Just weeks after he marched in Paris for the right of French cartoonists to denigrate Islam, Muslims and depict the Prophet Muhammad in a bestial manner, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has ordered an investigation into a Palestinian cartoonist.
Mohammad Saba’aneh, who is also a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, is accused of publishing a drawing depicting the Prophet Muhammad, albeit in a positive light.
Saba’aneh, however, denies that the cartoon depicts the prophet himself, and asserts that the image depicts a Muslim spreading the prophet’s positive message.
Saba’aneh was previously jailed by Israel for his work. Now in his mid-thirties, he is originally from the occupied West Bank village of Qabatiya near Jenin, and lives in Ramallah.
The cartoon was published in the Palestinian Authority-run newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida on Sunday. On Monday, Abbas ordered an investigation into what he called a “grave mistake” and insisted on “respect for sacred religious symbols.” Abbas called for “deterrent measures” against the newspaper.
On Tuesday, al-Hayat al-Jadida said it suspended staff members who were “responsible” for publishing Saba’aneh’s cartoon, Wattan TV reported.
The newspaper said that it had carried out an “internal inquiry” and passed the results to Abbas “to follow up on the matter,” and that the employees would remain suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry.
The prophet’s message
The cartoon, as can be seen, depicts a figure standing astride the Earth carrying a heart-shaped satchel. What appears to be rain is pouring from the hand of the figure who is surrounded by a glowing aura. In the top right of the image are the words “Prophet Muhammad” in English and Arabic.
Although Muslim artists from various traditions have depicted the Prophet Muhammad throughout history, many Muslims believe that making images of the prophet encourages or is tantamount to idolatry, and thus they consider such images taboo.
In a Facebook posting on 1 February, Saba’aneh defended the cartoon and denied that it depicts the prophet himself.
Saba’aneh said that the cartoon conveys the message of the prophet and that the text affirms his role.
He said that the figure lacked any of the features that would identify him as the prophet.
“The figure represents the Muslim implementing the prophet’s message, and the surrounding aura is the light of the Prophet Muhammad, and the goodness that is being spread is Islam.”
Saba’aneh said he was motivated to make the picture because of the frequent denigration of the prophet not only in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo but in publications and websites around the world.
The cartoonist also told Canadian public broadcaster CBC’s national program As It Happens on Tuesday that he believed Muslim cartoonists had a role to play in “defense” of the prophet through their art.
Saba’aneh acknowledged that the criticism had begun even before Abbas announced an investigation, as some Palestinians had taken offense.
He told CBC he had faced questions about why he drew the cartoon, who put him up to it and what it meant.
As It Happens host Carol Off asked Saba’aneh about the “quite extraordinary photograph, a month ago of this march in the streets of Paris with leaders from around the world who are all marching for free speech.”
The march took place days after two French gunmen murdered cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a third murdered several people at a Jewish supermarket.
The day before the march, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged millions to go into the streets in defense of the “symbols” that had been attacked: “Freedom of opinion and expression, with the death of the Charlie Hebdo journalists; the freedom to protect, with the deaths of three police officers; tolerance and freedom of religion, with the attacks on Jews. And finally, the deaths of ordinary citizens.”
“Right in the front row is President Abbas marching in support of the right for Charlie Hebdo or for anyone to speak freely,” Off observed, “and now he orders an investigation into you making a cartoon.”
Charlie Hebdo has frequently depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims and people of color in pornographic, bestial and racist ways.
Off asked Saba’aneh if he thought he faced a “double standard.”
“I don’t know what will happen with me in this investigation and what his reaction will be,” Saba’aneh said of Abbas. “I hope he will still believe in freedom to speak.”
Amid the criticism, Saba’aneh has received some public support, including from Bassam al-Salihi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and chair of the Palestinian People’s Party.
“There should be no mixing of what Saba’aneh drew with good intentions, on the one hand, and the drawings that attacked the prophet, on the other,” Salihi said, urging that the matter not be used to repress freedom of speech and set damaging legal precedents in Palestine.
Jailed for his work by Israel
Mohammad Saba’aneh was arrested by Israeli occupation forces in February 2013 and spent a total of five months in detention.
Israel accused him of collaborating with Hamas because cartoons he drew were published in a book by his brother, a member of Hamas.
“I told them that the collaboration was with my brother, not with Hamas. Actually Hamas hates me,” Saba’aneh told The Electronic Intifada in November 2013.
He said he had angered many Hamas members when he published a cartoon that openly criticized Ismail Haniyeh, a senior member of Hamas who has been the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister.
Saba’aneh said he has published cartoons critical of every Palestinian political faction, as well as of Israel. His work often depicts the struggles of Palestinian prisoners.
As well as in al-Hayat al-Jadida, Saba’aneh’s work has appeared in publications all over the Arab world.