Danish cartoons: the Egyptian angle

I've been reticent to comment on the Danish cartoon issue. I've seen them (via American right-wing blogs, which are predictably having a field day over the issue) and think most of them are not offensive, although one or two definitely is. I certainly don't think non-Muslims are in any way obliged to respect the Muslim tradition of not depicting the prophet (or God, for that matter). And, on freedom of expression grounds, I think the Danish newspaper can do what it wants within the limits of national law there. Only after reading a little bit more into it did I realize that, by organizing a competition for the cartoons, the newspaper was engaged in a shameless publicity coup that was tantamount to inciting Islamophobia and needlessly encouraged people to draw provocative, or insulting, pictures. I am more depressed, however, by the street protests, raids into the EU delegation in Palestine, and general agitation this is causing, which is rather pointless and self-defeating. The Danish cartoons, by the way, generated a little debate here at the Al Jazeera Forum on cultural values and journalistic codes of ethics.

I would have dropped the issue altogether were it not from this BBC report which reveals an amusing fact about France Soir, the French daily that republished the cartoons: it is owned by Rami Lakah, French-Egyptian runaway businessman and politician extraordinaire. He's a pet obsession of mine, and I've mentioned his flirtation with neo-con circles here before. And he's now fired his managing editor for running the cartoons. I find it hard to believe that he would not have been consulted on this, and wonder what implications there will be for him -- unless it's a ploy for him to look good to Muslims, since he's always looking for ways to improve his public image here.

According to various reports in Le Monde (I can send links if needed but I think they're subscription-only), France-Soir has about one month of payroll left and is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. One of the surprising things about how Lakah should have known about the cartoons is that, as the picture on the right shows, France Soir made a big deal on coming out in favor of the Danish newspaper that originally published them. The headline says "Yes, we have the right to caricature God while the cartoon on the cover shows a Greek god, presumably, saying "Don't skulk, Mohammed, we've all been lampooned at one time or another," with Buddha and Jehovah (I think?) in the background.

In other words, Lakah either knew and then let his editor take the fall, or should have known. It'll be interesting to see how the Egyptian press, where Lakah-bashing is a national sport, reacts to this.

Update: Morocco banned that issue of France Soir from being sold there.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.