Ferryboats and cartoons
Two tragedies underline that justice and redress are rarely attained against the powerful, writes Galal Amin*
Within the span of one week, two terrible things happened, seemingly unrelated. Yet there was a connection, a shared and hidden meaning. In both cases, innocent people were both victims and wrong-doers, and culprits went scot-free.
The first incident started when a Danish paper published in September a cartoon representing the Prophet Mohamed in a demeaning way -- as a man wearing a bomb in his turban. The drawing didn't attract much attention initially. But several European papers, in Norway, France, the Netherlands and Spain reprinted it, thus inflaming Muslim sentiments inside and outside Europe. The ensuing turmoil featured demonstrations, threats, arson and a heavy death toll. Panic spread among foreigners living in Muslim countries, people who had nothing to do with the cartoons. The crisis kept escalating, as threats and counter-threats were exchanged across geographical and cultural boundaries.
The Europeans maintain that freedom of expression is sacred and that artists can draw anything they want. The Islamists argue that religious figures are sacred and mustn't be held to ridicule. Some point out that European freedom of expression is but a hoax, for it is illegal to insult Jewish beliefs in European countries.
The second incident was the sinking of a ferryboat with over 1,400 people on board while sailing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. The ferryboat sunk in minutes, taking down with it close to 1,000 people. Only 300 or so survived. The investigation yielded unexpected results. For example, the ferryboat used to be owned by an Italian company. It was decommissioned when Europe discovered that this type of vessels was unsafe, because they tend to sink without notice at the slightest leak. Tragedy hit two similar ferryboats in the past. One sank off the Belgian coast in 1987, taking down 200 passengers. The other sank in the Red Sea last October, after colliding with a Cypriot ship.
More astounding was the revelation that a European company that used to operate eight ferryboats of that type went ahead and sold them all because of their inadequate safety standard. The company in question decided to decommission the ferryboats and sell them to Third World countries.
The two incidents have much in common. The grief was similar; so was the sense of bewilderment. The cartoons were totally uncalled for. In any given place and time, freedom of speech has limits. There is a law that bans certain references to the queen of England, for example. There are laws defining defamation. And there must be a boundary to what can be published about prophets. Indecent expression is liable to lead to what legislators call "breaches of public order". All countries have laws protecting public order. I recall that 20 years ago or so a poem suggesting that Jesus Christ was homosexual was published in the UK. The magazine that published the poem was confiscated. When the magazine appealed against the measure, the judge turned down the appeal, saying that the poem was unacceptable, for it hurt public feelings.
The offending cartoon was published, and several months later it was republished in several European papers. Let's suppose that the cartoon was not originally intended to cause provocation and problems. Even so it was in bad taste and has generated much outrage and grief, let alone violence and arson.
What is puzzling about the cartoons is the overlap between the roles of victim and wrong-doer. One can assume that the first publisher of the cartoons was truly unaware of the consequences of the act. But what could you say about those who republished the offending cartoons? It puzzles me that so many publishers would be willing to disregard Muslim feelings, considering that by law the same publishers weren't permitted to publish anything offensive to Jews. The Europeans are part guilty, part innocent.
On the Muslim side, it is just as hard to distinguish between innocence and guilt. The hurt and anger is understandable. But the arson, the beatings are unacceptable, so are threats made to individuals who are totally innocent, just because they bear the nationality of the countries that published the cartoon. Once again, innocence is laced with guilt.
Now let's look at the ferryboat tragedy. The Egyptian company operating the ill-fated vessel was victim of the European company that sold it an unsafe boat. To decommission a vessel only to sell it to Third World countries is racist to say the least. Still, the Egyptian company was guilty, of greed as well as ignorance. Some reports suggest that the ferryboat was carrying more than its capacity of passengers and freight. Other reports claim that lifeboats were short in number and faulty in design. The Egyptian security forces were also to blame, for they acted heavy-handedly with the families of the victims, with the relatives who showed up in thousands at the port to look for loved ones. Again, innocence is compromised with guilt.
The two incidents remind me of The Bicycle Thief, the 1948 film by Italian director Vittorio de Sica. In that film, a man who needs to support his starving family is trying to get a job. The only job available requires him to have a bicycle. He pawns everything he has to get the bicycle, but it is stolen on the first day, perhaps by a man just as desperate. He sees a bicycle left unattended and tries to steal it, but is caught in the act.
The tragedy is of Greek proportions, for the odds are stacked against the main characters right from the start. This was the case in both incidents of the Danish cartoons and the Egyptian ferryboat. Everyone is committing errors, some minor and some gross. But there are powerful people who manage to get away, and less fortunate ones who get called to account.
In the case of the Danish cartoons, the Muslims were told to put up or shut up. They were told that they had no right to anger. They were told that the cartoonist and the publisher know better. They were told that freedom of expression is sacred, and that they have to listen and learn. As for Europe being sensitive about Jewish sensibilities, this was somewhat beside the point, Muslims were told. Europe and only Europe has the right to decide whom to respect and whom to defame. That was the message that reached the Muslim world.
I imagine Egyptian executives shopping for the ferryboat in Europe. "Here is the ferryboat," a European salesman would say. "It can no longer operate in Europe due to safety codes. But you probably don't have such rigorous standards where you come from. Your customers cannot afford safety. But poor people can take the risk. You don't have to buy it, but it's a good deal. It's all up to you. If you buy it, you'll be taking full responsibility for what happens next."
There is an element of arrogance in both cases. But this does not absolve us from blame. Muslims who went into a rampage over the offensive cartoons have overreacted. And the Egyptian company that bought the questionable ferryboat was wrong; so were the Egyptian security forces that mistreated the families of the victims. The bicycle thief was not totally blameless either. Everyone has made mistakes, but only the powerful get away it.
In Europe, the media is still brimming over with resentment to Muslims. European parliamentarians are threatening to pass laws restricting the freedom of Muslim communities. All that so that Danish cartoonists and publishers may be reassured. Nothing will happen to them, and nothing will happen to the company that sold the questionable ferryboat. For Egyptians and Muslims, no reassurances are forthcoming.
* The writer is a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo.