Nothing to Laugh At

On January 15, a Moroccan court gave editor Driss Ksikes and journalist Sanaa al-Adzi three-year suspended sentences for publishing jokes related to Islam. Here, Dawid Warszawski of Poland’s leading daily Gazeta Wyborcza comments on the case.

“You look like a bombshell!” – says an Islamic terrorist to his daughter. For publishing such jokes, journalists at a new Moroccan weekly magazine Nishan (“Directly” in Arabic) – Driss Ksikes and Sanaa al-Adzi — were recently put on trial.

On the Moroccan prime minister’s orders, the magazine has already been closed, and the journalists may get five years for ”attacking Islam, morality, and decency.” Nishan’s crime is that a month ago it published an article about what Moroccans laugh at, including examples of jokes about religion, the king and the government, and sex.

The whole country was appalled, the ulems condemned the magazine, and the journalists received death threats. Intimidated, the magazine’s chief editor Ksikes publicly apologized for the article, but it did not help. The verdict in the trial is expected in a week, and hardly anybody doubts that it will be a conviction, even though international journalist organizations defend Nishan.

This fact, sad in itself, might not deserve a commentary. Punishment for jokes has a long tradition after all. It is very difficult, however, to understand the real reason for the trial of Ksikes and al-Adzi.

Authorities closed the magazine’s website as well, and the jokes are nowhere to be found in numerous internet commentaries. Moroccan censorship and fear did the job. Even foreign press like Le Monde have avoided giving examples of what Moroccans had better not laugh at.

Hypocritical political correctness may play a role as well: we defend the right to make jokes but not the jokes themselves, and God forbid the jokes that make fun of Islam. Some blogs include the link to the web page with jokes, but in Arabic and in a format that is not suitable for direct translation.

In yet another blog I found a joke about how God could not create his own father – cited by someone who was offended by the joke. Another reader soberly commented that the person quoting the joke should now demand to be sentenced.

No form of expression, including jokes, has absolute protection. For racist jokes or other hate speach, one can rightly be sentenced, although in a civilized legal system the sentence would be a fine rather than a prison term.

Intent counts, however: do the journalists give examples of jokes to describe a social phenomenon or just to make people laugh? If the former – as was the case with Nishan – the journalists can rightly defend themselves by saying that publishing offensive content was justified by the public interest.

Well, but what should be done if a racist tabloid tries to publish a collection of hateful jokes seasoned with a hypocritical commentary? The ultimate judge must be the readers’ informed opinion, and this requires knowledge of the facts.<

This is why Nishan’s defenders should demand that the jokes themselves be published rather than only the protest in their defense. It is impossible to make a judgment in the absence of all of the information. And, after all, self-censorship is no better that censorship. And Nishan can blame itself after all. In its first issue, it published a satirical article entitled „What is the prime minister for?”

And now they know what the prime minister is for.

Translated from the Polish by Ludmila Cofta.

FPIF contributor Dawid Warszawski is a columnist for Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza.