McDonald's inadvertently offended thousands of Muslims by printing a Koran scripture on its hamburger bags, then staged a retreat Tuesday after Islamic leaders complained.
The stir caused by the world's leading purveyor of fast food began with a World Cup promotion featuring the flags of the 24 nations competing in this summer's soccer championship. One of the flags was that of Saudi Arabia.
The green and white Saudi flag bears an Arabic passage that can be translated as "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet." Offended Muslims complained that such sacred words should not be crumpled up and thrown in the trash.
McDonald's printed 2 million of the bags, intended for take-out orders of children's Happy Meals at its 520 restaurants in Britain.
"It is the declaration of faith which appears on the bag," said Iqbal Sacranie of the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. "It is normal when people have used the bag they would throw it away. This would be desecration, and perhaps Muslims would find it offensive."
The incident illustrates the pitfalls awaiting multinational corporations that don't do their homework before they offer products to people of starkly different cultures.
The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Algosaibi, promptly expressed his concerns to the McDonald's vice president for marketing, John Hawkes. A Saudi diplomatic spokesman described the communication as "a very polite letter requesting the withdrawal of the bags," but he would not elaborate.
A McDonald's spokesman, Mike Love, acknowledged Tuesday that the promotion was a mistake. He blamed bad advice from outside consultants. He could not immediately say how long it would be before the bags depicting the Saudi flag would stop appearing.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Love said.
Sacranie said he was satisfied with the response, even if McDonald's continues to distribute the bags for a while. He said he believes McDonald's made an honest error that was based on bad marketing recommendations.
"The important point is, it is a matter of recognition," Sacranie said. "They have understood and responded to the concerns of the Islamic community that this particular scripture is part of the holy Koran. I told them that when we are living in such a truly global age, understanding should be shown by such mega-companies."
McDonald's said it had been concerned ahead of time about using the Saudi flag and sought advice from Simon Marketing International, a consulting agency involved in the World Cup promotion and other McDonald's projects.