By Imran Garda
At a meal of halal pasta at a Johannesburg restaurant in 2004 , I found myself defending my one-time work colleague, Graeme Joffe, at a table of young Muslim men, after a joke he had made on a local radio station.
"Even if he thinks he's funny, this was insulting to us, and the brothers are right to launch a complaint," said one.
"They should fire him. Do you even know what he said? 'What do you call a Bangladeshi cricketer with a bacon sandwich on his head? Ham'head. And if he has two bacon sandwiches? Mo'Ham'head!' Disgusting!"
I tried to interject diplomatically, "I know Graeme, he's one of the most polite, least offending, self-deprecating people you can meet. It's a light-hearted radio show, come on. I worked with him at Supersport; if anything they should fire him because the joke was so bad!"
"Garda, you don't understand", insisted the most annoyed. "No matter how harmless the intention" and, with the surest of conviction, he continued: "When it comes to the prophet, there are no jokes."
Joffe and the radio station were censured after South Africa's Broadcasting Complaints Commission saw his joke as "hate speech" that violated the constitution. And yes, it has been no joke since late 2005, when 12 cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten seemed to ignite frenetic flames of fury that just wouldn't die down.
The very depiction of Prophet Muhammad was an affront to Muslims, who do not depict him for fear of idolatry, among numerous other theological reasons. He has been depicted before, to the annoyance of many Muslims, but not much more. What seemed to tip the saga into the epicly dangerous territory that it has occupied since is that a substantial number of the images of him had sometimes tacit, sometimes overt references to Muhammad and misogyny, Muhammad and violence, Muhammad and terrorism.
But was that it? Was there merely an impulsive, collective rising up, a synergy of the insulted? Had the outcry been devoid of any larger outside forces prodding, pricking, planning - manufacturing anger?
The recent WikiLeaks revelations suggest otherwise. They show that the US charge d'affaires in Damascus, Stephen Seche, believed that Syria actively encouraged violent protests in which the Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked. The leak reminded me of another meal in another African country, Egypt, in 2008.
"Mashallah, you're from South Africa? I do a lot of work there; we are training 600 da'ees (Muslim missionaries) to approach fans during the World Cup in 2010."
Imam Fadel Soliman paused for another spoonful of molokhiyya, an Egyptian soup dish. He was hungry - he had been fasting all day. We shared our Ramadhan iftaar before recording an Inside Story programme later that night, where he appeared as one of our guests.
A big, friendly man, who seemed permanently out of breath, with an engaging presence, Imam Fadel was bursting with a faith he was keen to share; he later dished out DVDs on Islamic guidance to our film crew and producers, in multiple languages to boot. He was like an ambassador for Islam, but it was what he told me about another ambassador which was of infinite interest to me:
"Do you know our Egyptian ambassador to South Africa, Mona Attiah?" he asked as he wolfed down some more Iftaar.
"I can't say I do."
"Mashallah, she's a good sister, has done a lot for Muslims. She doesn't wear hijab, but she's a good woman."
"Are you sure you don't know her?"
"I'm sorry", I said. I wasn't sure whether it was my South African or Islamic credentials which were beginning to wane in his eyes.
"She was in Denmark before South Africa. She was the ONE ambassador who really stood up to the Danish government, and insisted on a meeting with them over those cartoons about our prophet sallalahu alayhi wasallam (peace be upon him). And when they said they didn't want to meet and can't stop 'freedom of expression', she stood firm! She was the one who got the other ambassadors on board to go the Arab League in Cairo together to show our united condemnation, that the cartoons were unacceptable! Mashallah."
It was what he said next that I’ll never forget:
"If it wasn't for her, we may never even have heard of those cartoons."
Two Danish imams carried the cartoon "dossier" throughout the Middle East with some extra cartoons thrown into the mix - images that were never published in Jyllands-Posten. One wasn't even a cartoon, but a photocopied photograph of a picture lifted off the internet of a man wearing a pig-snout.
Ever since the outbreak of the crisis, it has been noted that many usually undemocratic governments, often brutal in their suppression of mass protests which call for political reform, or rally against the price of bread - suddenly wholeheartedly embraced (and maybe even sponsored) the protest fever.
CCTV footage from the building that housed the Danish embassy in Beirut shown in Karsten Kjaer's film Bloody Cartoons even suggests that the Lebanese army allowed protesters to converge on the building, Molotov cocktails in hand.
Does it come then as any surprise that years later, with over a hundred dead since the first spasm of violence, three men have recently been charged with plotting to mow down the staff of Jyllands-Posten with machine guns?
In early 2006 even mainstream scholars, like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, hated by many hardliners for his liberal and forward-thinking opinions on issues of Islamic jurisprudence, called for a "day of anger" around the Muslim world in response to the cartoons. He said Muslims are not "donkeys to be ridden on" but "lions that roar".
In context, seen along with his and other scholars' calls for an economic boycott of Denmark and strong political lobbying against the country and the newspapers that published the cartoons, many would interpret his call to "roar" metaphorically. As a call for a stern but peaceful response against a provocation from Jyllands-Posten that smacks of goading, demeaning and ostracising Muslims.
But (and it's a big but) an obvious, glaring problem is with the rise of the far-right in Europe, where issues of Muslims veils and minarets, anti-immigration and integration dominate the discourse: will every offended Muslim interpret the call that way? Much of the post-cartoon rhetoric left ample room for subjective interpretation. Are we not seeing the fallout continuing to unfold before our eyes?
Freedom of Expression
"Freedom of Expression" - it has a post-modern, sacrosanct, warm-fuzziness about it. But are those who claim it entirely consistent?
The editor responsible for the cartoons, Flemming Rose, pledged to Christiane Amanpour in an interview that Jyllands-Posten was attempting to make contact with the Iranian newspaper that ran cartoons about the Holocaust, and hoped to publish them too. He reneged on his promise, and was put on a short "leave of absence" by the paper.
At the time, cat-eyed Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the Danish prime minister. His devotion to "Freedom of Expression" and "Freedom of the Press" in his country was indisputable and was tested from multiple corners, diplomatic and otherwise.
He cannot have been too impressed when he went from being the head of a friendly, isolated Scandinavian country to seeing effigies of himself burnt on the streets of Pakistan.
But now, as the secretary-general of NATO, the most powerful fighting force history has ever known, RSF (Reporters Without Borders) claims his NATO forces in Afghanistan have treated "journalists working in difficult provinces ... like dangerous criminals".
Afghan journalists, like Al Jazeera cameraman Mohammed Nader, have found themselves arrested and later released without charge, on suspicion of having links with the "enemy" because of alleged links to the Taliban and their spokespersons.
This dovetails with an Afghan government order in March 2010 banning all coverage of "insurgent attacks" in the country with the threat of prosecution of any journalist who does - an ominous message to journalists there.
Is the dedication of men like Flemming Rose and Anders Fogh Rasmussen to "Freedom of Expression" relative to an ideological worldview? Are they dedicated to a complete freedom of expression only of the "good guys" - but heaven forbid you let the "bad guys" express themselves.
As Noam Chomsky put it - "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."
Who's to blame? Jyllands-Posten? The Danish government? Global Islamophobia and its racist defenders or global Islamism and its idealogues? Or the governments who may have actively encouraged their citizens to get angry?
In the five-year long cartoon crisis, anger ebbs and flows, condemnation bursts and retreats and worldviews collide. Art meets politics, satire meets the sacred, and provocation cries crocodile tears when it meets a response it claims it never expected.
Maybe, just maybe, the seemingly never-ending cartoon chaos was epitomised by the guy who held up the banner at the cartoon protest rally in London, saying "Freedom of Expression Go To Hell!"
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