How comedy subverts Islamophobia | Imran A Khan on the power of laughter

How comedy subverts Islamophobia

Imran A Khan on the power of laughter

'Islam' and 'humour' are two consciously uncoupled words that rarely share the same sentence space. However, I hope to challenge this commonly held misconception.

If we begin with a quick analysis of the three great Abrahamic faiths, each has a different relationship with comedy, especially in modern times.

Judaism has a strong tradition of comedians such as Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx, Billy Crystal, David Baddiel, Jon Stewart, and many others. The New York self-deprecating Jewish stand-up is now a classic persona in the world of comedy.

Christianity also has a traditionally strong relationship with comedy, with satirical movies like Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979), Spike Milligan's book The Bible: The Old Testament According To Spike Milligan, comedians such as Jim Gaffigan and Tommy Tiernan, and so forth. You even have some church clergy recently attending improv and stand-up comedy classes.

Add to this recent programs about religion and humour from BBC Four, with titles such as Some Vicars With Jokes and Old Jews Telling Jokes. Not surprisingly there was no Islamic equivalent.

Even atheists have their comedians: Ricky Gervais, Dara O'Briain, Dave Allen, Robin Ince, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, and many, many others. Some would also consider Richard Dawkins to be a bit of a joke now, but that is perhaps a topic for later.

Islam and we Muslims, however, are not really considered to be a funny bunch. We are angry, depressed, vengeful, and intolerant. Therefore how on earth can WE be funny? We, with our shifty eyes, we're too busy burning flags, vandalising foreign embassies, beheading journalists, shouting 'Death to the West!', condemning all acts committed in our name, and much more besides.

Regarding this the comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh says: 'Well I by definition can't take a joke, right? I'm Muslim and feminist (laughs). What am I doing being a comedian? How do I exist!?'

Adding to this view, we have TV programmes where comedic attitudes to Islam and Muslims are generally very condescending, especially pre 9/11, as witnessed by shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language, and comedians such as Bernard Manning.

Hollywood movies also on the whole portray Muslims adversely (see the video Planet Of The Arabs and the GQ article Seven Muslim-American Actors On Hollywood's Terrorist Typecasting).

Likewise, the news continues to demonise Muslims on an almost daily basis, leading the comedian Dean Obeidallah to state: 'There are only two news stories about us. Bad story: We are terrorists. Good story: We are alleged terrorists.'

All of these keep casual racism and Islamophobia well and truly alive in the mainstream, and this results in a deeply ingrained fear of Muslims and all things Islamic:

'The fear a Muslim inspires is associated with the unpredictability of his behaviour. What if he is a terrorist? What if he hijacks the plane? What if he is only pretending to be normal? All these questions that citizens are asked to consider by the airport authorities transform the Muslim passenger in the eyes of his fellow travelers into a source of unpredictability and danger,' says Mucahit Bilici

However, the tradition of humour in Islam is an old and important one. The humorous stories of Mullah Nasreddin date back to the 13th Century. Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi was writing satirically over 1,000 years ago about The Art of Party Crashing.

It can also be argued that Islam is more theologically in tune with humour than Judaism and Christianity are:

Ze'ev Maghen notes: 'The people who penned the seminal Muslim texts were in a very good mood. This may account, at least partially, for why while neither Moses nor Jesus ever chuckled – indeed, not one character in the entire Biblical canon so much as cracked a smile – the instances in early Islamic sources in which Allah's Final Messenger is said to have "laughed so hard you could see his back molars' are too numerous to count."

One can even go all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad himself to find elements of comedy:

The greatest miracle of the Prophet was the Qur'an, a book known more for jihad and sharia law than for subtler aspects of humanity, such as comedy. This view is not entirely true because as Shelina Zahra Janmohamad says: 'The Qur'an also has humour. Every time I read the story of Prophet Ibrahim, I chuckle. He stood as a young man in front of his village elders the morning after he has chopped the heads off the idols and hung the axe on the one remaining statue. Spitting with rage they demand to know if he is responsible. "Just ask the big idol," he replies. You can imagine them becoming enraged at the young upstart poking their bubble of arrogance. It is a moment combining deadpan comedy with sheer farce.'

The comedian Mohammed Amer, who recently became the first Arab-American to star in his own nationally televised one-hour stand-up special in America, Legally Homeless, was interviewed by CBS News. When asked if the Prophet Muhammad had a sense of humour, Amer replied: 'He had a great sense of humour…The Prophet said, "My way is the middle way." So, to be extreme is not right and to be totally secluded is not right.'

The negative views of Islam highlighted above existed in the non-Muslim world well before 9/11. The history of Islamophobia can be traced back to the First Crusade in 1091. In 1320, Dante Alighieri wrote his poem The Divine Comedy, in which he places the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali in the eighth circle of hell.

In recent times, however, Islamophobia has been reinforced by incidents such as the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, the Lockerbie bombing, and the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses.

As mentioned earlier, pre 9/11 Hollywood movies continued to do their part, with choice typecasting in movies like True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998), all helping to reinforce negative stereotypes.

Then came 9/11. One of the many unforeseen adverse effects of 9/11 was to change completely the relationship between Islam and comedy. Prior to 9/11, there wasn't really such a thing as 'Islamic comedy' or 'Muslim comedians'. Since 9/11, however, there has been an explosion (pardon the pun) of Muslim-related comedy.

The reasons for this dramatic change are explained by Mucahit Bilici: 'The tragedy of 9/11 focused America's attention on the Muslim minority. It created unprecedented visibility. It also opened up the space for Muslim comedy…The association of Muslims with terrorism after 9/11 has prompted a search for the "comic" side of being Muslim. Do these people ever laugh? The simplistic idea that Muslims "hate us" has simultaneously produced rigid stereotypes and a countering desire to discover what those stereotypes deny: among other things, a Muslim sense of humour. Needless to say, in reasoning like this, humour usually stands for humanity. If someone has a sense of humour, then he is just like us: likeable.'

Shortly after 9/11 Malcolm Kushner said the following, emphasising the greater importance of humour in analysing both sides of the war on terror: 'The freedom to laugh at each other and ourselves encompasses most of the other freedoms that we cherish so dearly. The act of laughing itself is symbolic of an open society. And it's antithetical to the entire social structure of terrorists' rigid conformity and control.'

9/11 may have created this new 'space for Muslim comedy', but can comedy really change things for the better? Here is a quote from Chris Bliss talking about why the power of crafted moments of comedy should not be underestimated: 'I want to talk [about] the unique power the best comedy and satire has in circumventing our engrained perspectives — comedy as the philosopher's stone that takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it, through ridicule, into a different way of seeing, and ultimately being, in the world…It is about communication that doesn't just produce greater understanding within the individual, but leads to real change…communication that manages to speak to and expand our concept of self-interest.'

Saul Landau also eludes to the power a court jester can have: 'Traditionally, the court jester dared shine a satiric light on imperial problems. In our society, stand-up comics and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report under the guise of clowning get away with exposing corporate rip-offs and self-serving government agencies. The mainstream media accept these thug operations as national axioms.'

Comedies ability to subtly tell the truth is best summed up by my favourite comedian, Bill Hicks: 'The real laugh is one of recognition of truth…The best kind of comedy to me is when you make people laugh at things they've never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people's minds, exposing them to the light.'

Another reason to use comedy is because today it has become more influential than ever. In the 1990s, stand-up comedy became known as the new rock and roll, with acts like Newman And Baddiel and Lee Evans. These comedians no longer performed in comedy clubs, and instead started performing mega gigs in places where you would normally see rock bands perform.

At the start of the new century, and mainly thanks to the internet, comedians have become global stars, stars such as Jeff Dunham, Chris Rock, Russell Peters, Trevor Noah, Russell Brand, Dave Chappelle, and Jerry Seinfeld. And right now in the world of comedy, Islamic comedy in the new-new rock and roll, an alternative-alternative comedy. Comedians can now have an immense online presence, with millions of fans on social media. This means that, not only can they get to the heart of the matter in a way that only a comedian can, but they can also have a potential global influence.

Muslim comedians are reinventing comedy for the global online era, digital comedy that is lampooning the inherent Islamaphobia that exists, and acting as a counter balance to the trials by online social media that Muslims are continually subjected to.

All of this shows that comedy can play an important role in overturning age old Islamophobic stereotypes. When a comedian subverts taken-for-granted views, he or she rehumanises Muslims. Humour brings into sharp focus the humanity that the blurry lens of Islamophobia distorts. Comedy, the great equaliser, normalises the abnormal by removing taboos and stigmas, thus opening up greater curiosity and deeper engagement between non-Muslims and Muslims. Comedians subvert fear into perfectly timed punch lines:

The fear of the Muslim as a potential terrorist is precisely what creates room for him in the world of non-Muslims and thus opens the ground for Muslim comedy…That comedy reveals our humanity is well illustrated by a comment from Jewish comic Rabbi Bob Alper, who observed after a performance with Azhar Usman in Detroit in 2008: 'You can't hate the person you've laughed with.'

Usman recalls hearing a similar sentiment from a non-Muslim audience member: 'I didn't see you as a Muslim, I saw you as a human being.'

Mucahit Bilici adds: 'Muslim ethnic comedy is part of the Americanisation process: the power of comedy becomes a means of undoing otherness. The comic vision rehumanises Muslims and allows comedians to engage in a symbolic reversal of the social order. Muslim ethnic comedy is the world of Islamophobia turned upside down.'

Self-deprecating humour, therefore, when done honestly and sincerely, can make the comedic subject matter seem less like 'them' and more like 'us'. The audience ends up seeing Muslims more as people and less as stereotypes. Such humour will have plenty of in-jokes for Muslims, as well as having plenty of jokes that are bridges of commonality, of recognition, for non-Muslims. The aforementioned comedian Mohammed Amer also recently spoke about this:

Mohammed Amer says: 'My way of addressing prejudices against Muslims is sharing different perspectives…I'm a comedian. My most important goal is to get people laughing and cracking up. If you can get them to laugh and have them think at the same time, then you got something…Stand-up comedy is an art form that you have to be honest…You have to be real on stage. You have to share yourself and give them that piece of you. It's not just self-deprecating humour, but it's also talking about what's happening around you.'

Take this a step further and this is why I believe Muslim comedy can be thought of as a modern day Muslim practice, a form of dawah (or preaching), because we end up not taking ourselves too seriously. As the great animated philosopher Mickey Mouse once said: 'To laugh at yourself is to love yourself.'

Just as the trumpets will not toot themselves, Islamophobia will not disappear by itself. So, to all Muslims and non-Muslims alike, I say that we should all hop on board the Islamic comedy bus and beep the horn together. Let's do this before, I stereotypically assume, the bus blows up, we all die, and we all enter paradise where 72 virgins await. Again I am typecastingly assuming.

•This article originally appeared on Imran A Khan's Blog Of The Bearded One.

Published: 18 Sep 2015

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