'No logic in intolerance'

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The Zoo Lake in Johannesburg on a Sunday morning makes my rainbow nation heart sing.

Homeless guys catch ducks to roast for Sunday lunch - with the council’s permission. They must be tasty for they are fattened with morsels from children of all ages and colours, who shout in delight as the greedy canards quack the bread bits from little fingers.

Crafters from Zimbabwe do a roaring trade selling toy planes that whir up into the air and drop into the lake. As Moyo, the restaurant, gears up for a busy day, jazz or the sounds of the mbira start floating through the crisp morning air.

Strutting gym bunnies whip past us strollers and Muslim men and women in scarves and fezzes greet salaam as they go past.

Days like this one and the day before at Orlando when the Bulls came to town, make my heart ache at the miracle of this nation’s construction.

Ache for what might be if we get it together, of what we might be if we share prosperity and tolerance.

But the ease with which we are pushed to the edge of race war or religious strife makes me realise the fragility of our construction and the ease of its destruction.

'What is Zapiro up to?'

Walking around the Zoo Lake, I thought about Zapiro a lot and about his cartoon that has been this weekend’s media topic.

"What is Zapiro up to?" inquired several members of my family this past weekend.

Usually people who love his trenchant social commentary, the shower on President Jacob Zuma’s head and his finger on the pulse of our national foibles, now they felt he had gone a bit too far.

Throughout the weekend, my phone has beeped with text messages sent as chain mail to ask us to boycott the Mail&Guardian and to phone into talk shows to swing voting lines against Zapiro’s cartoon.

The Muslim community can organise quickly and passionately. As Mail&Guardian editor Nic Dawes now knows and as I too still bear the scars of, you can mess with presidents but don’t touch the prophet.

Several years ago, while I worked at the Mail&Guardian, I learnt how it works.

Freedom of expression not absolute

E-mails bombarded my inbox and men whispered damnation down my phone line; my mum, then 76 years old, was pressured to tame her wayward daughter.

The sin: to publish one of the Danish cartoons as part of a news story to show how they were causing worldwide clashes that stretched from Copenhagen to Lahore. Some people understood the absence of harm in the action but most did not.

No matter how much I stressed that I had no solidarity with the cartoonist but felt our readers had to see what the fuss was about, there was no reasoning. No matter how much I pointed out to the critics that they had seen the cartoons themselves on e-mails bouncing through the ether, it fell on deaf ears. Dialogues of the deaf are incredibly frustrating things.

My gentle brother made me understand, for the first time, that freedom of expression was not absolute, no rights were. Rights have to be balanced against responsibilities, not doing harm, causing offence and understanding social mores.

I learnt that lesson well but also learnt another one - there is no logic in intolerance, no debating with fundamentalism. The “Draw Muhammad day” campaign, which was Zapiro’s muse for last week’s cartoon, is a fundamentalism as is the response of the Muslim community.

Finding the right balance

The campaign has its roots in a growing Islamophobia gripping the West, which has seen several European countries cracking down on the freedom of religion of only their Muslim communities. It is a taunting and provocative campaign that has no room in a country where a Constitution effectively protects religious rights and where all our big ceremonies of state are started with a range of prayers of all religions.

But ours is also a Constitution that protects Zapiro’s right to draw without fear of a fatwa and Dawes' right to publish without death threats.

Finding the balance between the two rights is and will continue to be at the core of media debates, one of which starts this week as Dawes meets various Muslim groups.

The choices we make to honour the Constitution we signed off on in 1996, will determine whether we slaughter each other or sharpen our knives only for the extraneous ducks at the Zoo Lake.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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