Friday, May 21, 2010

Barbarians at the Gates of Mecca?

The rise of fundamentalism in Islam can be only be countered by reformation within Islam itself. The ability to evolve and adapt to a new world is the only way for Islam to survive as the great religion it aspires to be to its billion plus followers around the world. Free speech is the lifeblood through with Islamic states can transform into democracies and coexist in the diverse world we are fast moving toward. The recent attacks on Islam are deplorable but also understandable given the deafening silence of the Muslim clergy to steady rise of fundamentalism over the last few decades culminating in the shocking terrorist attacks of 9/11. These recent attacks on Islam however, under the guise of free speech, is shortsighted and designed to be counter-productive on the whole. Belittling and demeaning a religion only serves to create further division, anger and violence among the majority, giving more credence to the jihadist minority. Since real change always comes from within, we need to engage with the Islamic world at multiple levels - diplomatic, educational, cultural, economic etc. to create the environment to support their inner transformation.

Most religions generally could care less how their deities being caricatured. In fact, most encourage positive images of deities, prophets, gurus, gods and godesses etc. as an efficient method to propagate and constantly reinforce the principles of the religion to the average followers who are too distracted with the stuff of everyday existence and need regular gentle reminders of their spiritual path. A picture is worth a thousand words, so images are an efficient, compact way to inspire followers to aspire to certain the noble qualities of role models like Jesus, Krishna, Buddha etc. Islam on the other hand, takes a different approach and although images of the prophet are not explicitly forbidden, centuries of tradition and social customs discourage the glorification of human images through pictures and imagery. The suppression of this mode of expression made Islamic art channel its energies to architecture, calligraphy etc. and resulted in many great accomplishments in these areas. Note that Salman Rushdie, primarily incured the wrath of the clerics, not the majority of Muslims, for what he wrote, not what he drew. In fact, I bet very few English speaking readers could keep awake reading through his "Satanic Verses". I'm certain that those clerics who issued their death-decree did so without even reading Rushdie's blasphemous work. These images however, are directly experienced and felt by the majority of Muslims.

The recent Facebook pages promoting the "draw Mohammed day" ratchets up tensions between both the West and Islamic states, resulting in a increasing polarization between Islam and the rest of the world. Cutting off Islamic states from our global village is a dangerous development since we make it infinitely harder for these culturally isolated states to naturally evolve into democracies over time. In fact countries like Pakistan are bound to clamp down on access to Facebook, Google and who knows what else, further entrenching censorship, suppressing free speech and giving Islamic governments big-brother powers. The incessant cries of "Death to Facebook" and "Death to America" have now become accepted everyday language in many Islamic states and a whole new generation of young impressionable minds are being radicalized in their millions. Autocratic governments, like Islamic states, generally don't voluntarily give up power once acquired, making any chance of transformation even more of an elusive dream.

Once again, the two-bit opportunistic cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro, has acted irresponsibly by caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed. The timing of the cartoon is simply to capitalize on the brouhaha swirling around the recent Facebook incident, to bump up his declining ratings as a mediocre cartoonist - a relic of the apartheid era. What the media fails to understand is that unlike other religions, the heart of the matter is not the whether the prophet is depicted favorably or not, but its the fact that ANY image of the Prophet Mohammed is regarded as blasphemous.

Some caricatures are inherently blasphemous. Like depicting Jesus as a pedophile, would make most Christians go ballistic. Showing a bunch of Rabbis eating pigs at a braai, will incur the wrath of the Jewish community. Even through nothing much fazes Hindus, I would wager that making Krishna a star of a porno movie, will bring hordes of Hare Krishna devotees at your doorstep in a jiffy. Anyway, the point is that there are sacred cows in all cultures, and the quicker we learn to be more tolerant of others beliefs, the better the chances are of effecting real transformation within these cultures. The true test of one's beliefs comes from treating others with whom you may vehemently disagree with, with the respect and humanity they deserve.

Fortunately, the Facebook page has been taken down and even the the Seattle cartoonist whose satirical cartoon "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" that inspired the Facebook page has apologized and underscored that her cartoon was actually about the censoring of a television show called South Park, and called for this "day" to be called off. Freedom of speech comes with responsibility and I have no doubt that, had the Facebook page continued to incite religious controversy, leaders like Obama, would possibly have had to step in to speak out forcefully against these incendiary acts under the guise of free speech. Unfortunately, in the absence of local watchdog organizations overseeing our media, apartheid era cartoonists like Zapiro, are given free reign to be as "controversial" as they wish, without repercussions. Belittling and demeaning other belief systems is not the way to create lasting change in fact its the surest way to slow down the transformation so desperately needed in Islam.

Muslims are justified in asking others not to depict Prophet Mohammed in images since strict adherence to this Islamic tradition is designed to, like most other cultures, constantly remind believers that the prophets were mortals, not to be confused with God and to realign their focus to true north - toward the concept of a God that is formless, timeless and infinite - indeed a powerful idea that every human contemplates at some point in their short existence on this earth.


  1. I'm torn. There's a pragmatism to much of what you say but my commitment to free speech and expression is warring with it.

    I thought the Zapiro cartoon was not out of place--it didn't mock the Prophet or Allah, it poked fun--and not even very harsh fun--at his followers. Certainly nothing half as bad as Catholics have had to see caricatured about their Church of late. And a cartoon certainly cannot be seen as idolizing a human, which as you rightly point out was the initial reason for the argument against portrayals of humans in Islamic art. So Muslims seem to have lost the plot there in terms of what the rationale was for the ban. (And the M&G comments bear it out--you have Muslims arguing that the Prophet cannot be drawn because he was the holiest man ever to live, good and gentle and perfect, etc etc--which indicates they do not know their own religious history.)

    I think part of people's frustration is that they feel like all religions contend with some degree of criticism and mockery, such is living in a secular democracy. But they *don't* all have followers whose first response is recourse to violence. (Obviously, this is a small minority, but as you note, the deafening silence makes it seem much bigger and like the silent majority supports them--although this may partly be because Islam has no centralized authority like a pope to make pronouncements on its behalf.)

    Several years ago there was a piece of art called "Piss Christ" that was a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine. Were Christians pissed? Yup. Were they doubly pissed because the guy had gotten a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and so their taxes had paid for it? Definitely. But the reaction was to be vocal in newspapers and talk shows and to boycott the exhibition; no one threatened violence.

    Similarly, "Last Temptation of the Christ" had people hugely outraged (I was a kid and I remember my parents talking about it) because it suggested Jesus and Mary Magedelene were an item, I think. I never saw it, so I don't actually know what the opposition was, but I know Christians felt very slighted. Again, the reaction was to picket and boycott. (Which probably drew more curious viewers to the theater than kept them away, but whatever.)

    Underlying it all was a sense that you can't silence these people, you can only add your voice to the public square; such is life in a democracy.

    Fast forward to 2006 and the Danish cartoons, which started this whole controversy. Do Muslims have the right to be upset? Of course. Do they have the right to raise their voices and write editorials and boycott Danish goods? Absolutely. But instead, large groups rallied around Danish embassies, as I recall (I am drawing on memory because I am too lazy to google it) and set some of them on fire, 100 people were killed, etc. That is NOT an acceptable form of protest.

    I went out and bought Legos for every kid I knew when that happened (the only Danish good I could find). You absolutely have the right to say and write controversial things without living in fear of your life or having your embassies attacked. And newspapers and artists should not self-censor because of fear of what people might do, which itself suggests that we believe Muslims are more violent and have to be treated with kid gloves. That's ground I'm unwilling to yield.

  2. And actually, now that I think about it, I have seen *many* cartoons from Islamic countries with depictions of people in them, including GW Bush, various ugly portrayals of Jews, etc. So again, I'm not buying that it's a total ban on depictions of humans for the purpose of turning attention to God. While it may have begun that way, it has actually turned into an idolatry of the Prophet--the very thing it was meant to prohibit.

    Islam in medieval times, however, was actually much more sophisticated, intellectual and nuanced than the current incarnations of it. People who call it a medieval religion should only wish it would go back to its medieval grandeur.

  3. Last thing--I was really disappointed in the South Park creators for pulling that episode (it may have been Comedy Central that pulled it and not them--not sure who the final decision belonged to). They have been merciless in their depictions of Christians and Jesus and people have learned to either take it on the chin or, if it offends you, not to watch. I didn't like the double standard that got applied. What's sauce for the goose, etc. And South Park has traditionally been very equal-opportunity when it came to taking the piss out of any group, so it was doubly disheartening to see it capitulate to fear.

  4. OK, this has had me thinking all day. So I'm just going to keep having my one-person debate on your blog.

    I think what makes this difficult is the clash of two dearly held principles: my First Amendment absolutism and my sense of respect for other people's religious convictions, whether or not I share them. So I guess I'd say, I want the right of writers, editorialists, cartoonists, satirists, etc to be protected. They should be able to say whatever they want to say in the way they think is best and not be censured by the government. And there are times when what they have to say will mean stepping on someone's religious sensibilities. That is part of the price you pay for being in a democracy.

    (This is exacerbated, obviously, by the fact that it is now a global community in which we do not all live by democratic principles, so we can't just play the card of "If you don't like our societal rules, go live somewhere else.")

    The flip side is you shouldn't be an ass and do something just because you can.

    So: "Draw Muhammad Day" was in poor taste. But I think I understand the motivation. It was, as I said, galling to see South Park censored; its whole stock in trade is irreverence, and why should one group be exempt? And in the case of the Danish cartoons, I admire the spirit that says "I will not be intimidated, I will not be threatened, I will not self-censor because you threaten violence." That's why, when embassies were aflame and the cartoonist was receiving death threats, I absolutely supported the movement to reprint the cartoons in newspapers across the world (many of them, including US papers, which would never have bothered to pick them up otherwise). It was a show of solidarity, a way of saying "We shall not be scared into silence." And I can't help but admire that display of pluck.

    By the same token, unless we want to exacerbate a Sam Huntington-style clash of civilizations, there's no reason to *intentionally* be an ass. How you balance that with the right to critique is new ground for us all in this global world in which what's printed in the US is read in outlets in Pakistan and Nigeria.

    On the home front, there was a 2009 Pew Forum report that said roughly 40% of American Muslims identify as Muslim first and American second. Which means roughly 60% identify as American first. I find this interesting: on the one hand, it is for me a constant challenge to identify as Christian first and make sure my allegiance is to God and not to my country, which is deeply flawed and imperfect, though I love it dearly. Yet I find myself reassured by the fact that most American Muslims are American before they are Muslim. And I don't want to do anything to alienate them. That's a double standard I am just realizing and I have to think about that. And that is the end of my rambling. For now.

  5. People have rights. Ideas do not. Religions are ideas, and thus are not entitled to be protected against freedom of speech.

    I fail to see why I should respect a religion which is so unwillingly to give respect. Maybe religious folk would like to show the gay community some respect by censoring all the homophobic parts of their Bibles, Korans and Hadiths? Because what is said in religious texts about homosexuals is genuine hate speech. Drawing a picture of a 7th Century prophet is not.

    We simply should not capitulate to fear. There are groups who suffer real discrimination in Islamic theocracies - not just being on the receiving end of freedom of speech - yet do we see these people throwing around threats on par with what fundamentalist Muslims do over nothing more than cartoons?

    @Shannon: Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn't back down, so it can't be said South Park backed down. It was Comedy Central who was behind the censoring.

  6. Shannon, a few years ago, I would have also taken a similar stance - why should Muslims be treated with kid gloves compared to other faiths that show much more tolerance of unfair criticism? Why should we be intimidated by the prospect of violent protests? I was certainly an in-your-face proponent of equal rights in my youth, intolerant of people of faith wanting to be accommodated in special ways. I would shock my Muslim friends and to a lesser extent my Jewish friends by inviting them over and preparing an optional side dish of bacon trying to teach them to become more tolerant of diversity. But guess what, it did not work but instead soured the friendship. These days I prefer to treat my friends kindly rather than always be right.

    Then again, when I think of how young the Islam is compared to other religions, and I'm inclined to be more forgiving - kind of how you would be more patient and tolerant of your preschooler going through their terrible twos. Islam is facing a turning point in its evolution - the violence is symptomatic of its struggle to adapt to a new world. A world where the opression of women has a huge impact on the global competitiveness of Islamic states - a fact that they will never openly admit. A world where diversity is looked on as a strength rather than a blemish that needs to be contained. A world where the internet has morphed our planet into a global village where instantaneous communications with each other across borders is becoming increasingly harder to censor. A world where someone halfway around the world can use Google Streetview to walk down your street with the click of a mouse or can live a vicarious existence through your Facebook/Twitter postings. A world where an ever-growing stash of pornography, bigger than the Library of Congress, is freely available for your private enjoyment. Think about how out of step these Islamic states are compared to the rest of the world.

    All I'm saying is that pounding our fists, demanding they accept images of their prophet in the name of free speech and equal treatment causes more harm than good. Like our efforts are better served by engaging with them and showing them why democracy is a better path than an Islamic state. Societal change of these proportions take time and as long as the jihadists are kept at bay, the Muslim world will make the transition in time. We cannot foist our free speech beliefs onto the Islamic world, they need to come to this realization and the internet will go a long way towards making this possible.

    That Pew Forum report sounds believable but I'm wary of these kinds of statistics. Most practicing Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists...will always place their religious identity above their citizenship. Muslims in the US are cautious and walk on eggshells in the US, why else don't you see the burka garb like you do in the UK, South Africa etc.?

    Ideas do not have rights....WTF?
    Saying that we a capitulating to fear is a GW Bush tactic of rattling the cage of warmongers by calling them pussies. Now just look at at fallout GW Bush's reign, and how long it will take the US to shake off its recently acquired image and dig itself out of this financial mess. Just be thankful Obama is president.

  7. Quick point and I'll address the others lately: we seem not to have the burqa garb I think in part because of a difference in the demographics of immigrants in the US vs Europe. Muslim immigrants to the US tend to be better educated to begin with (born out by evidence that they are more likely to earn advanced degrees and to own their own homes and businesses than the general population) than those to Europe, where they are predominantly working class and brought in to do manual labor. Better-educated generally goes hand in hand with a greater embrace of equality of the sexes.

    I also think the post-religious identity of Europe forces a choice that we don't force on you here. In the US, you can be both religious and American. In Europe, where secularism is increasingly the "religion," observant people of all faiths often feel forced into an either/or paradox: you can be French or religious, but not both, because to be French is to be secular. Or as a Texas Muslim put it in the New Republic a few years back, "People here may think the way I pray is strange, but no one think it's strange when I say it's time to pray."

    That may allow for greater assimilation. The most interesting quote from the Pew Forum report in my mind was that a higher percentage of Muslims (mostly immigrants) believed in the American dream (ie hard work will let you achieve anything) than the general population. Immigrant ethos, perhaps, but very telling from a group that actually does quite well here.

  8. How is saying we are capitulating to fear a GW Bush tactic when that is exactly what we are doing? That is exactly what is happening here. If anything, your stance reminds me of how Bush once said there "ought to be limits on freedom".

  9. Also, my statement that ideas do not have rights is pretty simple. Religions are composed of ideas, thus have no rights to be protected from speech or cartoons. What is more, you completely and utterly ignored by point about religion demanding respect but not giving any. How can a religion which utterly disrepects groups such as the gay community (among others) jump up and down and demand we respect their IDEAS (as opposed to the PEOPLE they refuse to respect) and not draw a picture of some 7th Century prophet?

  10. Also, the reason the Facebook page went down is one of the moderators got scared and deleted it after getting hacked.

    It's a shame Molly Norris apologised. But when protesters are carrying around your face on placards, it's hard not to get scared. And I'd be very disappointed in Obama actually spoke out against this. Why should any world leader? How about the Saudi royals speak out against the genuinely offensive antisemitism that you find in their school textbooks, television shows etc? People are cowards, they condemn Zapiro over inoffensive cartoons in a newspaper read by adults, but don't make a sound about Saudi school children being taught that Jews are apes.

  11. Richard, what can I say, you obviously view the world very differently. A world where apologies mean capitulation, wishing to engage with others with different views is a sign of weakness and speaking out against insults and racism amounts to cowardice. Phew!
    May you find peace in the hostile world you inhabit.

  12. Shannon, I don't think that the different demographics singularly accounts for the absence of the burqa garb. Remember in the UK its the wealthy Muslims from those oil producing countries that drive around in their fancy cars or shop in the upscale malls wearing their burqas. On the other hand, in Arab countries, wealth does not automatically imply education, so you may have a point I'm not totally convinced. Ever since 9/11, there is a palpable fear among most Muslims in the US - that they keep their heads down and stay below the radar. And oh, it was most of these Muslims, especially in the Michigan area, that made GW Bush presidency possible in the rigged 2000 election since they identified with the Republican party's conservative "family values" - how ironic!

  13. I tried to post earlier and Blogger freaked out and so I went and had a drink instead. I'll try again.

    I agree with virtually everything you've said in your comment. And yet.

    One thing that frustrates me greatly about this is that Islam was more sophisticated 500 years ago than it is today. It had a sophisticated and nuanced sense of jurisprudence, it read the Quran metaphorically, and while it didn't treat non-Muslims as full equals, the dhimmi were entitled to some legal protection--certainly more than they receive in countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen today. So I am less inclined to be patient with the religion as a toddler because toddlers grow up, and this religion seems to be regressing. As I noted earlier, one of the very telling things on the M&G board has been people's outrage over the depiction of Muhammad because of his sterling character. THAT IS NOT WHY DEPICTIONS OF HUMANS WERE INITIALLY CONSIDERED HARAM. It is such a woeful lack of knowledge of their own religion.

    Moreover, while I can say "but this is not real Islam," the fact is there is never, in any faith, any such thing as the pure, true, unadulterated version as it exists on paper. It exists only as it is lived out in the lives of its followers. As it is lived right now, Islam is beset by problems. Now I happen to believe there are rational reasons for this: the fundamentalist sect of Wahhabism that gained credibility when it was embraced by the Saudi royal family and which is now exported globally and funded by Saudi petrodollars combined with the postcolonial search for identity which has resulted in defining oneself in opposition to the West rather than developing a positive identity are a potent combination. But that doesn't change the fact that I think it is a cancer and one that is growing rapidly.

    And realistically, there's little the West can do because as soon as we support a moderate voice, that voice is discredited as being a Western puppet. We have to support quietly and behind the scenes, but ultimately it's an internecine struggle for the soul of Islam.

    I think what bothers me here is fear. I can easily stake out the middle ground that says the right to satire, even if in poor taste, must be protected by law; at the same time, it's in poor taste to mock someone's religious beliefs and if you're going to be provocative, you need to be able to withstand the backlash. I think my concern here is motivation.

    If the motivation for not running an editorial or cartoon is sensitivity, that is one thing. But it seems more often than not that it is fear. And so I stand with those who say "We will not be intimidated by those who threaten violence." And that indeed, the moment at which you exercise violence is the moment at which you have lost the right to be part of civilized discourse; you have put yourself squarely outside the bounds of civilized society.

    South Park has absolutely no sacred cows. They have mocked Jesus for years; that's fine, if you don't like it you don't watch it. But the fact that they have been so willing to poke their finger in the eye of religious people and that Comedy Central has supported them in that suggests that the motivation for the censoring of the show was not sensitivity, it was fear; and I find that chilling.

    As to the US situation: we didn't see the burqa here much pre-9/11, so I'm not really buying the Muslims-are-scared argument. And I certainly don't think there is greater hostility to Muslims in the US than there is in France, for example, where women did wear the burqa. I wonder if it might have something more to do with the geography of where European Muslims vs American Muslims are coming from?--that is just a guess, I have no evidence to support it, but the burqa is far more prevalent in some parts of the Muslim world than in others.

  14. Say, you must be nearing your final exams...well good luck!

    Seems to me that the Sufism embodied what Islam could have been - the mysticism and tolerance could have helped Islam evolve from within...while the strict prescriptive aspect of Islam should have sought direction from the Sufi sect within Islam. Currently in Islam from a spiritual and intellectual standpoint, it seems like its the tail wagging the dog. Instead Sufism has been largely marginalized in Islamic states. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs etc. have a zero chance of garnering any political power, no matter what some may claim and have thus been steadily marginalized and purged from almost all Islamic states over the generations.

    I absolutely agree that the petrodollars have created a fertile ground for the sprouting of a kind of fundamentalism that metastasized like a cancer across the Islamic world. I believe this is the single-most important determinant of this unique brand of fundamentalism that has swept through Islam in the past three to four decades. American foreign policy has also contributed to the corruption and closed societies that have allowed these problems to fester. The demand for Middle East oil to fuel rising economies guarantees that this problem is not going to disappear anytime soon, unless there is a dramatic shift to alternative energies. The danger is that this may become a catch-22 situation where the shift to alternate forms of energies can only happen if the price of oil remains high! However, if we are determined to shift to alternative energies, hopefully this is Obama's vision, then this will happen regardless of the oil price. We just need to apply some of your Silicon Valley ingenuity to the energy problem ;-)
    btw. Another recent development has been the morphing of some Madressas that were basically after school programs purely to promote the religious studies for kids, to classes propagating radicalism and anti-Americanism. It would be interesting to follow he money trail to see how these schools are being funded.

    During my childhood it was extremely rare to see Muslim women in burqas in SA but these days its commonplace in the malls, beaches, parks etc. The burqa sometimes still give me the chills, I still can't quite understand why but I suppose its the same feeling one gets when a car with heavily tinted windows passes you by. Anyway, I still don't think it should be totally outlawed by governments, but there should be some control based on security considerations.

    Yes, after reading the comments on M&G (you don't see too many of my comments because the bastards are aggressively censoring me) I think most Muslims don't understand their religion. This is not surprising since its generally true across the spectrum of all major religions. I do however see much value in the general discouragement of human imagery in Islam. Strict Muslim households also discourage pictures, movies and even art within the home. Needless to say, the collective effect is that when one is at home, one tends to channel ones attention more towards that abstract notion of God - something to which all spiritual disciplines aspire to. Yep, strict households discourage TV, video games or even reading magazines....its the Koran you need to focus on!

    Running that cartoon was purely a self-serving act. Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) has been repeatedly stereotyping blacks negatively. I remember during the days of apartheid, Springbok Radio even had the gall to do African, Colored and Indian accents using white actors - the height of insult! Zapiro's utterly boring ZANews continues this tradition of poking fun at certain accents in a degrading way. I'm sure most SA whites see nothing wrong with that. M&G should simply cut their losses, admit their mistake and move on - this uninteresting cartoon serves no noble cause worth defending. It simply shows Zapiro for what he is a two-bit cartoonist resorting to antics of a drama-queen to boost his ratings.

  15. Dave, apologies from someone who has had their face put on posters by angry protesters are out of fear. Why do you not face up to this point?

    You also keep insistently ignoring my point about relgious people demanding respect for their IDEAS while not giving any respect to groups of PEOPLE such as the gay community. Are you even too scared to come to face the fact that gays face absolutely abhorent treatment in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran? Yet do we see gay people issuing threats near anything on par with what we see over what are nothing more than CARTOONS! Had to capitalise that, because it seems difficult for people to grasp.

    And what does this have to do with speaking out against racism? Last I checked, Islam is a religion, an ideology, not a race. I'll treat it and say what I like about it, like any other ideology, in the same way people should be allowed to have their say about free market fundamentalism or communism. Deal.

    I strongly believe in equality, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Fundamentalist Islam flies in the face of two of those three values. Why should I not exercise my free speech against it, and draw some prophet from the 7th century?

  16. Richard, get real - after 9/11 Muslims are certainly not feared in America. Note, even Salman Rushdie chose to settle in the US because his safety is guaranteed compared to ANYWHERE else in the world! The apology from Molly Norris was genuine and not made out of fear.

    Your issue about the absence of gay rights in Islamic states is a valid one. However, lets try to walk first before running and get Islamic states to first embrace basic free speech rights, without free speech we have NOTHING - and the oppression will continue and the cancer of jihad will metastasize!

    If you understand the history of SA, you will understand why I brought up the issue of racism in SA media. What do you think of Zapiro "satirical" works?

  17. I think you are right about Sufism. In Chechnya, having been raised in a Muslim home appears to be an inoculation against becoming a suicide bomber because the indigenized form of Sufism practiced there condemns it. The people who become suicide bombers all seem to fit a basic profile: raised in nominally Muslim/nonpracticing homes, and then they get recruited by Wahhabist groups (which have only existed in Chechnya the last 10 years or so) that tell them what "real" Islam is.

    I have noticed the rise in the number of burqas I see in South Africa just in the past four years. I tend to attribute it to the presence of immigrants from northern Africa because South African Muslims seem well integrated. (Ironically, I've heard this attributed to apartheid--the Colored community where the Muslim community was concentrated had to stick together across boundaries of religion, and the UDF was good at cultivating a multifaith ethos with Farid Esack and other imams and Muslim leaders being very active.)

    I think W. missed a huge opportunity in the wake of 9/11. So many people wanted to do something to help the country--not necessarily militarily, but to really put their talents to use. I think if he had issued a call for an alternative energy project on the scale of the Manhattan Project, he'd have gotten the best minds in the country to leave their jobs and contribute. I remember a really good friend of mine who is an MIT computer science geek who said at the time that he would have signed on for that and he knew about 50 other people who would have as well. W. missed a huge opportunity to tap into people's patriotism in order to wean us off our dependence on foreign oil and the propping up of corrupt regimes that comes with it. Although I will say that at the time, most of us were so totally oblivious to the role our oil consumption was playing in the rise of radical Islam and the destabilization of the Middle East. I remember being so bewildered when the attacks happened because I couldn't imagine who hated us that much. In fact, everyone's first reaction was that it must be a domestic terrorist like Timothy McVeigh, because people genuinely didn't know how deep the resentment ran. Time and Newsweek and most of the news magazines all ran cover stories in the following couple of months that had basically the same theme: "why do they hate us so much?" People were genuinely baffled. We are slightly better about understanding our role in the world now but the 1990s was a fairly blissful period--Cold War ended, prosperity boom--and we really had no idea what was going on beyond our shores.

    When I get in conversations on the M&G boards or other sites and anti-Americanism is expressed, I always wish I could convince people that they would genuinely like most Americans if they met them! We are, by and large, a laid-back, easygoing, big-hearted people, although that is at odds with our image in the world.

    And I wondered why you were so silent on the boards lately! Every once in a while my posts get flagged and I'll notice that I'm censored for a day or two but then it goes back to normal. I don't understand how they decide who to flag and who not to--you get in some feisty debates but I've never known you to be outrageous or hurtful. Weird.

    Hey, I thought Zapiro was one of the antiapartheid crowd in the 80s, UDF et al? Am I wrong?

  18. Dave, contextualise Molly Norris' apology. Have you not read the news at all this year? It has not been a safe year for people who have exercised their free speech and drawn Muhammad. One of the Danish cartoonists was attacked in his home in January. Just recently, one was attacked giving a lecture.

    Not exercising our free speech is not going to get theocracies like Iran to change. If anything, we need to establish exercising our free speech about Islam in exactly the same way we did to Christianity.

    I understand the history of SA and the importance of free speech well enough to give it up. One of the features of the apartheid government was a right-wing Christian government who censored anything it saw as offensive to their religion. I'm not about to give up the right to say and draw what I want about another religion.

    And Zapiro's satirical work is fair. He has always taken the privileged white community to task for complaining about transformation. Remember the "Whites who didn't benefit from apartheid" cartoon? What about the one with the white man enjoying his sport during apartheid, then complaining about quotas? The level playing field cartoon? Those who complain about his Zuma drawings then love to use his Godzille drawings on their anti-Zille Facebook groups. Everyone loves a Zapiro cartoon when it suits their purposes.

  19. well enough to just give it up*

  20. Just to add to my point about this not being a safe year for those who have exercised their freedom of speech about Muhammad, your argument about being safe from religious fundamentalism in the US does not hold true. The actions of Christianity's answer to those who attempt to murder cartoonists shows this. Remember the murder of an abortion doctor George Tiller last year? It's unfortunate fact that those who believe they have divine warrant can be dangerous, regardless of the country you choose to live.

    A further point is that limiting what we can say and draw about Muhammad is also indirectly threatening our rights to express ourselves about other religions. When Errol Naidoo whipped up Christian outrage over what were nothing more than cartoons in UCT's Sax Appeal last year, one of the things he brought up was the reaction to cartoons about Muhammad. We should not allow any backpeddaling on our freedom of expression.

    As I said, not exercising our free speech is not going to get Islamic theocracies to embrace change. Yes often the involvement of foreign powers has caused bad change in these countries. The resentment against the Shah that allowed one of the most vile theocracies in history to come to power if the US and UK had not worked against Iran's secular leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, in the early 1950s. However, you simply can't blame us who exercise our free speech in a different part of the world in 2010 for the actions of these governments. These governments would do so anyway.

    It is preferable we stand our ground. We need to establish a norm around exercising our free speech about Islam just like we do any other religion.

  21. Richard, free speech is always coupled with responsibility. Unlike media in the US, SA media is like the wild west. In the absence of watchdog organizations, they create havoc by inciting racial and religious discord, and now even jeopardize the largest sporting event ever hosted in Africa.

    Remember that the white minority that ruled SA for hundreds of years NEVER believed in free speech so its not surprising that most of the previously privileged that control certain media don't have an appreciation of the value of this hard fought for right. For example, why else does M&G aggressively censor my comments even though I adhere to their comment rules? Why can Zapiro get away with his blatant negative stereotyping of blacks? Why did FIFA threaten our OWN local journalists from spreading fear and hysteria about crime during the World Cup? etc. etc.

    Zapiro is a mediocre cartoonist desperate to boost his ratings in any conceivable way. Remember during apartheid he appeased the SA government, thats what made him a fixture in SA political landscape. He is a direct beneficiary of the apartheid system and like so many like him, they desperately try to cling to their positions attained thought white Affirmative Action. His negative streotyping of people of color is a total blindspot to the previously privileged who revere his boring works as "satire".

    The furore over the Facebook incident prompted Islamic states like Pakistan to threaten to block FB, Youtube, Google etc. What purpose does this really serve? If you have the best interests of Pakistanis and their quest for a free society at heart, wouldn't you agree that access to FB, Youtube, Google etc is a good thing?

    So " establish a norm around exercising our free speech about Islam just like we do any other religion." seems like you're speaking from both sides of your to speak ;-

  22. Shannon, you're quite wrong about Zapiro. Read my response to Richard above. The apartheid government maintained an iron fist over the media and spent a fortune trying to control their image here and overseas. Maybe I'll write more about this sometime. Cartoonist Zapiro and news reporter Helen Zille were young, green and totally malleable by their apartheid masters. Many of these so called "liberal" news reporters withing the media establishment were double agents for the draconian South African security police and basically APPEASED the regime with just the right amount of their tempered protest - kinda like why Fox News like to have "liberals" on their political chin-wags...same difference. This gave the SA government a certain amount of "legimitacy" in the eyes of certain western powers who were in cahoots with the apartheid regime.

    Saying Zapiro was part of the UDF is like saying George W Bush belonged to the Black Panthers. ;-)

  23. Hi Dave

    Thanks for this, To give you an idea, of what it's like to be in a muslim's shoes

    but Also Shanon mentioned above is Sufiism. south African coloured muslims are Shafi/sufi There's hardly a seperation. We have other sects too.

    But in terms of the cartoon, it's not so much what he drew but why. Which almost proves the 9/11 conspiracy theorists right.

    South Africans of islamic faith, will bear the punishment for the religious counterparts of whom they've never met. I don't have ancestors overseas. My great-grandfather's grandfather was afghani and his wife a San. Here's my home. I have no other land to go back to. I am home.

  24. What are you on about? You seem to have to fantastical idea of the South African media being out to ruin everything and the US media as perfect. In the US you have nasty characters such as Ann Coulter and Michael Savage who mix their commentary about Islam with genuine and outright offensive racism towards Arabs (I won't repeat the terms they use), yet Zapiro draws a cartoon with Muhammad on a psychiatrist's couch and you hold that up as an example of him and the SA media being evil. If anything, it is right-wing US talk radio that needs controlling, not the South African media, not the Mail and Guardian and not Zapiro's cartoons.

    And as I pointed out, Zapiro has always taken the white community to task for complaining about transformation. You seem to outright ignore this. You say he is a beneficiary of apartheid. Last I checked, Zapiro didn't put an disclaimer to his "Whites who didn't benefit from apartheid cartoon" saying "except me". He does not deny this.

    Zaprio's cartoons have always been PRO-AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Why do you think he drew one of a slanted football pitch, with white people at the top complaining that the playing field is now level? Is this the drawing of someone out to secure white privilege with the freedom of speech he exercises?

  25. Just Wikipedia'd Zapiro--he was UDF! I knew I wasn't crazy.

    @Richard: there are enough alternative voices to the Coulters and Limbaughs that they do not need regulating, and I would be deeply opposed to such. The First Amendment has so far served us well and we don't have hate speech laws which you have in SA (I believe in criminalizing action, not speech, so I believe the US is on stronger ground here).

    But we do have media watchdog groups who publicly call out Coulter et al and so there is robust debate. But no regulation, please, certainly not by law. That is the distinction I have been trying to make: I'm all for journalists and new outlets taking communal sensibilities into consideration; this actually leads to better news coverage and a higher confidence in the media, which is critical to the media being able to do its job. But that oversight ought not to come from government, or we'd never have gotten the Pentagon Papers.

  26. *news outlets, not new outlets.

  27. @Shannon: I am aware the US has many people to answer back to these characters. I'm just trying to point out that in South Africa our media is not the "Wild West" as some would like to depict it as.

    Coulter I have a strong distaste for. Though for me Savage crosses a line. He has called Arabs "non-humans" before on his radio show. Maybe hate speech laws aren't ideal, but personally I'm glad we don't have such a vile human being on South African radio, or in the South African media at all.

    Though ultimately, Zapiro's cartoon does not count as hate speech. The judge who denied the interdict was Muslim herself, and she obviously did not feel Zapiro had crossed any line as far as our Constitution and laws regarding speech goes.

    If Dave however feels we need similar organisations to Media Matters, then there is nothing stopping him from getting such an organisation going. I'm certainly not opposed to it.

  28. @Richard: we may be veering off topic but it's an interesting one so I will anyway.

    One of the things that worries me about US media is that there are now so many choices that we end up much of the time just choosing voices that echo our own beliefs back to us and creating our own echo chambers. I'm guilty of doing so. So, for instance, I've never even heard Dan Savage (heard *of* him, of course, but never listened to him) and I have only ever heard snippets or read excerpts of Coulter and Limbaugh. My dad, at the other end of the political spectrum, never reads the Atlantic or Harpers or The Progressive or watches Rachel Maddow. For conservatives, even the NY Times and Washington Post are now suspect. It's a very odd media landscape now--much different from the days when there were three channels and everyone got their news from Walter Cronkite.

    In general I think choice is good but the idea of choosing your news is a little alarming as few of us are disciplined enough to seriously engage other views. When I was an undergraduate at an institution that had a reputation for being very liberal, my grandfather got me a subscription to the National Review (the leading conservative journal). It turned out to be perhaps the best thing he could have done to keep me intellectually honest. I try now to listen to folks from all walks but I do avoid the talk radio crowd, it seems particularly toxic.

  29. @Shannon: The range of media is quite fascinating. It is useful to keep up with other views, despite one's dislike for them. I don't shun various forms of media that don't entirely suit my outlook, or I may even entirely dislike. During undergraduate degree I used to on the odd occassion page through the conservative British publication called the Spectator because it was in my university's journals section, despite not being at all fond of the publication.

    Unfortunately many of those US publications aren't available to me. But I try keep up with who is who in the US media when I have time.

    I haven't listened to Michael Savage either, not having visited the United States before, but I've read some lengthy extracts from his radio show on the Media Matters website. The man sounds deranged, truly. Blatantly racist towards Arabs and outright homophobic (despite having once been friends with Allen Ginsberg!). He even took a swipe at autistic kids, saying they are a way for poor families to be "parasites on the government". =/ If he is representative of the talk show crowd there, your use to the term toxic is definitely appropriate.

  30. OK Shannon, since you did not live through apartheid SA, I certainly understand and respect your method of gauging the character of Zapiro. Again, having seen Zapiro evolve through the years and knowing how the apartheid government tactics, I'm extremely suspicious of the previously privileged claiming to be part of the struggle and membership of certain organizations or being arrested by the apartheid police does not automatically confer struggle credentials to anyone! This shocking revelation circa 2004 may give you a tiny glimpse into the nature of the apartheid security appratus Besides how many SA whites that you have met will admit to voting for the old National Party? Anyway, remember that unlike the Nazis, the apartheid regime had YEARS to carefully prepare their exit strategies. One of their key initiatives was the control and manipulation of the media. My advice to you would be not to take things at face value.

    Anyway, Muslims have lived in SA since the 1800s. Don't you find the timing of Zapiro's latest "satire" even a little suspect? I'm glad M&G has apologized to the Muslim community, now I just wish they wouldn't censor me so aggressively!

  31. Richard, "You seem to have to fantastical idea of the South African media being out to ruin everything and the US media as perfect."
    You're putting words in my mouth again. Read what I said above.

    " it is right-wing US talk radio that needs controlling, not the South African media, not the Mail and Guardian and not Zapiro's cartoons"
    But Richard, who has been creating hysteria about violence during World Cup? Why has Zapiro suddenly, at this crucial time in SA, chosen to speak out against free speech in Islam - WHY? Why has Zapiro consistently negatively stereotyped blacks and continues to belittle people of color in his utterly boring ZANews? Why does the media only speak of government corruption and give the corporate criminals a free ride?

  32. Aasia, I wrote this article because I know Islam and its followers are struggling to come to terms with its direction, since 9/11, and some of my best friends are Muslim.
    Keep speaking out against injustice and oppression. I had a look at your website and I'd encourage you to show the people in your community the power of free speech and the internet. Your voice is important and powerful one in bringing about real peace to our fragmented communities.

  33. Sounds like a study of the role of media in aparthed-era and post-apartheid era SA would make a really good read!

    True, I am very frank about the fact that I am an outsider looking in and am happy to have misconceptions corrected. Regarding Zapiro's reputation, I am going largely on the impressions and opinions I hear from friends in the Western Cape who are struggle vets themselves (mostly UDF, a few MK). We culled through quite a bit of his 80s work for an exhibition I worked on and he seemed like the real deal. But I have only been following him a short time.

    I only know two South African whites. ;-) True story. Not sure how that came about--I fell in with the Coloured struggle vet/activist community in Cape Town and from there to ANC cadres and so that is where all my friends are. Strange the places fate tasks you, no?

  34. @ Dave: Is it not obvious why Zapiro drew it when he did? It was a current issue, the very week of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. But it seems worthless trying to talk about this subject with you, you seem to have an idea in your head that won't budge.

    I really can't understand why any reasonable person would be "glad" over this apology. It seems just like last year when Errol Naidoo and his fellow Christian fundie ilk bullied an apology out of UCT. UCT should NOT have given scum like Naidoo a hearing. The Mail and Guardian should NOT have given those angry about this cartoon a hearing. The worst thing is, those religious people who make the biggest fuss over things such as what was in UCT's Sax Appeal and Zapiro's cartoon would never give the gay community a hearing on the genuine harm that the parts of their religious texts dealing with homosexuality have caused gays, let alone an apology. Try deny that

  35. Yes Shannon, control of the media is certainly worth looking into. Even in the US, corporate controlled media has watered down discussions to the point where its does not make sense to even watch the late night news anymore - mostly propaganda and useless bullshit. In SA, we have a large portion of the media controlled by the previously privileged who still control the economy, largely pushing the hidden DA agenda.

    The internet has begun to turn the tide against corporate control of the media, lets only hope that Google is not seduced by the dark side as well. The days of scum like Rupert Murdoch are numbered. Newspapers, magazines are undergoing a transformation of gargantuan proportions.

    The glaring problem with the internet here, is SA's vast digital divide. Thats why the discussions on M&G are not representative of the SA majority but mainly the previously privileged who can afford the internet costs - arguably the least affordable in the world!

    I wish I could be more forgiving of Zapiro, but his mean-spiritedness towards people of color seems to be a blindspot to most white SAns. Anyway, I simply view him as a dying relic of the apartheid era bent on clinging to his self-serving agenda.

    I'm glad you're in good company, there is much to be learned about our amazing country.

  36. Richard, as I said before, Muslims have been living in SA since the 1800s, so please spare me the BS. Zapiro has no shame, and will sell his soul to further his pitiful self-serving agenda.

    Also please try not to hijack this discussion with your own homosexual agenda. Its common knowledge that homosexuality is demonized by most religions not just Islam. GLBT rights is bigger battle worth fighting but not in this discussion.

  37. Yes Muslims have lived here for a long time. Zapiro has not attacked the history of the Muslim community in South Africa. If he drew a cartoon ridiculing their history in South Africa for no apparent reason, then you'd have a point, but now you don't.

    And this is not a "homosexual agenda". I'm not gay myself. The point you seem to be missing is, it's not ok to publish satire about religion such as the UCT Sax Appeal or Zapiro's cartoon. Apologies will be demanded etc, just as we have seen. But if you put genuinely harmful speech in a religious text, then somehow that's just fine.

  38. I think they (muslims) protest too much. If they can't accept criticism, they should not look at newspapers and websites that do criticise them! I see porn magazines at the local cafe, but I leave them there. No-one tries to force them down my throat.
    Vicious crimes were committed in the name of islam, so they must accept that they are not the most revered people around. Live with it!

  39. harris said: Muslims are justified in asking others not to depict Prophet Mohammed in images.

    I think that non-muslims are justified in asking muslims not to push their religion down our throats with violence, like suicide bombers, killing innocent people and flying aircraft into buildings.