South Africa enters Prophet cartoon row

South Africa's foremost cartoonist, Zapiro, has been greeted with plaudits and protests after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed.

The artist, who has been sued by Jacob Zuma and poked fun at Nelson Mandela, waded into the world's most controversial satirical arena yesterday – with a treatment far gentler than the ones he usually doles out.

The cartoon shows the Prophet as a patient on a psychiatrist's couch bemoaning the fact that "other Prophets have followers with a sense of humour". South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper had to go to court late on Thursday night to see off an injunction from the Council of Muslim Theologians, who said the depiction was offensive.

The cartoonist, whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro, decided to take on the topic after this week's furore over a Facebook group calling for cartoons of the Prophet led to the social networking site being banned in Pakistan.

Speaking after his latest work was published online, he said he would not be "cowed into submission". Meanwhile, a US cartoonist whose work inspired the online group "Everybody Draw Muhammad" publicly distanced herself from the row.

Molly Norris, who in April drew a cartoon of the Prophet after a US television network pulled an episode of the animated comedy South Park containing a contentious depiction of Mohamed, apologised. On her blog she said her work had been hijacked and that the campaign was "offensive to Muslims".

In Johannesburg, the Muslim theologians group Jamiatul Ulama argued in court papers that the publication could constitute a threat to the World Cup next month. But the High Court rejected the injunction after accepting arguments that the paper was already available in some places and the cartoon had been published online. The same group succeeded four years ago in stopping another South African paper from republishing Danish cartoons on the same subject.

Staff at the Mail & Guardian, one of the country's most respected publications, said they had been inundated with angry calls, including a number of death threats. Nic Dawes, the paper's editor, acknowledged that the cartoon had "caused controversy and deeply offended some readers" but used an editorial to defend the cartoon as "a gentle and irreverent poke" at the hysteria that had greeted the Facebook group.

Mr Shapiro is a multi-award-winning cartoonist whose brush has routinely lanced the great and the good in South Africa and beyond. His constant depiction of Jacob Zuma with a shower attached to his head as a reminder of his comments prior to his acquittal on a rape charge that he took a shower to avoid contracting HIV, have so enraged the now President that he has sought hundreds of millions of pounds in damages.

"The cartoon is not particularly harsh – it's got an element of pathos in it," Mr Shapiro told the BBC. "It's almost an appeal to people to say, 'Come on, get real, get into the 21st century'."

Cartoon Controversies

Danish cartoons

The publication by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in September 2005 caused outrage in the Muslim world. One of the most contentious showed Mohamed with a bomb-shaped turban. Both Saudi Arabia and Syria's ambassadors to Copenhagen were withdrawn amid worldwide protests that left dozens dead.

South Park

The American broadcaster Comedy Central censored the 200th programme of South Park over the depiction of the Prophet Mohamed as a giant teddy bear. The planned episode led to a warning on an Islamist website that the show's creators would be murdered. In the episode last month, Mohamed's appearances were covered with a "censored" label, while the Prophet was replaced in the bear suit by Santa Claus.

Murder plot probe

Seven people were arrested in the Republic of Ireland in March as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to murder a Swedish cartoonist, who received death threats over a drawing depicting the Prophet Mohamed with the body of a dog. A number of Middle East governments condemned the work of Lars Vilks and a threat to his life was made by an al-Qa'ida faction in Iraq.

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