Saturday, May 22, 2010

Protecting God

In the wake of a rather strange Facebook campaign – “Everyone draw the Prophet Mohammed”, our very own Zapiro (aka Jonathan Shapiro) published a cartoon in the Mail and Guardian yesterday, of the Prophet reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch, bemoaning the fact that other prophets had followers with a sense of humour.

The outage has been instantaneous, from a wide range of people (within a fairly narrow band, of course). Inevitably from Muslims – who say it is wrong to draw the Prophet at all and from a particular type of Christian, who, while not wanting to protect the Prophet Mohammed from anything in particular, imagines the same kind of thing with Jesus on the couch – and doesn’t like the feeling. And from people who want to protect religion in general from anything and everyone.

Now I will tell you why, if I were a famous cartoonist, I wouldn’t draw a picture of the Prophet Mohammed doing anything at all. It is because I would be scared shitless of the result it could induce from some of his followers! Firstly, there would be offence. That is because it is apparently an offensive thing to draw the Prophet. I can’t imagine why, myself, but religion has seldom claimed to be rational. But that would not be the end of it. There would be fatwas announced (and there probably will be - on Zapiro’s head). There would be threats of one kind or another. There would be venom and hatred. There would be real, present and extreme danger. So, frankly, laudable as freedom of expression is – I would be happy just not expressing anything here.

Does that make me a coward? No, I don’t think so. You pick your battles in life, and this, sure as nuts, isn’t one of them which I would be tempted to pick. I heard the another really good South African cartoonist, Jeremy Nell, on the radio yesterday making a valid point and which was niggling at the back of my head when I first heard about this Facebook campaign. He was saying that, in his estimation, the whole campaign was based on completely the wrong principle. He said, as a cartoonist, he would draw whatever he wanted to draw – but this campaign was actually based on hate – and he would therefore have nothing to do with it. Because, lets be honest here, a glance at the page reveals a medium for every Muslim-hating person on the planet to vent their spleen – despite the fact that it proclaims itself as “not a hate speech” page.

Zapiro is not unfamiliar with deep and sometimes violent reaction to his work, though. He doesn’t mind who he goes for – and like the court jester of old – he often speaks the truth. He is Jewish, but that hasn’t stopped him lambasting Jews in the modern State of Israel, where for many, as far as I can see, the land itself seems to have replaced their concept of God. He has attacked Apartheid and he has attacked the ANC and other liberation movements alike. And the reactions have been similarly hysterical. He is a really good cartoonist.

But is he a sensible one? We are less than 20 days, as I write, away from the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which is going to be held in South Africa. This event is already a target for mad people and extremists the world over. Already there has been a threat against the Danish and French teams (both of whom are staying in Knysna, by the way), because a Danish cartoonist drew the Prophet Mohammad with a bomb as a turban, and the French ban on the Burka. Now we have a South African cartoonist added to the mix, to refine the target. I think it was a naïve and silly thing to do.

And not because I think religions of all kinds with immature, extreme followers should be protected – but because I think that discretion is by far the better part of valour. And besides freedom of speech and all that, God is not protected by any of this. That is the really crazy part about it all. What a bizarre idea it is, that God or any of the Prophets of any religion should need us to protect them?


  1. I think that your post makes practical and intellectual sense. Less than 3 weeks before the World Cup, does South Africa really need to stir the ire of fanatical Islam?

    On a deeper emotional level, however, I think that it is wrong. Your point about Zapiro as the court jester is perhaps underexamined. Jonathan tells the truth as he sees it. He has an ability to peel away layers and, with his poison pen, to expose the insecurity at the very heart of his subject. He has a keen understanding of the mood of society and exposes in this cartoon an exasperation at fanatical moslems.

    The freedom of speech which we enjoy in this country makes many people uncomfortable, but I would argue that it is a considerably better place than it was 20 years ago. I think that rather than fear the possible consequences of an irritated religion, we should celebrate Zapiro's catroon. He deserves no approbation for exercising a right conferred upon him by a hard won democratic constitution. Opening one's mouth to ask questions about an issue which should be discussed takes considerably more courage than to rationalise remaining silent.

    "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" (incorrectly attributed to Voltaire) expresses what we should perhaps feel about our outspoken cartoonist.

  2. Hi Deepblue. Of course I agree with you! Of course I celebrate Zapiro. And of course I think he is right. But there is a simple thing at issue here. For reasons beyond my ken, to draw the Prophet is something deliberately offensive to Islam. And, the consequence of that is that Islam needs to be defended, apparently at all costs. Now why would one do that? Why couldn't one, and I am thinking off the top of my head here, have a arrow pointing to an empty space saying, "this, although it isn't drawn and although you can't see it, is a cartoon of the Prophet lying on a Psychiatrists couch, thinking 'Why do other prophets...'" etc?

    I think drawing him was a silly thing to do.