The following is the slightly longer English version of a piece that appeared originally in Afrikaans in Rapport, 6 June 2010. Note that the sub-editors of the Afrikaans version changed my original ‘vergelyking’ to ‘teenstelling’ in my parenthetical reference to the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners)
Next to ‘hotnot’, ‘gam’* and ‘kaffer’, the epithet that hurt me most as a child was ‘kerrienaat’ (‘curry-arse’). It conflated religion and stereotyped dietary habits (Muslims eat curry every day) into a label that instantly undermined one’s authority and sense of self when playground rivalries turned nasty. It could win any argument by dismissing the rival as a ‘kerrienaat’.
As with ‘hotnot’ or ‘kaffer’, or any such words of vilification, the word’s power over its target comes from unequal social relationships and the history of real and cultural abuse that underlies such unequal relationships (Compare the declamations by the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners over the stereotypes of the ‘Afrikaner’ during the Eerste Taalbeweging).** ‘Kerrienaat’ was a powerful label because of the unequal relationships between a largely Christian world (no matter how secularised) and a minority Muslim community fragmented and further embattled following especially the Group Areas Act, which forced a close-knit community apart and into dispersed neighbourhoods. The dominant way of looking at the world was (is) essentially Christian or secularised Christianity, and this dominance allowed that world to define and misrepresent the non-Christian with impunity.
Part of the frustration and anger of being a target of words such as ‘hotnot’, ‘kaffer’ or ‘kerrienaat’ is that no retort has equal, biting power. Any retort without an underlying history of similar, equal dominance is futile because these epithets gain their power exactly through a history that include material inequality and by the fact that their meanings are thus embedded in a dominant world-view that always implies a lesser being at the receiving end and so defined. ‘Jam-arse’ would just not cut it.***
In addition, these swearwords take a fundamental element of someone’s identity – whether biological or chosen – and turn it into an element of vilification and dehumanisation.
Looking at the Zapiro controversy, I think that the issue for many Muslims in South Africa is not the depiction of Muhammad per se, although that is a strong pretext. Rather, I think the responses of anger and hurt come from the same place as those feelings of anger and hurt that other such epithets, like ‘hotnot’ and ‘kaffer’, cause their targets. In other words, the offense is more about the slighting of identity itself, in a specific historical context of long-abused identity, than it is about the content of that identity. You are (still) being defined and represented by a world that has the power to define and represent you in whatever manner it sees fit, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the function of power itself over the target that such an epithet calls up, recalls and maintains that rankles, rather than the specific variable that that function depends on – race, dietary habits, Muhammad.
The problem is that there is little light that logic can shed on this; matters of identity typically belong to the non-rational (I deliberately avoid ‘irrational’). Thus saying to the offended that there is an old tradition of depictions of Muhammad (by Muslim scholars of old) won’t lighten the offense. Neither will a counter-argument to the equivalence I have drawn between Islam as identity (chosen) versus skin colour (biological) do. The logic that draws a distinction between an epithet that dismisses a body of ideas (Islam as an identity that is chosen) and one that abuses on the basis of biology (something one is born with), that logic does not speak to the emotive power by which especially embattled or misunderstood communities grab on to the one thing by which they are seen and defined as apart, and which they then turn into a bulwark that maintains that distinct identity.
Islam has a long history in South Africa, starting with the anti-colonial exiles and slaves brought here by the Dutch from the Malayan archipelago, and the indentured labourers from India in the early 1800s. It continues today, diversifying slowly but surely also via immigration especially from northern Africa and Pakistan. Yet one finds even well-educated South Africans ignorant of this community that has been an integral part of South Africa’s modern history, and is then at present also growing through immigration. Stereotypes of Muslims still abound and many South Africans freely talk about Islam and pronounce on any matters Islamic with no regard of their own ignorance. In this context it is not difficult to see how Muslims might be offended over something which, in their hearts and minds, is a cultural insult and a slight to their identity.
The differences in degrees of knowledge about each other are normal for any unequal society: the minority (whether numerical or, under apartheid, politically and economically), because it has to live in the dominant society, knows all about that society – knows how to behave and swallow its words. Thus assimilation. The dominant society, on the other hand, cares little about the minority, cares little about it’s own lack of knowledge about the minority and cares little that it does not care. And it cares little about swallowing its words in any company or by any terms other than itself and defined by itself. And it cares little about that non-rational part where issues of identity reside.
In this sense, the Zapiro cartoon forms part of that South African discourse where we do not know how to speak to each other. Or we know, but do not care.
Nevertheless, and at the same time, I do feel that SA Muslims should perhaps be less easily touched by something like the Zapiro cartoon; should, in short, grow thicker skins. There is an old tradition, by Muslim scholars and artists, in which Muhammad is celebrated through visual depiction (see Wikipedia). These scholars were not considered murtad.
The rules about depicting Muhammad are not immutable; they are historical. They have changed over time and can change again. In addition, the terms by which people plea for special consideration regarding Muhammad become themselves idolatrous, the very thing which the ban on depictions of him is supposed to prevent. More importantly, while it might hurt that the world in general doesn’t care about Muslim sensitivities, fervent responses to such controversy does not help anyone’s quest for sympathy and respect.
That the M&G has apologised also sits uncomfortably with me, and I await the final outcome of their review period. Freedom of expression is an important principle and one that I hope will ultimately be upheld in the M&G’s review process. But it is also a complex issue that goes beyond the legalities of freedom of expression. I cannot help but wonder about the negotiation between the letter of that constitutional law in confrontation with the spirit of the same constitution which seeks to foster a community that ever evades South Africa. Who defines the terms of that negotiation? And to who’s and what interest?
Finally, I am a long-time admirer of Zapiro. But I think the Muhammad cartoon was weak as satire, and not up to his usual standard. It would have been wittier if Zapiro had kept Muhammad out of frame, and represented him with just a speech bubble. The cartoon would then have spoken not only about Islam, but directly to Muslims, by employing a customary workaround familiar to Muslims (see The Message, 1976). In this way Zapiro would have shown that he knows and understands the controversy, but still make his point (and this via exploiting the terms of a tradition), possibly deepening the satirical point, and appealing even to the targets of his satire. And who would then have cause for offence?
* gam: My HAT (Verklarende Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, 1979 [2nd ed.], 1984 [4th impression]; Explanatory Hand/Shorter Dictionary of the Afrikaans Language) does not have an entry for ‘gam’, but well for ‘gammat’, which is an abbreviation of ‘Muhammad’ (the ‘h’ is normally pronounced as the voiceless velar fricative [x], as in German ‘nacht’ or Afrikaans ‘nag’). The HAT glosses ‘gammat’ as: 1. Slameier. 2. In wyer gebruik – Kaapse Kleurling. That is, 1. Muslim [although ‘Slameier’, from Islam, was considered derogatory] and 2. In wider use – Cape Coloured.
Interesting to note then the confluence of prejudices in ‘gam’; also interesting to note the phonetic proximity between ‘gam’ and ‘Ham’, son of Noah and hewer of wood, drawer of water. The relationship between ‘gam’ and ‘Ham’ was not unfamiliar to children growing up ‘coloured’ and attending the schools of apartheid and absorbing the curricula of Christian National Education.
** Eerste Taalbeweging: ‘First Language Movement’. This was an Afrikaner nationalist cultural movement which sought, among other things, to codify Afrikaans via the work of the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (Association of True [but it can also be: Real, Right, Right-thinking] Afrikaners) and so claim Afrikaans as the true property of the Volk (people, folk), and its cultural patrimony. The Genootskap was founded in 1875, and thus the official, nationalist birth of (standard) Afrikaans is dated as that year, the unveiling of the Taalmonument in 1975 marking its centenary celebration.
It’s an interesting moment in SA’s history, because that movement, a ‘Taalbeweging’, is also an anti-colonial movement and marks a settler identity developing in contradistinction to the Dutch and British colonial identities at the Cape. It is also part of a resistance movement against the linguistic domination of Dutch and/or English in the Cape colonial administration, and centered on the economic and cultural oppression of this new identity defined as ‘Afrikaner’. It is marked, for instance, by complaints against the stereotyping of the ‘Afrikaner’ and Afrikaans. It’s a moment fraught with ambiguity and irony: an anti-colonial movement as well as an exclusive and arrogantly proud ethnic project. A progressive movement which flounders on its focus on racial pride, and exemplar of nationalist projects, bar of course its ugliest sibling in Nazism. So an interesting moment because, well, nationalism and its cultural variants are still very much with us.
*** Jam-arse: ‘jêmnaat’ (prnounced ‘djêmnaat’) was a retort we used as kids. It was useless because its bite depended on an insider’s knowledge of Islam. Since Muslims clean themselves with water after visiting the toilet, we flipped ‘curry-arse’ into ‘jam-arse’ for non-Muslims to signify their lack of personal cleanliness (paper not being adequate for real cleansing).
Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press
Unfortunately, I only got to see the last three pieces after submitting my own. I recommend them highly.