Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
26 July 2014 13:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

The cost of the freedom of expression

  • Sipho Hlongwane
Freedom of expression is an odd thing, is it not? Because, to be honest, in a constitutional democracy such as ours, we aren’t as free to express ourselves as we’d like to think we are. My freedom of expression can’t infringe on your freedom not to be discriminated against, for instance. This balance can be very difficult to get right, as Zapiro’s Muhammad cartoon has demonstrated.

The American TV channel Comedy Central edited out a section of “South Park”, the satirical cartoon show, which featured images of the prophet Muhammad, after threats were posted on an Islamist website.

A protest was then launched by a cartoonist, Molly Norris, in the form of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on Facebook. As the protest swelled over the course of a week, Norris eventually withdrew support for the protest and it is this action that I thought spoke most eloquently to the question of the freedom of expression.

I should state that my knowledge of Islam is quite limited. Prior to the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” controversy, I was under the impression that, according to Islamic custom, it was depictions of Allah that were forbidden. I’ve no doubt that most of the people who took part in the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” do not possess an extensive understanding of the Islamic faith.

We live in a post-9/11 world, where a religion we barely understand in the West has come to dominate the public consciousness. The fact that Islam was sprung so violently into the public eye on 9/11 means that interactions between the West and Islam were going to be difficult, at best. Fearful people reacted in the typical manner of fearful people – and Islamophobia was “born”. We see it everywhere - from burqa bans in France to minaret bans in parts of Switzerland. The singling out of Middle Eastern men (or men who look even slightly Middle Eastern) at airport security checks has become staple fare for comedians.  Islamophobia is nothing more than racism, borne out of fear.

I have no doubt that most followers of the Islamic faith would rather go about their lives in peace, and harbour no extremist inclinations against perceived enemies.

What I do understand, however, is that in our country, Islam is a religion operating within constitutional confines which defend the freedom of expression. Islam may ban any depictions of the prophet Muhammad, but by law, anyone who wants to draw an image of Muhammad is free to do so. This applies to all religions. None is given preference.

Most religions have practices which are forbidden, but are legal according to the law of the country. The concept of equality before the law means no one religion’s taboos should be imposed on the entire population. Not even the threat of violence should cause concessions to one religion over others. We must defend this principle at all times.

Our courts should be applauded in this regard. The court bid to prevent the Mail & Guardian publishing the Zapiro cartoon featuring the image of Muhammad the prophet, though turned down on a technicality, was a demonstration of the constitutional principles that govern all religions.

“Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” may have started off as a protest against infringements on the freedom of expression, but it quickly degenerated into Islamophobia as some used the platform to vent their fears. Whenever freedom of speech or freedom of expression is defended in protest action, the danger of those with other motives hijacking the protest for their own nefarious ends is ever present.

Some seem to believe that freedom of expression is license for hate speech or racism.

Whenever legitimate protest actions become tarred with the brush of hate speech, then responsible people must withdraw their voices from that action, which is what Molly Norris did.

This is also why I cannot applaud Zapiro’s decision to draw Muhammad. His motives for doing so may be apparent to him, but we must judge the cartoon against the greater backdrop of the scourge of Islamophobia. He may have had good intentions, but I believe he’s legitimised discrimination, in the name of a sense of humour, just a little bit more.

Jeremy Nell, a cartoonist who chose not to depict Muhammad, put it this way, "We must fight to the death for the right to draw Muhammad, but then refrain from doing so."

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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