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memri
May 1, 2007 No.
347

The King, the Islamists, and the Liberal Press: The Dynamics of the Nichane "Jokes" Affair in Morocco

By: D. Lav*

The Moroccan Nichane weekly magazine returned to newsstands on March 17, 2007, after being suspended for two months for publishing jokes about Islam.

In its December 9, 2006 issue, the Arabic-language weekly published a cover story titled "Jokes: How Moroccans Joke about Religion, Sex, and Politics." The story included jokes about Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Moroccan royal family. Within a few days, a Moroccan website and a number of local Islamist organizations began to issue condemnations, with some accusing the Nichane staff of apostasy. On December 20, 2006, Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou issued an order banning the magazine, and proceedings were begun against the author of the article, Sana' Al-'Aji, and the magazine's editor, Driss Ksikes, for "offense to the Islamic religion and the publication and distribution of writings contrary to morals and mores."[1] On January 15, the two journalists were sentenced to a suspended three-year prison term and were fined nearly $10,000. In addition, the magazine was suspended for two more months. Despite the sentence, Al-'Aji has remained with Nichane, but Driss Ksikes has resigned from the magazine.[2]

The upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections seem to have colored the responses to the affair. Opinion polls have indicated that the Islamist PJD party is likely to receive by far the greatest number of votes, and the Moroccan press has described the government as being in a state of "panic."[3] The government's actions against the magazine, and the Islamic motifs in its official statement, may be an attempt to bolster Islamic credentials and regain electoral ground lost to the Islamists. On the other hand, the PJD party, which has made great efforts to show a moderate face – on domestic issues, at least – so as to not jeopardize its prospective electoral win, took a relatively restrained stance, with one senior figure expressing his empathy with the Nichane staff "as journalists and as individuals" – though at the same time condemning the article in no uncertain terms.

The following are excerpts from the original Nichane article and the reactions to it, followed by other articles related to freedom of the press in Morocco:


The issue that sparked the controversy

The Nichane Weekly: "Jokes – How Moroccans Joke about Religion, Sex, and Politics"

The Moroccan weekly magazine Nichane, launched in 2006, is the Arabic-language sister publication of the French-language weekly Tel Quel – a magazine with a reputation for breaking journalistic taboos. In the few months since it began publishing, Nichane has also broken its share of taboos, especially in its December 9, 2006 issue, titled "Jokes: How Moroccans Joke about Religion, Sex, and Politics," by Sana' Al-'Aji. While most of the long article was a relatively anodyne discussion of the social function of jokes in general and in Moroccan society in particular, one column containing jokes about religion – some of them of a lewd nature as well – set off a large-scale controversy. The article opened:

"Jokes are the spice of social life. Moroccans, like anybody else, joke about everything – sexual relations forbidden by religion, the officially sacred king, Islam in its dogmatic trifling, and other [subjects] worthy of witticism. Nichane will analyze the characteristics of Moroccan jokes and will tell the funniest ones…"

The column containing the jokes read:

"[The Prophet's companion] Abu Hurayra died and stood before the angel in charge of the consequences of his acts in this world. The angel looked at the computer and said to him: 'Hell.' Abu Hurayra protested and demanded that the Prophet be called in. The Prophet came, looked at the computer, and said: 'There's nothing I can do for you. You are going to hell.' Abu Hurayra started to scream and curse the Prophet. Then Allah came down, and Abu Hurayra started to complain to him and cry. Then they patted him on the shoulder and said to him: 'Look over there: you're with us on Candid Camera.'

"At the start of the year, the teacher came into the classroom and started to ask the students their names. [The first one] answered: 'I am Daoud [David], peace be upon him.' [The teacher said:] 'Ask the Lord to forgive you, child. And you?' 'I am 'Isa [Jesus], peace be upon him.' [The teacher said:] 'Ask the Lord to forgive you, you wretch.' So it went until one student in the class answered: 'I am Muhammad, peace be upon him.' [The teacher said:] 'Do you not fear the punishment of your Lord?' Then the last student in the class said: 'No, no, I am not going to punish him.'

"A girl came into an office wearing a miniskirt. A bearded man accosted her [and said]: 'Where did you get that?' She answered: 'I bought it in Spain.' The man said to her: 'Take off the clothes of the Christians.' The girl took off her clothes. The man said to her: 'Embrace Islam.' The girl embraced him, and then he accosted her again: 'Now sit on the pillar of piety'…

"After [former minister of internal affairs] Driss Basri died and went to the next life, he tried to bribe the angels to let him into Paradise, but he did not succeed, since all of the angels emphasized that they were pure and that the 'filth' of this world is left behind. When Basri was on his way to Hell, he saw King Hassan II in Paradise, and said: 'I swear by Allah Almighty, there is bribery here [in the next life].'

"Who was the prophet who spoke with the animals? The Prophet Mowgli [from the Jungle Book], peace be upon him.

"An Islamist cuddles his little girl and says: 'My little bomb…'

"An Islamist discovered he was gay, so he put on a hijab."[4]

The Islamist Response: Judicial Proceedings, Accusations of Apostasy

The Islamist response to the jokes published in Nichane was not long in coming. Notably, the initiative came not from the two major Islamist movements in Morocco, Al-Tawhid w'Al-Islah (MUR) and Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan, but from a number of regional associations. Among the first statements was that of the salafi Society for the Propagation of the Quran and the Sunna in Marrakesh, which said in a statement dated December 16, 2006: "…We say to those who published these stupidities in their magazine: Nations came before you in bygone days who were more powerful and more intelligent than you, and Allah destroyed them for their mockery, and drowned them [in the flood] and brought down on them the punishment they deserved, together with the punishment He put aside for them in the next life… The law concerning the scoffer was laid down in what [Allah] said [in Koran 9:65-66]… 'Would you scoff at Allah, His signs, and His prophets? Do not make excuses; you have renounced faith after having believed (qad kafartum ba'da imanikum)…'"[5] This last phrase is a standard expression in Islamic law for apostasy.[6]

Another local organization, the Imam Malik Society for Preaching and Guidance in El-Jadida, said that the Nichane article was "no less grave" than the Danish Muhammad cartoons.[7]

On Monday, December 18, 2006, the Moroccan daily Yawmiyat Al-Nas reported that the preacher Omar Boudir at the Malik Bin Anas Mosque in the city of Safi had, in his Friday sermon, called the Nichane journalists "apostates and brothers of devils." When asked about the sermon, Boudir denied that he had said anything of the sort.[8]

Many of the condemnations of Nichane were posted on the website www.khorafa.org. These were then reported in the daily Al-Tajdid, a newspaper belonging to the Islamist Movement for [God's] Unity and Reform (MUR; Arabic: harakat al-tawhid w'al-islah). Likewise, Al-Tajdid reported on December 18, 2006, that the managers of www.khorafa.org were planning to file judicial proceedings against Nichane.[9] Tawfiq Musa'if, the lawyer representing the website in the case against Nichane, said the magazine had "exceeded the bounds of freedom of expression in that it had violated that which is sacred."[10]

The MUR Islamist movement is the parent organization of the PJD (Justice and Development) party, which, according to a 2006 public opinion poll conducted by the American IRI polling firm, is expected to garner nearly 50% of the vote in parliamentary elections to be held in September, 2007. No other party in the poll passed the 20% mark.[11] The PJD, which has invested considerable energies over the last year in an attempt to show a moderate face (though only on domestic issues) and allay fears of its prospective elections landslide, was restrained in its reaction to the Nichane affair. Muhammad Yatim, a PJD MP and member of the party's General Secretariat, indeed decried the article in no uncertain terms and supported the government's decision to close the magazine, but also expressed "empathy for [the Nichane staff] as journalists and as individuals."[12] He also appeared on Al-Jazeera and went on record against the prosecution of the journalists.[13]

The other major nationwide Islamist movement, Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan, remained silent on the affair.

Moroccan Government Closes Nichane, Prosecutes the Journalists

No sooner had the private initiatives against Nichane taken off than the Moroccan government itself joined in. On December 20, 2006, Prime Minister Driss Jettou announced that the government was banning the circulation of Nichane, and had itself initiated legal proceedings against the magazine. The government's statement read: "The Arabic-language Nichane weekly… dedicated a story to jokes, especially those concerning religion. Legal proceedings have been initiated, on the basis of these writings, against the author of the story [Sana' Al-'Aji] and the director of publication [Driss Ksikes], pursuant to the Press Law.

"Likewise, in consideration of and pursuant to the Constitution, which dictates that Islam is the state religion in Morocco; and in consideration of the role assumed by His Majesty the King, in his capacity as Commander of the Faithful and defender of the [Muslim] community and the faith; and in consideration also of the fact that the publication of these jokes offended the sensibilities of the Moroccan people, the Prime Minister, in his own name and in the name of the government, and pursuant to Section 66 of the Press Law, has made the justified decision to prevent the display of Nichane magazine in public thoroughfares or its distribution by any other means."[14] Nichane's website (www.nichane.ma) indeed went offline following the issuing of the government statement, and when it returned the only content available was a number of statements dealing with the present affair (see below).

The state religious establishment also issued condemnations of Nichane. The Supreme Council of 'Ulama (Al-Majlis al-'ilmi al-a'la, Conseil Superieur des Oulema), whose members are appointed by the King and of which the King himself is the titular head, also released a statement condemning Nichane and supporting the decision to close it.[15]

The government was not oblivious to the fact that it might be alienating domestic liberal opinion. While the official government statement banning Nichane had chosen to emphasize the king's role as Commander of the Faithful, the French-language Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, which is considered close to the government and which addresses an elite readership, preferred to quote Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws in order to prove that liberty has its limits.[16]

Many liberals, however, accused the government of having been swept up by the Islamists' campaign against the magazine. The January 1, 2007 edition of the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire wrote: "The political reality is that Morocco is governed by a monarchy that bases its power on the notion of [the king as] Commander of the Faithful. It is thus under constant pressure to affirm its preeminence in the field of religion. The unfolding of the Nichane affair shows the extent to which the monarchy, which presents itself overseas as a rampart against Islamism and as the avant-garde of social progressiveness, has to face its schizophrenia as soon as it thinks that those same Islamists might take its place in the religious domain… In going so far as to ban [Nichane] – something that was not demanded by any Islamist movement worthy of the name [i.e. the MUR or Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan] – the government has bowed down [to the Islamists]… The relative restraint of these Islamist movements contrasts with the regime's stammering. And the true loser is of course the progressive camp, and especially the left wing of the government [coalition]… who, by burying their heads in the sand, have shown themselves to be fools."[17]

The Nichane trial opened on January 8, 2007. At the trial, the presiding judge emphasized to Sana' Al-'Aji, the author of the "Jokes" article, the gravity of the offense to what he termed 'the Holy Trinity': Allah, the homeland, and the king. In response, Al-'Aji said that the magazine had simply related jokes that are part of Moroccans' oral discourse, with the aim of analyzing them, and that no offense had been intended.[18]

On January 15 the court delivered its sentence: a three-year suspended prison sentence for Al-'Aji and Ksikes and a fine of 80,000 dirhams (approximately US$9,500). Nichane magazine was also suspended for a further two months.[19]

In reaction to the sentence, Ahmed Benchemsi addressed Nichane's readership and supporters in an editorial in Tel Quel: "You are our most precious capital. The Nichane staff has a meeting with you on March 17, and until then, Tel Quel will open wide its columns to them. Remain faithful to us. You are the reason for our existence, and it is for you that we will continue to fight."[20]

Nichane Decries the Ban, but Receives Scant Support from the Moroccan Press

When Nichane's website came back online, it posted a number of statements in Arabic and French. The first, dating from December 20, 2006 – the day the government banned the magazine – read: "We the undersigned, journalists at the Nichane weekly, express… our shock and our consternation upon discovering that a ban on distribution has struck our magazine, by orders of the Moroccan government… accompanied by a lawsuit… The government's statement cites 'jokes that offend the sensibilities of the Moroccan people.' These are nevertheless the same people from whom these jokes emanate. The goal of our story was to analyze the jokes without judging them, in order to understand what they reflect in our mentality and our collective culture.

"We take cognizance of the fact that some were scandalized by the publication of these jokes, and we willingly offer them our apologies. Our intention was not to scandalize anyone – and obviously not to attack Islam, as we are ourselves Muslims. But the weight given to this situation by the Moroccan government is, in our view, completely excessive. Beyond our not being able to practice our profession, the publicity surrounding this decision exposes us to the persecution of the most extreme of extremists and to the lack of physical security that this persecution can cause to members of our staff. In attacking Nichane for the publication of these jokes, the Moroccan government attacks all of [Moroccan] society, which made up the jokes and tells them."[21]

Another statement, relating the unfolding of the incident from Nichane's point of view, was released the next day. It said that the general public had seen nothing offensive in the jokes, and intimated that the affair was the consequence of a concerted Islamist campaign. It also noted that many responses on khorafa.com had called the journalists "apostates and atheists":

"On Friday, December 15… we learned from one of our colleagues in the press that the moderators of an Islamist website [i.e. khorafa.com] had the intention of suing Nichane… The moderators of this website had opened a 'discussion forum' in which they condemned Nichane and its journalists, in terms verging on a call for a fatwa, for having 'gravely offended God and His Prophet.' A large majority of the comments posted on this forum openly called the Nichane journalists apostates and atheists – which, according to the logic of extremist Islamists, legitimates [waging] jihad against them…"

Feeling himself and his fellow journalists to be in physical danger, the editor of Nichane initiated a dialogue with the government, the ulama', and the PJD, and said that, prior to the declaration of the ban, it had received a sympathetic hearing: "Even the Islamist party, while noting that it disapproved of the publication of these jokes, has shown itself to be understanding, and asserts that it is in no one's interest to set off a spiral of terrorism and fanaticism…"[22]

The fear of violence resulting from accusations of apostasy was a recurring theme in Nichane's statements. A short Arabic-language statement dated December 21, 2006, read: "We, the editorial staff of Nichane magazine, which has been confiscated and put on trial, declare: We emphatically stress that we are Muslims, and we decry anything that might lead to our being excluded from the community of Muslims [ummah – i.e., accusations of apostasy]… This is wrong and dangerous…"[23]

Some of Nichane's colleagues in the press also came to its defense, though not always unequivocally. For example, the Moroccan Federation of Newspaper Editors (FMEJ), while decrying the ban on Nichane and the initiation of legal measures against it, stated its belief that the press must respect the values and religious convictions of Moroccan society.[24] Among the few papers to unequivocally take Nichane's side was its French-language sister publication Tel Quel, which, in its January 7, 2007 issue, published a collection of statements of support from various press and human rights organizations. Most of the statements, though, focused on the fact that the Nichane staff had apologized, and not on the issue of their right to have published the story in the first place.[25]

The weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire also rallied to Nichane's defense. In its January 1, 2007 issue, it cited numerous examples from the Moroccan press of editorial attacks against Nichane, and labeled such journalists "Tartuffes [i.e. hypocrites speaking in the name of religion] and fascists."[26]

In fact, the sentiment that the magazine had overstepped the bounds of freedom of the press was widespread. Hakim Belmdahi, a journalist with the daily Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiyya, berated Nichane in a front-page editorial on December 30, 2006, writing that their actions "make the enemies [of the press] take their activities as a proof of the need to constrain and strangle the press… There is nothing more dangerous to the press than a journalist who does not respect professional ethics and does not respect his readers…"[27]

The Nichane journalists themselves responded to their friends and their critics alike in an Arabic-language supplement published in the January 28, 2007 edition of Tel Quel: "Only now can we catch our breath. The wave has passed in peace – or perhaps we should say with as little damage as possible. The important thing is that we have come to know [our] enemies from [our] friends. We have come to know who awaits the bull's fall in order to unsheathe their knives. We know who does one thing and writes the opposite. We have come to know the modernists' concern for justice. We have come to know some cowards, those who rejoice in the other's fall, the hypocrites…, the inciters. We have come to know those who can become muftis on Al-Jazeera… The journalist at [Moroccan] Channel 2 was startled, and read out Jettou's statement [suspending Nichane] as though he was reading a communiqué from a putschist group. We welcome those who criticize us, but we reject imaginary lines that one cannot cross…"[28]

Nichane's March 17, 2007 issue confirms that, true to its word, the magazine is not backing down from its editorial line: The cover story is an expose on the Moroccan security services' methods of intelligence-gathering.

From the Tel Quel supplement

Cartoons from the satirical Bakchich weekly in support of Nichane

On the right: "In the name of the King!!" [29]

* Daniel Lav is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.



[1] Aujourd'hui le Maroc (Morocco), December 22, 2006.

[3] Le Journal hebdomadaire (Morocco), December 25, 2006.

[4] Nichane (Morocco), December 9-15, 2006.

[6] In the past, radicals have interpreted fatwas declaring liberals apostates as license to attack them, as in the case of the Farag Foda assassination in Egypt. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 208, "Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy," February 18, 2005: Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy, and Inquiry and Analysis No. 254, "Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists," November 23, 2005: Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists.

[9] Al-Tajdid (Morocco), December 18, 2006. The website www.khorafa.com, whose name means "superstition" or "tall tale," was established as part of the polemic against the MUR's major Islamist rival, Jama'at Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan; this latter group favors the revival of the Islamic Caliphate, and over the last year members of the group have reported dreams and visions predicting that 2006 would be the year the Caliphate would be instated, with the group's leader, 'Abd Al-Salam Yassin, as Caliph. Visitors to the site's homepage on January 1, 2006, were greeted with a screen showing a picture of 'Abd Al-Salam Yassin, and then the title: "Your tall tale is over, oh Jama'at Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan… The Yassinian year 2006 is over, and with its passing the lie and deceit of this group which preoccupied everyone with their fabulous heraldings of 2006 has become evident." Khorafa.com is run by ex-members of Al-'Adl w'Al-Ihsan who were unhappy with the group's escatological orientation, though Driss Ksikes, the editor of Nichane, has accused it of being tied to the intelligence services. Le Journal hebdomadaire (Morocco), January 1, 2007; Al-Sahifa (Morocco), December 22, 2006.

[10] Al-Tajdid (Morocco), December 21, 2006.

[13] Le Journal hebdamodaire (Morocco), January 25, 2007.

[14] Al-Tajdid (Morocco), December 22, 2006; Aujourd'hui le Maroc (Morocco), December 22, 2006.

[16] Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb (Morocco), December 22, 2006.

[17] Le Journal hebdomadaire (Morocco), January 1, 2007.

[18] Al-Sabah (Morocco), January 9, 2007.

[19] Maghreb Arab Press (Morocco), January 15, 2007.

[20] Tel Quel (Morocco), January 21, 2007.

[22] http://www.nichane.ma/communique/lettre_fr.htm; Tel Quel (Morocco), December 26, 2006.

[24] Aujourd'hui le Maroc (Morocco), December 26, 2006.

[25] Tel Quel (Morocco), January 7, 2007.

[26] Le Journal hebdomadaire (Morocco), January 1, 2007

[27] Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiya (Morocco), December 30, 2006.

[29] Posted on http://nichani.wordpress.com/, January 16 and January 25, 2007.