Back to all interviews
Freedom Collection

Interviews with Mahmoud Salem

Interviewed January 10, 2011

In 2006, the Danish cartoon crisis, what was referred to as that, started all over the Middle East. It was a completely made-up crisis. It was a bunch of governments and leaders trying to rile up their people against an enemy. And it´s something that worked due to that natural frustration of the people who are living under those authoritarian regimes. So they went and told them that there were some cartoons that insulted the prophet. Did not tell them what the cartoons entailed or they actually print the cartoons or whatever. And, actually, the cartoons were printed in an Egyptian newspaper, back in Ramadan, the year before. And I actually had a copy of this newspaper. And the average Muslim walked around, read the newspaper, during Ramadan, shook his shoulders, and left.

But it became so ridiculous to me that people started boycotting butter and cheese. And it makes sense; you know, it´s easy to take your frustration out on Denmark. You know, you people have been trying to boycott Israel for years, but, you know, those cheeky Israelis never actually put “Made in Israel” labels on their stuff, so that didn´t really work out. And then, they tried to boycott the U.S. And yeah, look around you, McDonald´s, Levi jeans everywhere, like globalization, you can´t do it. But Denmark, you know, they make cheese and Lego; we can take it out on them. And I thought this was wrong. I thought it wasn´t fair. I thought the Danish people actually stood by lots of the Muslim countries in many, many ways. And I thought it was really stupid to collectively punish, you know, an entire country just because you disagree with 11 cartoonists and an editor.

So at first, it was so silly, like– and it was taking such silly shapes, that me and Roba el Assi, in Jordan, we started talking about this and discussing this. And, at first, we wanted to start the anti-boycott Danish products campaign. So at first, it was the, “Boycott the boycott,” or, “Support Danish cows.” Because we decided it had to be something that silly. And we were doing, “Support Danish cows,” because we thought that Danish cows were good, unlike their British counterparts, who are just mad. So we need to support Danish cows. And somehow, this has turned into the Buy Danish campaign. You know, go and buy Danish products. And why wouldn´t you buy Danish products? Lots of American blogs and European blogs who used to follow me were like, “Oh, my God.” You know, so they started like, you know, taking the advertiser to that created some of them were silly, and they started really working on it. And then making something bigger and bigger and bigger. And just, it was something– you´d just sit there and watch the power of the Internet just take over.

There are two stories that sum up the Danish cartoon crisis for me. Those are two favorite stories. Number one was about a Palestinian guy, entrepreneur who lived in Gaza, who actually started my dream job, basically. I had a dream job of opening a U.S. and Israeli flag store in Gaza right next to a gas station. And then, sell Combos. And the guy used to do that. He used to sell U.S. and Israeli flags. And he used to get those U.S. and Israeli flags from an Israeli factory. And the Israelis were like, “Hey, man, constant supply, constant demand. Fine, whatever, just give him our flags.

So happy. They´ll burn a flag somewhere or other, so we´ll just give it to them.” And, when the Danish thing started happening, he called the factory, and he was like, “Listen, I know my people. They´re going to want to burn the Danish flag.” So they´re like, “We don´t have any Danish flags. We have a Swiss flag.” So he´s like, “Uh why a Swiss flag?” They´re like, “It looks like a Danish one. It´s red; it has a white cross; it could work.” He´s like, “Fine, fine. Send me the Swiss flag.”

Then, the next day, there was international news everywhere that Gaza protesters burned the Swiss flag, which was– the average Swiss person must have thought this was actually kind of strange. “Someone´s really mad at us, and they burned our flag. What have we done?” And my second favorite story was six months later, after this whole thing calmed down, after the crisis has been averted from the evil cartoons, there was a big discussion in Egyptian Parliament whether or not to take money from Denmark, you know, Danish aid. And people were so mad, like, “Should we take the money? Should we not take the money?” And then, they reached a decision. They´re going to take the Danish money, but they´re not going to be happy about it. Which is kind of like U.S. aid money, when you think about it.