For some reason, Christmas can cause a serious sense of humour failure. The tale of tiny Jesus and his animal-heavy birthday party makes many people very defensive. Any attempt to make fun of the festivities can be met with scorn, and sometimes worse. But, no matter how grumpy hardcore Christians get, most usually recognise that any jokes are being made in good faith. After all, this is the season for love and forgiveness. Unless you live in Jordan.
It has been reported this week that two leading Jordanian journalists have been imprisoned after their website published a painting of the famous “Last Supper”, with a notable new addition. Nestled centre-frame, just behind Jesus and St Peter, was the unmistakable of Salt Bae - real name Nusret Gökçe - sprinkling some salt on the Messiah’s food.
Mohammed al-Wakeel and an editor from Al Wakeel News were taken into custody on a government charge of “incitement” and “causing sectarian strife”, according to Grub Street. It has also been reported that the pair have both been denied bail by prosecutors and could face between six months and three years in jail if found guilty. What started as a joke is clearly no laughing matter.
One group that clearly failed to see the funny side were the Latin Patriarchate Schools, who wrote in strongly worded terms to the Ministry of Education. In an angry letter, the group claimed that “the cartoon works to deepen the spirit of hatred amongst people” and was therefore totally unacceptable.
Wakeel and his junior staff member found themselves under interrogation on the 10th of December, “after his website’s official Facebook page published a cartoon that was deemed offensive to Jesus by Christians and Muslims in Jordan,” according to a report in Roya News. It is then alleged that Wakeel apologised and removed the offending image, blaming the incident on a mistake made by an editor “in training”. However, despite the retraction, questions from cyber-crime authorities continued, and the pair have yet to be released.
Religious satire of any kind in Jordan is a dangerous business. To many in the country, the story of Al Wakeel’s unfortunate duo was reminiscent of an incident in 2016, where Arab-Christian journalist Nahed Hattar was assassinated after causing controversy with a cartoon called “Gods of Daesh”. He too fell victim to the nation’s strict blasphemy laws, and had been preparing to defend against his own charge of incitement at the time of his death.
It remains to be seen whether the two journalists will manage to talk their way out of their current predicament without having to do some hard time. It’s understandable that around important festivals, some religious people feel extra sensitive. However, sentencing someone for their depiction of flamboyantly seasoned holy meat seems a little extreme. If you can’t make new Salt Bae memes at Christmas, what’s the point of anything?