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Palestinian cartoonist defends symbolic prophet caricature

Mixed interpretations of a 'Prophet Muhammad' caricature as President Mahmoud Abbas calls for an investigation
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh in his Ramallah office in January (AFP)

The Palestinian Authority has summoned a local cartoonist for interrogation, two days after a Palestinian newspaper published his caricature of what Mahmoud Abbas has described as the Prophet Mohammed.

In Sunday's edition of Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, Mohammed Sabaanah drew a cartoon depicting a robe-clad figure standing on top of the earth, wearing a heart-shaped pouch. 

One hand is extended with what appears to be seeds falling down on the earth from it. The caption, in both English and Arabic, reads, “Prophet Muhammad".

In a Facebook post, Sabaaneh denied that the image was of the prophet. 

“The drawing is of a symbolic halo of light carried by the Prophet Muhammad,” he wrote, pointing out that it was a representation of the prophet’s message to the world.

“The intention was not to represent the prophet,” he continued. “[It was to] symbolise Islam and its role of disseminating light and love on the human race.”

On Monday PA President Mahmoud Abbas ordered an immediate investigation into the caricature, stressing the need to take deterrent action against what he described “a terrible mistake". He also underlined the importance of “respecting sacred religious symbols, especially the prophets and messengers."

The newspaper issued a statement on Tuesday apologising and clarifying to the readers that it did not seek to draw any comparisons between embodying the prophet.

The newspaper also said it formed a committee to investigate the drawing, adding that at the time of publishing the cartoon, the purpose was to “defend the religion and the message of love and peace."

In the aftermath of the deadly attack on the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo last month,  Abbas was one of several world leaders who took part in a march for freedom of speech in Paris. The paper had caricatured Prophet Muhammad many times, eliciting condemnation from Muslims worldwide.

In fact, Sabaaneh pointed to these offending cartoons as the reason behind his recent caricature.

“Recently, I realised that it is my duty to defend the religious message and the Prophet Muhammad,” he said. “This is what I tried to convey in my last drawing that has sparked an uproar. My point was to defend religion in the face of attempts to distort it, by using the same means: a caricature.

“But I have the courage to present my apologies to the people who received the message with the opposite of what I wanted to convey. I hope this apology will be regarded as a comprehensive clarification of my intention, which was to defend our prophet and religion.”

Sabaaneh, from the village of Qabatiya in Jenin, was previously imprisoned by the Israeli occupation in 2013 for five months and charged with being in contact with a hostile organisation. In addition to tackling the Israeli occupation, his cartoons have also been critical of Palestinian political parties, and depict hardships faced by prisoners and their families.

Sabaaneh also teaches cartooning lessons to children across the West Bank, offering workshops to schools who are willing to seek his help.

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