Lest we become caricatures of ourselves

Posted by on May 21, 2010 in Blog, Worldly Fragments | 16 comments

In South Africa we’re swathing our cars in the national flag, wearing football jerseys to work, trying our damndest to look for some unique way to show off our patriotism. I am a Muslim. I am a South African. I have been blessed to never feel that these identities are irreconcilable. My Muslimness is entrenched in my South Africaness. My South Africaness is connected to my Muslimness. While the rest of the world squabbles over a woman’s right to wear the nikaab, in my neck of the woods, women in nikaab drive cars, work in banks, serve you in stores. And it’s never been anything to write home about.

I have honestly never been made to think twice about wearing a hijab, or an abaya, for that matter for fear of social recrimination.  I blend in, I’ve never walked into a mall, or an interview , or a meeting having to worry about how I am going to be perceived.  I don’t doubt that my dress inspires curiosity but even when this curiosity is pronounced I’ve never been made to feel as though I was under a searchlight.  The reaction to the publication of the Zapiro cartoon by the Mail and Guardian this morning however has made me feel as though my Muslim identity and South African identity are being mercilessly wrenched apart.

In the words of former Mail and Guardian journalist, Qudsiya Karim, ‘As a Muslim, I’m not at all impressed with Zapiro’s cartoon. As a journalist, I understand that press freedom is important.’ I too champion the right to a free press, just some weeks ago I joined bloggers around the country to protest the intimidation of the media by the ANC Youth League. It is apt then that City Press editor Ferial Haffejee says, ‘Draw Mohamad day is as much about free expression as the Youth League is about advancing young people.’ I had been able to merrily ignore the calls to boycott Facebook yesterday in protest of ‘Draw Mohamed Day’. I reacted with some bewilderment that Pakistan has cut off its nation from their social media diet. To be honest it was easy to ignore until it concerned us.

Waking up to news that an interdict against the Mail and Guardian publishing a Zapiro cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him)had failed left me a little unsettled. I only believed it once I saw it. And when I did see it, it was disappointment I felt most acutely. While I looked at the cartoon pensively, a text message from an acquaintance interrupted me:

‘ Alert: Now on Radio Islam the government wants see how Muslim South African youth react to the Zapiro drawing of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). They are waiting for any violent action from the youth to clamp down and persecute Muslims in South Africa. Even though this may hurt us, please try to remain calm and not resort to any violence!’

That message plays into the victim mentality so many in this community are handicapped by and it is disappointing that most Muslims, myself included, don’t batter an eyelash when other religions are made the butt of the cartoonist’s pencil. There certainly is a duplicity of values that needs to be addressed.

It is interesting too that on the two occasions publishing cartoons of the Prophet has been made an issue in South Africa, both times the judges deciding the matter were Muslims. A clear indication of how much more integrated Muslims in South Africa are. In the first case of the infamous Danish cartoon, the late Judge Mohamed Jajbhay decided that publishing it would amounted to hate speech. A reminder that even the most liberal constitution recognises limits to free speech but the ruling came under great scrutiny as it was felt the judge was ill qualified to hold an objective perspective in matters pertaining to his namesake.  This time the Judge was a Judge Mayet who insisted that her Muslim identity would not interfere with her ability to judge the matter.

I’m not sure if Zapiro’s cartoon can be judged a victory for free speech. As I conclude this a couple of friends are coyly tweeting admission they find the cartoon funny, that’s all. And that doesn’t make them any less Muslim. Nor does my disappointment in the cartoon make me any less South African.

Also read Hamish Pillay’s thoughts on the matter here.