can’t be held responsible for the reactions of readers, it is clear that some feel great satisfaction at what they see as “sticking it to the Muslims”.

A comment posted online under the name Graham Johnson reads: “Zapiro is smack on the button. I wish the world had another hundred like him. He pushes two fingers up the noses of the bigots and half-wits who think they run the world. This is MY planet, it doesn’t belong to anyone, especially Islam.”

The deeply held belief that images of the Prophet are blasphemous cannot in any way be seen to impinge on the rights of the rest of us in this multi­cultural country and world. Why deliberately offend it?

The M&G‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can
contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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