Does God need our protection?

2010-05-25 00:00

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 last week, of the Prophet reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch, bemoaning the fact that other prophets have followers with a sense of humour.

The outrage 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 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 that I would be tempted to pick. I heard another South African cartoonist, Jeremy Nell, on the radio yesterday making a valid point and one 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, let’s 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 African National Congress 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 World Cup. 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 because of 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.


• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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