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By Bianca Capazorio, SAPA and Reuters
Days after an alleged al-Qaeda operative detailed sketchy plans to attack World Cup teams over cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, the Mail & Guardian newspaper has made waves locally and internationally by also publishing a cartoon of the Prophet.
A cartoon by award-winning satirist Jonathan Shapiro, known as Zapiro, in the M&G yesterday depicts the Prophet grumbling to a psychiatrist about the furore in the Muslim world created by a Facebook page called Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.
"Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!" complains the turbanned, bearded figure, stretched out on the psychiatrist's couch.
Muslims consider any depiction of the founder of Islam to be offensive.
On Thursday night, the Council of Muslim Theologians lost an 11th hour court bid to bar the publication of the cartoon in the M&G.
The council had warned of a possible violent backlash and said the timing was bad, given the alleged threat to the World Cup.
"My view is no cartoon is as insulting to Islam as the assumption Muslims will react with violence," the newspaper's editor Nic Dawes said in defence of the drawing.
Dawes said in an online statement yesterday: "When I first saw the image, and approved it for publication, it was clear to me that it was Zapiro's contribution to the global debate around representations of the Prophet. This is an enormously complex and sensitive subject, but I felt that Zapiro had attempted to handle it with care. Unlike some other cartoonists who have tackled the same subject, he had not used Islamophobic imagery, nor had he mocked the Prophet."
Yesterday, the paper reported it was receiving a flood of calls about the cartoon, and had even received death threats against the cartoonist.
"Phone ringing off the hook. Making the point that I have faith in Muslim South Africans' tolerance and openness to debate," Dawes tweeted yesterday.
The debate raged online too, with hundreds of comments appearing on stories about the cartoon, either defending freedom of speech or expressing disgust.
Several blogs also had the cartoon as a topic. International news media such as Reuters, the BBC and the Guardian were also reporting the story widely yesterday.
Blogger Khadija Pattel wrote: "Waking up to news that an interdict against the Mail & Guardian publishing a Zapiro cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (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."
City Press editor and former Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee tweeted: "Draw Muhammad Day is as much about free expression as the Youth League is about advancing young people."
She however defended Zapiro's right to freedom of expression and was quoted: "His right to draw must be supported unequivocally."
The cartoonist could not be reached for comment last night, but a statement on his website read: "Given the controversy about the 'Everybody draw Muhammad Day' campaign, I felt that it was necessary to draw and publish a cartoon on the subject.
"The objective was certainly not to offend but to draw a cartoon that was challenging.
"I joined (the campaign) because people were getting scared. It was a day of solidarity for cartoonists to draw the prophet.
"Maybe I was naive as I did not think the cartoon or the paper would be interdicted. I thought I would get away with it, but I am glad for the freedom of expression in South Africa."
Muslim Judicial Council president Ihsaan Hendricks said of the cartoon: "It seems to be provocative in many ways on the very eve of the World Cup in South Africa, when we need peaceful co-existence and co-operation among religious communities in South Africa."
Shapiro's cartoon comes days after an alleged al-Qaeda operative was arrested in Iraq on charges of terrorism, including a plot to target the cup. Abdullah Azam Saleh al-Qahtani, a Saudi national, told journalists he had discussed with friends an idea to attack the Danish and Dutch teams or their supporters to avenge perceived insults.
A Danish newspaper sparked outrage among Muslims after publishing 12 cartoons of the Prophet.
The Netherlands has seen a rise in anti-Islam sentiment in recent years since a Muslim murdered a film-maker, Theo van Gogh, who had made a critical film about Islamic culture.