CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA--The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) organised the march on 9 February 2006, and drew supporters from major cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and even... Boland, a small farming community in the Western Cape. It was the first mass South African response to worldwide Islamic condemnation of a series of 12 Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
For some people who are not Muslim, this protest march seems nonsensical. People ask: Why do religious people get so upset about something as trivial as a cartoon?
Like other interested observers, I made my way to Cape Town's City Hall carefully on the day of the announced march. I kept moving from the official Cape Town City Hall to Thibault Square, the site of other international embassies and high commissions. When I spoke to a police officer at City Hall at about 10:30am, he said, "We believe the march might end at Thibault Square, but we have to keep our eyes focused on both this site and Thibault Square." Understandably, in the building just next door, the Cape Town City Library was shut tight for the day.
I dutifully made my way over to Thibault Square, expecting to see Muslims and South African Police (SAP) members gathered for possible confrontation. I was intrigued to discover no visible Muslims or police officers. I walked around the square for a while and finally discovered at least seven police vehicles, securely locked and empty. There had to be police somewhere close. As I looked around Thibault Square, and after questioning two officers on foot patrol, my eyes found a very cool-looking police officer, wearing a pair of wrap-around sunglasses and a tactical holster and pistol strapped to his thigh.
If the South African Police have a SWAT or Special Forces Unit, then this guy is an honorary life member. He listened to my questions then said simply: "This is a keypoint area. We are keeping it secure". Knowing there are a number of high commissions in that area, I didn't ask any more questions but tried to get back to City Hall as fast as possible. On my way back I discovered another plainclothes man looking up anxiously at the rooftops facing towards Thibault Square. He may have been looking for highrise window cleaners, but I have to admit, it makes me wonder if there weren't snipers or police lookouts up there.
Back at the City Hall, the crowds were gathering. Some intrigued onlookers, two SAP Nyala personnel carriers, and hundreds of Muslims, of all ages, shapes and sizes. I struck up a conversation with one man, in his forties. Mr MZ Booley, from Cape Town spoke from his heart: "What are you writing about? This is war. For any Muslim the world over, when someone scratches with our religion, we will kill them straight. And if that cartoonist Grogan, or Zapiro, makes fun of this situation, then I personally will kill them. I'm not afraid, they're nothing."
Pointing to a nearby group of harmless-looking Muslim ladies, he said vehemently: "Any one of these mummies, these ladies, they will kill anyone who insults our beloved prophet. Just let someone try to cause trouble today. Together we will kill them."
For most people however, the anger (over 12 cartoons originally published in a Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten), was tangible but restrained. I spoke with groups of elderly Muslims waiting while the younger, louder men were gathering forces at Cape Town's Good Hope Centre. The marchers were supposed to be presenting a memorandum to the Danish ambassador, Mr Tolben Brylle, at City Hall.
According to its official memorandum, the MJC demands an immediate and unwavering apology from the Danish prime minister and the Danish government to the global Muslim community, as well as "immediate reproach of the editor of the Jyllands Posten newspaper", which first published the offensive cartoons.
Furthermore, as a third demand, the MJC also insists that: "immediate measures be put in place that restore and defend the religious dignity and sensitivities of all faith-based communities in Denmark" and demands "that the above stipulations be implemented before the embargo against Danish products is lifted".
Before the memorandum was presented by Sheikh Ebrahim Gabriels, the president of the MJC, I joined a small group of Muslim women who were trying to follow the direction of the marchers. The march was supposed to begin at 11:30am but only started moving a about 12:30pm. I walked with the women across the Grand Parade and over the train station roof, through the Civic Centre.
Most of the group of six women work at a major bank on Cape Town's foreshore and used their lunchbreak to show their support. They believe strongly in the march's stated purpose. Our quick conversations went as follows.
Me: What is this march about? Lady One: "They have insulted our beloved prophet Muhammad with these disgusting cartoons. We are speaking out against these terrible things."
Me: I don't think people realised how outraged Muslims would feel about these Danish cartoons. Lady Two: "That's the thing! These cartoons and our anger have actually united Muslims the world over. We are joined together with millions who feel exactly the same way."
Me: What's that loud noise? Lady Three: "They are praising the beloved prophet Muhammad. Those are the Arabic words of praise and honour for our prophet."
When we emerged onto Adderly Street and hurried through the shaded taxi ranks, we could see them. A huge approaching mass of white robes and angry placards. A flatbed truck packed with men and bristling with loudspeakers was alternately praising the prophet Muhammad (reminding us constantly that peace and blessings are upon him) and urging the marchers to be restrained.
The man with the microphone shouted: "Brothers, listen to me! Do not give the media what they want! Do not destroy property! All these shops here, they belong to our Muslim brothers, please do not destroy them." I kept my distance, walking with the SABC cameramen, the freelance photographers, and the police Nyala anti-riot trucks leading the way.
We finally arrived at City Hall at about 1:15pm and waited till half-past before the memorandum was presented. A line of riot police with helmets, shields, shotguns, and full protective gear waited patiently in the sun. Loudspeakers and placards all around me shouted: "Boycott Denmark Boycott!"; "We support our brothers in Iran and the initiatives they have taken"; "Down Denmark down!" and "We will sacrifice our lives for you - Peace be upon him".
In delivering the memorandum, the MJC insisted: "The fact that the Jyllands-Posten allowed the cartoons to be published and the lack of appropriate restorative action by the Danish government shows their blatant disregard for the religious beliefs and sensitivities of the global Muslim community. The paper has taken 'freedom of speech' to a very dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable level by showing complete disregard for the sensitivities and fundamental tenets of Islam, whilst ironically claiming to uphold the highest ethical standards based upon freedom and respect. As stated... by Justice Jajbhay and supported by the South African Cabinet: 'The right to human dignity outweighs the right to freedom of expression'."
Close to the police barricades, I spoke briefly with a an elderly couple who had tellingly fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. I whispered beneath the shouting crowd: Why are you here and where are you from? The old man looked at the Muslims and said: "Why are they doing this? Why are they so angry at Denmark? And I will give you three guesses where I am from..." In my head, he might as well have said: Take care! The barbarians are coming.
You may well wonder: All this noise and brouhaha about 12 cartoons? You better believe it. If you have never understood the term "righteous indignation" before, then the MJC's march in Cape Town against a Danish newspaper's belief in press freedom is a pretty accurate working definition.
Note: Press gag update. On Friday 3 February 2006, South African newspapers were banned from publishing any of the controversial cartoons depicting prophet Muhammad after a Muslim pressure group was granted an urgent court interdict at 10.30pm, just in time to halt Sunday papers running the images. The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) chairman Joe Thloloe described the interdict as alarming. He said Sanef believed the interdict amounted to pre-publication censorship. The interdict, he says: "limits freedom of expression in that the decision on whether to publish or not to publish has been taken away from the editors and placed on the shoulders of the court".