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S. African paper publishes Mohammed cartoon

By Moni Basu, CNN
  • Cartoon shows prophet wishing for sense of humor
  • Cartoonist says all religions should be subject to satire
  • Muslim groups call cartoon blasphemous
  • Fears of reprisal rise ahead of World Cup

(CNN) -- Once again, a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed has sparked anger and controversy.

A South African newspaper published Friday a cartoon depicting the prophet lamenting that his followers lack a sense of humor, drawing ire from the Muslim community and fear of reprisal attacks just ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament that is expected to draw thousands to South Africa next month.

The cartoon by the acclaimed Cape Town cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, who is known as Zapiro, shows Mohammed reclining on a therapist's couch and saying sadly: "Other prophets' followers have a sense of humour."

Zapiro called his cartoon "gentle," and said he was responding to "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," a Facebook event that encouraged people to flout the belief by devout Muslims that it is wrong to depict religious figures because doing so could lead to idol worship.

Zapiro said he believes all faiths should be subjected to satire. No religious groups, he said, should be able to think they are above society and not respect freedoms afforded to people who live in democracies.

He said there should have been more movement on this score since 2005, when a Danish newspaper first published a series of Mohammed cartoons that led to riots around the world.

"It's important that we assert those rights," Zapiro said.

He said the irony is that the cartoon itself is about asking people to think twice before they get so angry.

But despite Zapiro's intentions, the publication by the Mail & Guardian on Friday drew strong criticism in some Muslim circles.

"These are times that the enemies of Islam are intentionally causing events to provoke a reaction from the Muslims," said a statement from South Africa's Council of Muslim Theologians, which went to court to try to stop the newspaper from printing the cartoon but lost its bid late Thursday.

The council said it was exploring legal routes to ultimately implement a ban on what it called "hate speech."

Radio Islam discussed the topic on South African airwaves Friday.

"Muslims have been seriously offended by the publishing in the Mail & Guardian newspaper of a blasphemous cartoon by Zapiro," the station said.

Mail & Guardian Editor Nick Dawes defended his decision to publish the cartoon.

"I understand that for many Muslims any representation of the prophet, no matter how innocuous, is offensive and I genuinely regret any offence that the cartoon may have caused those who hold this belief dear," Dawes said in an open letter published on the newspaper's website Friday.

"That regret does not, however, outweigh my duty to the principle of freedom expression," he said.

Creators of the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" Facebook group say their idea stemmed from recent controversies surrounding the belief.

At least two European cartoonists live under police protection after drawing Mohammed and, most recently, Comedy Central censored part of the animated show "South Park" because it showed a depiction of the prophet.