It is obvious from the way Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon immediately divided opinion, if it was not already obvious from common sense, that there is no right answer in the new SA to the question, Should we be able to picture the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)?
The answer is Yes or No depending on your religion and how devoutly you follow it, or - if the word is still pc - on culture. In short, it is a question of belief and belonging.
Although radicals and dissenting sects as ever dispute it, the few violent ones with violence, the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all hold to the universal values of peace and the equality of man. However much they are divided politically, world spiritual leaders today do not presume to pronounce on the symbols and rituals of different faiths and have long known better than to profane things that are sacred to others. That was the way in earlier societies in an unenlightened age.
If religion has mostly moved on in understanding, how strange that reason all too often has not. After all, reason is humanity’s progressive faculty. Its brilliant offspring, the natural and social sciences, are supposed to have left religion behind, not the other way around. As its advocates confidently point out, reason uncovers the real truth and rescues people from superstition and prejudice. For everyone's sake, it must pursue that end - and nothing should be sacrosanct in the no-holds-barred, ‘robust debate’.
The difficulty is this is self-evident only to those who agree with it. Also most people can tell you, from everyday experience, that reason is ill-equipped to settle differences involving fundamental beliefs, which come awkwardly tangled up with loyalties and love.
Forget for a moment whether it really makes sense to try to talk others out of their religious convictions. If a family turns down more money to move abroad, is it the ‘reasons’ they give, or something stronger, that decides them to stay at home? Does it help to expose and mock it? How many parents refrain from ‘reasoning’ sons and daughters out of making an unwise marriage? Are they cowards? On a lighter note, how many supporters go on backing their soccer or rugby team however regularly they lose? Now that really does go against all reason. We just smile and understand.
Into a far future, SA society at large - a multicultural society in a globalized world - cannot escape its own moral challenge: how we all live together. We have forgotten, or never remind ourselves, that the glorious ideals of modern liberal democracy enshrined in the dry words of SA’s ‘advanced’ constitution took two thousand years and more to put on paper. The notion that all are accountable, including the powerful; the sanctity of the individual ‘soul’ and the resulting imperatives of equality and social justice - these and other values are not simply the bequest of great leaders, but are passed on to us by generations of ordinary worshippers out of their humble faith.
The theories and institutions of liberal democracy are the achievements of educated minds, but they took centuries of sacrifice by everyone to construct. Above all, they required the imagination to foresee that a more inclusive future would come - and would demand them. Written constitutions, representative bodies, Acts of Toleration, Bills of Rights - these are the products of a long, infinitely complex history of give-and-take, of endless compromises by unnumbered people who struggled to come up with peaceable solutions to the problems raised by change in their times.
The satirist at his work owes no duty to any of this, or to anything or anyone else. Nevertheless this does not mean his barbs can never go astray. We do not have to see this particular cartoon as an artful move to boost sales and circulation of a weekly newspaper. It can appear better and worse than that - as a misguided effort to accelerate enlightenment that in fact sets it back. It can appear one more part of a crusade - a term of obloquy associated not with progressive Reason at all, but with a zealous, unreformed religion best left in the past.
This article was first published on Newstime, May 26 2010