Grant Walliser
Grant Walliser

Zapiro vs The Prophet

The recent fracas surrounding Zapiro’s drawing of the Prophet Muhammad has predictably culminated in the usual death threats from irate Muslims. Both the cartoonist and the newspaper’s editor apparently have to die for daring to express their opinion in a theoretically free country. I think it may be worth examining both why Zapiro decided to draw what he drew and why the Muslim world is so incensed by his cartoon.

Firstly, and this may come as a surprise to you as it did to me, the Qur’an does not forbid images or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact Islamic art down the centuries is full of them. The fuss originates from the supplemental traditions or Hadith in which only some branches of Islam, most notably the Sunni, have tacked on the caveat that drawings of the Prophet represent potential idolatry and should be banned.

Assassination for something seemingly so innocuous seems to be an extreme and ridiculous punishment to a Western mindset. Let’s refer back to the Qur’an to get an idea of how Muslims would see it though. This is what it says:

” … anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people.” (Qur’an 5:32)

“Do not kill unjustly: Nor take life — which Allah has made sacred — except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).” (17:33)

Murder, according to the Qur’an, can therefore be justified for horrendous crimes and just causes. What constitutes a horrendous crime or a just cause, however, is unfortunately open to earthly interpretation. It would seem therefore that Muslims who condone the fatwas on people like Nobel literature prize winner Salmon Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard or our own Zapiro can only do so if they consider their deeds horrendous and criminal. Can Muslims honestly believe that a non-Muslim drawing the Prophet in a fairly harmless cartoon is a horrendous crime worthy of murder?

What constitutes a horrendous crime to me is something completely different to the average Muslim. In Western culture, freedom of expression is paramount. I consider the repression and inequality of women, the theocratic state, the religious indoctrination of young children and the banning of free speech amongst others to be horrendous crimes against humanity. But, and here is the rub, I do not declare that those who do not live by my code have insulted my ideology and should die. I do not arrogantly demand that people across the globe should respect my views and threaten them with death, riots and outrage if they do not.

What gives a Muslim the right to demand compliance from a non-Muslim? The reason generally given for this demand is that drawing the image of Mohammed is a tremendous sin and a terrible insult, which is only fractionally and debatably true as we have discussed. It would seem, to the cynic, that this sin has been amplified by those who get political mileage out of it and blown way out of proportion. Far from being outraged at the actual drawing of the Prophet, I think it is an inability to handle criticism and impotence against controlling that opinion in Western society that drives the outrage and results in such anger from Muslims around the world. Non-Muslims have an opinion about Muslims and in the West that opinion is expressed and debated. That does not equate to hatred or intolerance by the West.

Respect for religious belief is not a right.

In my “religion” it is a sin not to question things, not to point out hypocrisy, to ban things on conservative moral grounds, to discriminate on the basis of sex and it is a cardinal sin to indoctrinate people and repress them with needless rules and oppressive doctrine. Do I have the right to demand respect for and compliance to these views from the Muslim world or even my fellow South African Muslims?

Obviously not. They have their own beliefs, many quite contrary to mine, and they are welcome to get on with them no matter how much I disagree with them.

Which brings us to the middle ground of respect and tolerance that we presumably hope to reach in the end. It can be argued that all Muslims ask for is that we in the West respect their requests for us not to draw the Prophet. Not unreasonable at face value, you would no doubt agree. The problem here and the very crux of this matter, in my opinion, is that in doing so they are asking us to forfeit our right to freely and openly discuss, dissect and expose things that our societies need and want to explore. They are asking us to compromise things that we cherish; our beliefs in a free press and a free society. They are telling us that certain things may not be discussed or portrayed.

Therefore we have no deal.

Muslims have no right to demand that of non-Muslims as we have no right to demand compliance from them to any of our strange idiosyncrasies such as allowing women to openly revel in their sex appeal and to drink alcohol until we all fall down.

Respect is earned. Respect means a meeting of minds and tolerance is very much a two-way street. For example, I tolerate your appalling treatment of women, which is a massive sin in my culture, and you tolerate my appalling right to religious free speech and drawing blasphemous cartoons, which is a massive sin in your culture. You don’t threaten to kill me and I don’t threaten to kill you. Fair and balanced and life goes on.

Somehow this propensity for tolerance has been warped into a unilateral set of Muslim demands and there is a growing list of things that Western people MAY NOT do so as to preserve the sensibilities of the Muslim minorities in Western countries and the Muslim world in general.

Muslims, Christians and Jews do not have the right to demand that a free society refrains from openly questioning their beliefs. Why should any religion be off-limits? Why should a set of ancient principles be immune to modern scrutiny and honest discussion? Why should we not use our various media to satirically probe those religious things that intrigue us and that we observe? Why should South Africa, as a secular state with freedom of speech not grapple with religion, its relevance and its meaning in our time? Why should Islam be out of bounds for critique and social dialogue? Why should the West tiptoe around Muslim sensitivity and be held to ransom by a religious belief that in many countries the majority does not subscribe to? No other religion demands or receives this privilege.

We won the right to question doctrine after millennia of religious oppression and dictatorship, wars, burnings at the stake and countless other religious atrocities from all major religions. We would be crazy to back down and lose it now.

Why did Zapiro draw the cartoon? I don’t know, but here is my theory: Unlike David Bullard, I do not agree that he did it purely to sell newspapers and create a stir. He makes a stir virtually every time he puts pen to paper. It’s his job, so why is this cartoon any different? Just prior to penning the cartoon in question he took a massive dig at the Jewish community over the Goldstone affair. He can hardly be called biased or anti-Muslim here.

In the end, I believe that he drew the cartoon in solidarity with people like Rushdie and Westergaard and the creators of South Park that spawned the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” in the hope that if enough people stood up to this kind of gross over-reaction to simple satire, it would be impossible to declare fatwas on them all. The only reason any of those men were in danger is because they made the statement that their freedom to express something that they found unacceptable or hypocritical or amusing or frightening or comical was not for sale. They stood up and became targets.

That does not equate to simple disrespect as the Muslim response has suggested. The intent of the cartoons revolves more around a reaction to banning of ideas and conflict with Western ideals than with blatant religious disrespect. The cartoonists are making a statement that should not be silenced but discussed and heard. What the Muslim community thinks matters, but what the majority thinks matters even more. This was not hate speech or bigotry. It was social commentary.

At some point, I expect the Muslim community will eventually realise that reacting the way they do creates the fertile ground needed for such cartoons to remain relevant. It is the massively angry reaction of Muslims that leads to these cartoons being headline worthy in the first place and provides new material for new cartoons. Who would have even understood the cartoon if we had not experienced these kinds of reactions before? No other religion is synonymous in modern times with this kind of violence, bullying and outrageous behaviour of its faithful with the possible exception of Scientology which is thankfully hardly a mainstream religion.

In a democracy such as we are purported to have in South Africa, there is the option of debate, protest and a legal system with which to voice your disenchantment with something. Imagine if, instead of fatwas and attempted murders, the entire Muslim community of Denmark had come out in solemn procession onto the streets of Copenhagen in a form of peaceful Ghandi-style passive protest. Imagine they had made their point in a dignified and democratic manner, without crass anger and with eloquence and understanding. The newspaper would have looked like the boorish, insensitive bad guy and that respect we talked about earlier would be firmly in place today. Instead the newspaper looked like the victim and one cartoonist almost lost his life.

Can Muslims honestly and fairly expect people, who do not follow their religion and who believe fervently in freedom of expression, to observe their rules and laws in a secular democracy? Can they demand this from a free press that provides one of the most important balancing powers of said democracy? It achieves this precisely by not bowing to pressure groups. Why should it bow to Islam?

I challenge the Muslim community of South Africa to engage in open debate, without threats and anger, over this issue (in fairness this seems to be happening in general which is great to see). I challenge them to look honestly at the facts here and to walk away after this debate with friends and a fostered understanding of both sides of this story for it most certainly has two sides. I call on the moderate Muslims, who repeatedly remind us that not all Muslims support the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to stand up and have their say and to engage without dictating and debate without threatening. I call on these moderates to openly and publicly condemn the death threats that were made and distance themselves from such behaviour.

I also call upon the M&G not to allow religion and religious groups to dictate content in this newspaper. When religion starts to control what we as a society are exposed to, we are on a slippery downward slope towards the hell that is the oppressive theocratic state in which blind religion trumps free thinking, human rights and common sense.

That is something we should never allow, no matter who complains or who threatens us.