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Censorship Alert

   
Last updated on December 23, 2006 at 16:23. See Updates 1–3 below.

Two Arab nations, two acts of censorship.

In Morocco, an Arab-language magazine has been taken out of circulation, and its web server shut down, because it dared to publish some jokes considered “injurious to Islam.” In Tunisia, four blogs have been blocked in a form of censorship that allows their authors to keep posting, but prevents them from being read inside Tunisia. A solidarity campaign has been launched asking bloggers everywhere to place a “blank post” on their blogs next Monday. I will participate, but first I want to address the disturbing situation in Morocco.

As best I can piece it together from Larbi’s discussion of the subject and the reader comments that follow, the journal Nichane (deactivated!) published a collection of popular jokes a week ago dealing with sex, religion and politics. Moroccans are known for their jokes, which are an integral part of their culture, and can be considered a national treasure. Like in Soviet Russia, they are the true barometer of popular opinion, revealing people’s feelings about their leaders in a sly, indirect way that is otherwise suppressed.

Publishing such jokes as the cover story of an Arab-language magazine (as opposed to its French-language sister publication TelQuel, which has a more elite audience) must be seen as a deliberate provocation. Those responsible were testing the limits of free speech, and they soon got their answer. Activists from the Islamist PJD fanned the flames of protest, demanding the infidels be punished. The government was happy to oblige them, because Nichane and TelQuel are known for their acerbic criticism of the Moroccan political system. The Prime Minister, a “nonpartisan technocrat” (sycophantic toady) appointed by the king, ordered the journal shut down. Its editor and the author of the offending article were hauled in for questioning. They face three to five years in prison for telling jokes! (As Larbi mentions in the comments below, apparently some hotheads have even called for their decapitation.)

What astonishes me is not that such a thing could happen, because similar things have happened before, but that there are rational people defending what the State has done. No matter if this is arbitrary justice, or a violation of the standards of a free society. Islam has been insulted, so the violators must pay! Some claim that the Prime Minister made a smart move, so as not to give traction to the Islamists in next year’s elections. The PJD is already expected to win easily. There is no reason to hand them yet another campaign issue. Others insist they are all for free speech, but they draw a line in the sand when it comes to religion. That line was crossed willingly, they argue, and those who crossed it must suffer the consequences. Morocco is not Europe. Moroccans are still sensitive when it comes to their faith. These were not the sort of jokes you would tell your grandmother. Worse, they insulted God.

To me, both these arguments miss the point. Whether the State made a political calculation or acted out of a moral obligation, it was still wrong. The State had no business getting into this debate. There is a way to oppose ideas we don’t like in a free society, and that is to make a counter-argument, or perhaps to organize a boycott of the offending publication. When the State rushed to the side of the Islamists, who are usually its opponents, that was blatant opportunism that should have been rejected by the Islamists themselves. Even worse is the idea that the State can defend the honor of Islam. Does God, who is infinite, need the State to defend him? Would he even want to be defended by such a corrupt and unjust system? What believer, self-confident in his belief, needs the State to cover his ears for him? Isn’t running to Daddy a sign of weakness? Again, the Islamists should have rejected this.

The situation in Tunisia is similar, but different. Religion doesn’t come into it, but it is still a question of arbitary power and the limits on speech. I’ve been reading Tunisian blogs for the past few weeks, and one of my favorites is Mouwaten Tounsi. For most of the time I’ve known about this blog, it has carried the following message: “For a better Tunisa for our children…this blog has been censored in Tunisia since 11/15/2006.” Three days ago, word came that three more Tunisian blogs have been censored, Samsoum (a Tunisian living in San Francisco), Sami III, and Felsfa. All four of these blogs are still online, and their authors are still out of trouble, as far as I know. They just can’t be accessed from inside Tunisia. What did they say to get themselves censored? It isn’t clear. Like politically-minded bloggers everywhere, they cover a mix of politics and other topics. Apparently they went too far in giving an image of the Tunisian state that made its leaders uncomfortable.

Here is what I have to say about the Tunisian state. It is worse than Morocco. A number of Tunisian bloggers call President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali the Big Boss. Before becoming president in what has been termed a bloodless coup, he was the nation’s top security official. This would be like putting J. Edgar Hoover in charge of government in the U.S. Ben Ali runs Tunisia as his personal fiefdom, for the profit of himself and his cronies. He has done an effective job of quashing all opposition. His power is not in danger, whether from Islamists or the Left. As a result, he is sometimes held up as a model of stability and moderation in the Arab world. He consistently wins over 90% of the vote in the elections that keep him in power. His country is quite close to Europe, so it a popular tourist destination, although visitors see little of the country beyond hotels and beaches. If you want to have a “Mafia Vacation,” travel to Tunisia! If you want to support freedom, I would suggest not.

A number of the most prominent members of the Tunisian blogosphere, including Mouwaten Tounsi, have agreed on a symbolic protest against censorship. According to the OpenNet Initiative, internet filtering in Tunisia is as bad as in Iran, China or Saudi Arabia. This makes it one of the most censored nations in the world. Tunisian bloggers can write what they want, but their fellow citizens are unable to read what they have to say. Not all Tunisian bloggers are in agreement with this protest, because it could bring further clampdowns without achieving much. The power balance between bloggers and the State is very weak. But the censored bloggers want it to happen, so I am happy to participate. On Monday the 25th, I will put up a “blank post” and remain silent for 24 hours. To those reading this message, please join us if you can.

What links the Tunisian censorship crisis with the Moroccan one? Both are shameful, in my opinion, for what they reveal about government in the Arab world. As in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Libya, or Saudi Arabia, a paternalistic state pretends to know better than its own citizens what is best for them. The Moroccan state is protecting sensitive ears from jokes about God. The Tunisian state is protecting its people from doubts everyone shares. Both states are preventing their citizens from airing their views in the often painful process of consensus. Dialogue is short circuited, freedom driven underground into sly jokes, and the Big Boss sits smugly on his rotting pile, surveying the wasteland of his nation.

I am pessimistic today, because speaking out changes nothing. But silence is worse!

UPDATE 1: An odd twist on the Nichane story has been brought to our attention by two different sources, AbMoul on his blog and Nemo in a comment (#66) to Larbi’s original post. This is from Nemo:

    CAIRO, December 21, 2006. According to anonymous sources cited by the web portal Elaph, the banning of the Moroccan weekly Nichane was provoked by outside pressures from certain Gulf nations. The Prime Minister, Driss Jettou, had nothing to do with it except signing the order to cease operations. Government officials don’t know any more about it, and have gotten their information from the press.
    The Prime Minister’s order came one week after the publication of the controversial article. This gap raised various questions that could give credence to the theory of outside pressures. Moroccan Islamists close to the Party of Justice and Development (the third largest bloc in parliament) have orchestrated a violent campaign against the Moroccan weekly that brought large echos in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait represent the principal money-lenders operating in Morocco.

Is this the first time such a thing has happened in Morocco? If this is true, it should be a matter of national pride to demand the reinstatement of Nichane. “What, the Saudis don’t like our jokes…!?” (On second thought, it seems there has been more than enough outrage within Morocco itself to account for the ban. While the views of the Gulf states may have had an impact, I doubt they were the decisive factor.)

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Doctorix we can read (in Arabic) the original article from Nichane that caused all the controversy. In the comments to Doctorix’ post, Karim Bekouchi reproaches the author of the article, Sanaa Elaji, for getting into trouble due to sloppy use of language.

    I think that to dance on an edge this dangerous without slipping, one must be very sure of one’s words and have an irreproachable mastery of the language used. I think that the author of this article let herself go by using some shortcuts and not always the right word. […] Putting sex and religion on the same footing and sanctifying the former, in a society that only speaks of it in a low voice among insiders, is an attempt to titillate the sensibilities of a large majority….

He goes on to criticize the article as badly structured and unnecessarily provocative, and concludes that the author and her magazine are largely to blame for the bad reaction.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that an article was badly written, and quite another to demand that its author be thrown in jail. Doctorix, who posted the article in the first place, strongly defends its author’s intent.

    We laugh at everything, is it a crime? […] Islam—let’s say it loud and strong—isn’t a religion of censure, but of debate and logic; laughter is natural to humans, and to fail to reconcile the two is completely human, since the practice of both is subject to error because they are supremely human…!
    Nichane has payed a price that still must be paid before we can achieve the exercise of democracy and free expression.

You can go here for a complete list of blog posts on this affair, in three languages, Arabic, French and English.

UPDATE 3: Another bit of interesting information from the comments to the original post by Larbi. This one is by “Mohamed H” (#93):

    For those who don’t know Morocco, the jokes quoted by Nichane definitely exist… they circulate everywhere, at all times. I can tell you others if you want….
    To see the level of debate on the Nichane question (the intellectual level of the Islamists), visit www.khurafa.com [should be www.khorafa.org]. It’s a site specialized in criticizing Al Adl Wal Ihsane [“Justice and Spirituality,” an extremely popular, semi-underground, pacifist Islamic movement that some people call a cult]. It’s linked to the moukhabarat [secret police]. This is the site that launched the Nichane affair.

If this piece of information is correct, it supports my theory that the persecution of Nichane is an unholy marriage between Islamists and the Makhzen, who are supposed to be political opponents. On the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” shouldn’t Al Adl Wal Ihsane come out in support of the embattled journalists?

Comments

Comment from Massir
Time: December 22, 2006, 03:05

Thank you.
You have explained the facts very well.

Merci beaucoup.

Je vais être absente pendant deux semaines, je ne saurais pas ce qui va se passer ici, mais toutes mes pensées seront avec vous.

Merci.

Comment from Mouwaten Tounsi
Time: December 22, 2006, 03:43

I can’t say anything more.
You found an excellent conclusion for your post :
“speaking out changes nothing. But silence is worse!”

Comment from Larbi
Time: December 22, 2006, 10:43

Concernant Nichane Cette affaire rapelle beaucoup celles des caricatures danoises. je ne sais pas si tu l’as remarqué Eatbees mais la particularité de ce qui est arrivé c’est que l’interdiction du journal est soutenue pas beaucoup de marocains (plus de la majorité à mon sens).
Le Maroc a connu beaucoup de censures et d’abus de pouvoir mais la particularité de celui-là est qu’il est soutenu par la rue. Jamais on a connu un tel précédent. C’est triste à dire et comme tu dis c’est irrationnel.
Comment peut on imposer le changement contre la société ? Comment peut-on expliquer qu’aujourd’hui au Maroc, on arrive au point de réclamer des peines de 30 ans aux deux journalistes et dans certains cas leur décapitation ? Que le Syndicat de presse lui même est incapable de soutenir ses confrères car beaucoup de ses membres approuvent leur interdiction ? Le Club des Avocats du Maroc accueille dans son enceinte une conférence de ceux qui ont fait campagne pour interdire le journal . Demain le PJD au pouvoir il demandera peut être la décapitation de tous le gays marocains et la peine de mort pour tous les athées, je ne suis pas sûr qu’il y aurait un front qui s’oppose à cela.
Dans le passé c’était clair : le combat des libertés était contre le Roi, son Entourage, les généraux. Aujourd’hui un autre front est ouvert : Contre l’extrémisme qui ronge la société au point d’approuver l’interdiction et l’emprisonnement.
Deux fronts sont désormais ouverts mais hélas il n’y a pas assez de combattant. Le deuxième est le plus grave car c’est la société d’elle même qui veut censurer , interdire et emprisonner.
Comment on en est arrivé là ? et Comment en sortir ?

Comment from 3az3ouza
Time: December 22, 2006, 12:02

Hi,
I visit your blog for the first time thanks to Larbi :)
I juste want to say that we have to take full responsibility for our acts. Morocco still a muslim country. It’s stipulate in morroccan law.
To insult God at a magazine is as simple as it is, a shock to all moroccan people, even it s told by a part of that moroccan people.
I still one of a lot of persons who refuse to tell such jokes, nor to hear them!!!

For our Tunisian friends, I hope they continue in the way of truth apart from labels and stereotypes.
Peace

Comment from Yahia
Time: December 22, 2006, 14:52

Hey, concerning Nichane’s website, it’s not the case of a server-down… I have two theories about this:
Since it’s a 404 error, it means that the website’s files aren’t there anymore.
1) it’s the magazine’s website responsibles who removed the files because of the banning,
2) or it may be the hosting company with or w/out warning.

And in my PoV for this affair, is that those jokes are said between people, in _discretion_ most of the time, and if they have a laugh they often stop and say “astaghfirou Lah l3adym” or similar expressions. So, publishing them openly, AFAIC, was a dangerous move made by the magazine.

Was the banning deserved or not, I’m not sure about this. It should have been there a little more respect to our religion, a warning, whatever.

I’m quite sure about this by the way: I won’t stand still in the street and shout to everyone who’s walking, a joke about Islam, God, etc.
Like I said before, they are said between close persons, and intimately; I think that even the magazine pointed that out.

We’ll see what developments this case will have.

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 22, 2006, 14:58

@Massir, Mouwaten Tounsi — Thank you for stopping by. Massir, we will miss you. Have a good trip, if you are going somewhere, and not simply withdrawing into a private space to be with your family for the holidays!

@Larbi — It’s clear from the comments on your blog that there are many people who support the actions against Nichane, and who don’t go much further than “They insulted our religion! They deserve what they get!” I had an IM conversation with a friend, Youssef, who said the same thing. But my instinct tells me that this decision was taken for political reasons, by the Makhzen, to head off its use as an political issue by the Islamists, who are now their biggest threat. In some ways I can see the Islamists responding more moderately once they are in power. If I were a principled Muslim, I would not want the State making decisions about what is insulting to God (even if it is “obvious to everyone”) because then the State is setting itself up to be God. If you believe in God, you must believe that God will judge what offends Him! And Allah is ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim :)

As to how we got to this point, I would say it is lack of education. For example, bad interpretations of the Qur’an, which is far more complex, philosophical, and tolerant than it is often portrayed by hotheaded people who know a few verses are quick to impose their judgement. As to how to get out of this, I think what is needed is an intensive “no holds barred” debate at every level of society. Placing certain things off limits to discussion is unhealthy for society. I know this is a “Western” view, but I will insist on it. Discussion, especially of controversial topics like this one, or the monarchy, shines a light into the dark corners where hypocrisy breeds. I’m hoping that after the first wave of indignation, our schizophrenic friends will settle down and realize that to throw people in jail for telling jokes is absurd. This whole episode may end by teaching people the consequences of rushing to judgment too quickly. It is essential that the minority view speak out strongly, because there are times when the minority view becomes the majority one. (After all, just 80 years ago lynching was common here in the U.S.)

@3az3ouza — Just because something is written in a law doesn’t make it right. Have you heard of civil disobedience which is the principle of refusing to obey unjust laws? Someone who does this must be prepared to be punished under the unjust law, to show others exactly how unjust it is. This is what I feel these journalists are doing (I hope they thought it through!) and I am in awe of their courage.

What do you feel about my main point, that the State should not be trying to “protect” God or religion? Don’t you believe that Islam will remain pure and true, no matter what people say about it? I sincerely feel sorry about your hurt feelings and all the people who may feel that way. But the magazine was willing to apologize to you for your hurt feelings. Shouldn’t that be enough? Why throw them in jail?

Comment from Moh
Time: December 22, 2006, 23:15

My take on the Nichane issue:
Disastrous situation for all of us who cherish about freedom of expression, as we’ll inherit yet another set back due to a reckless decision by a novice tabloid.
No fly zones for the media exist everywhere, and often it has nothing to do with freedom of expression. That’s why we are able to watch the evening news with our kids (most of the time). That’s why respect of sensitive boundaries allows for civilized and productive debates. I read -and maybe told- worse jokes than what was on the controversial piece. The only thing that bothered me is what I saw coming. They got busted.
Now what’s all the fuss about one may ask? Why the 2 wks latency (grace) period?
Journalism is an evidence based profession with standards, deontology and liabilities. We hear and read all the time about trespassing fatalities in the business in the US, EU, Japan..etc. Different kind one may argue nevertheless there are numerous fatalities. Folks at Nichan must have known where they were operating from and should have known what to expect. If they didn’t, they chose the wrong Business.
This is not a case of “freedom of expression”. Morocco has laws, as twisted as they may be, they are still the laws of a sovereign land with a constitution. How come falks at Nichan didn’t know?
Yes the Moroccan judicial system sucks, our constitution sticks out like a soar thumb and more. Nichan and alike could have invested in rallying for the change where change is due and do it the old fashion way through the will of the people and dam it: Earn it!
Civil disobedience is not a one man show, and look what “suicidal” mentality got us. I would speculate with a great deal of comfort that the Moroccan government came under serious pressures to act, and act they did. The law of the land allows them to do that. The PJD know it, the PM has no choice but to act and he knows it.
Don’t like it? Again change the law and it’s halal.
PJD is once again the sole beneficiary and -by god- they didn’t even ask for it! The best our elite can buy us is a “situation” Can’t even read their street!
Moh

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 23, 2006, 00:04

@Moh — Excellent thoughts. Your comment got caught in the spam catcher but it’s out now.

Just one thought to move this further—my sense is that Nadia Yessine “read the street” better than Nichane did, when she made her comments last summer about Morocco without a monarchy. I agree that the editor of Nichane and the author of this article probably didn’t choose the best ground to fight from, but now that they have, I think we need to defend them. (I’m not saying you think we shouldn’t…) It’s just possible that when the smoke clears, this will have revealed something about the PJD that is important. They seem to like State power when it’s on their side. Can we really trust them as reformers? That’s already a valuable piece of information. (For some of us anyway. I’m a little less naive than I was a few days ago.) That said, I’ll return to a theme I’ll be pushing a lot here—isn’t it possible to find progressive Islamists (or maybe just Muslims) who will defend Nichane at the same time as they find the jokes offensive? In the same way that progressives in Egypt are defending the rights of the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s got to work both ways….

@Yahia — I think you represent the “reasonable middle” in all this! And no, I don’t see you shouting religious jokes in the street either! :)

Comment from Moh
Time: December 23, 2006, 07:48

oops I thaught I was doing somthg wrong or got edited out :)
I think your spam buster doesn’t like me! : if you get other duplicates please disregard.
Moh

Comment from Karim2k
Time: December 23, 2006, 08:17

Our only wishes is to get our banned blogs back …

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 23, 2006, 13:44

@Karim2k — I don’t know if this will help, but if you don’t know about it already, a friend told me about Psiphon which is software that allows people in nations where there is censorship to access the internet using a computer in a non-censored nation as a proxy. The problem is that Psiphon doesn’t run on your computer, but on the proxy computer. You need to know someone in a different country who is willing to install it and give you a password. “This system is not intended for the general public, but for small groups of people who know each other.” The reason for this is because it uses the encrypted SSL port, which is the same secure link that banks use. By limiting it to “networks of trust,” the possibility of criminal abuse is decreased….

Comment from Liosliath
Time: December 24, 2006, 01:59

Is LiveJournal still banned in Morocco? I couldn’t get any LJ sites the entire time I was in Rabat. (er, except via proxy, shhhh!)

Comment from Karim
Time: December 28, 2006, 23:56

Moh:

You hit the nail in the head.

People need to stop blaming Islamists for everything. They have become the blacksheep for every reckless move made by the tabloid media in Morocco.

Some of the jokes they published were X-rated with no warning whatsoever to the readers.

I however think we should make sure that we don’t allow the government to abuse its powers by jailing journalists regardless of what the fools of Nichane did.

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