This is my op-ed published in The National today
The last year has been no laughing matter in the Middle East. But its epic events – especially its use of peaceful protest and national unity as resources towards building self-determination – have made the wider world realise that Muslims are not as alien as they might have thought.
Amid the darkest moments, the world also saw another glimpse of the universal humanity of Muslims – through comedy. Reuters reported that before his death, eastern Libya was full of anti-Qaddafi humour. Graffiti showed the colonel in a Superman costume with a dollar sign instead of an “S” on his chest. Another showed him in a dustbin labelled “history”. A particularly damning cartoon urged him to “surrender himself to the ‘national council of hairdressers'”.
It’s a secret that needs to be let out: Muslims have a deep-rooted sense of humour and are not afraid to use it.
Let’s get these important points out of the way first. I know there are deeply miserable people out there who can’t possibly believe what I’m telling them: that Muslims both have and appreciate a sense of humour. Their argument is that Muslims will slap a fatwa on anyone who tries to make a joke or poke fun.
And we will. But only on anyone who makes a truly terrible joke. Substandard comedy, no matter where it comes from, should never be tolerated and deserves every fatwa it gets.
There isn’t any place either for dressing up prejudice, aggression or sheer ignorance as comedy. We are all too familiar with those misery-boots types who make barbed cracks, then throw up their hands to say: “What? You can’t take a joke?” Comedy is not a clever way to be rude or offensive. We can see straight through that.
In an entirely unscientific poll of friends, tweeps and Facebook fans, I asked what the funniest things were that they had been asked as Muslims. While wearing a pink headscarf one woman was asked: “Why do Muslim women wear black all the time?”
A rather baffling question that is often put to Muslims – who generally belong to quite sociable communities – is: “If you don’t drink, how do you meet people?”
And what is one to make of the question: “Is it true that light green is the official colour of Al Qaeda?”
Perhaps my favourite of all time, is: “Now that you’re engaged, will you have a forced marriage?”
These questions project such a one-dimensional, stereotypical understanding of Muslims that it is hard not to laugh. But we don’t. And that’s probably why some people think we are so serious and earnest all the time.
In the face of such questioning, Muslims place upon themselves the onerous burden of answering in the nicest possible way. Also, we’re never sure how non-Muslims will respond to humour. I’ve tried being funny when replying, and mostly the reaction is a blank stare. We like that people want to understand, but forgive us if you catch us suppressing an occasional smirk.
Since 9/11, a crop of young, feisty Muslim comedians have made it onto the scene. This has been accompanied by a growing number of comedy festivals, films, internet videos and blogs. Abu Dhabi last week month hosted an international comedy festival featuring the Lebanese stand-up Nemr Abou Nassar.
In the United States, a group of stand-up comics call themselves “Allah Made Me Funny“, comprising a black American, an Arab American and an Asian American. In the UK, acts like Imran Yusuf, an East African Asian, and Shaista Aziz, a British Pakistani, vie for attention. We also have stand-ups such as Riaad Moosa in South Africa.
Slowly but surely we are seeing Muslims depicted on western screens in comedy, rather than just as scary terrorists. Mainstream productions include such films as The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a Muslim comedy troupe around the American Deep South. The Infidel tells the story of a Muslim who finds out he has Jewish roots while his daughter is being courted by the son of a deeply conservative Muslim family, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World follows the actor and comedian Albert Brooks to South Asia. But perhaps the most widely known movie is Four Lions, an acclaimed British comedy about four young Muslim men who plot to carry out a suicide bombing, which was directed by the ever controversial Chris Morris.
In 2010, the American journalist Katie Couric suggested that what her country needed if it were going to normalise its understanding of Muslims was a “Muslim Cosby Show”. Her wish may be about to come true as Preacher Moss of Allah Made Me Funny is attempting to pilot such a show, currently titled Here Come The Muhammads. He says that “by making it funny, you make it accessible. People can say: ‘You mean I can actually laugh at that?'”
Yes, it’s true that Muslims and others can in fact joke about Muslims.
At a preview of Four Lions, I found myself the only Muslim among 30 very serious film critics. While others looked around nervously, I was cackling with laughter (no doubt to their annoyance). The film worked because it showed a deep understanding of Muslim cultures, and the break between expectation and reality, both of which are rich seams of humour. It was intelligent, not offensive.
The film opens with the would-be terrorist cell recording their suicide video. The idiot of the group is centre stage and is being mocked for holding a small gun. “Not a small gun,” he protests. “Big hands.” Even suicide-video production is subject to the inflated egos common in the media.
Muslim humour and self-deprecation are, of course, not recent phenomena. There must be thousands of tales of Mullah Nasruddin, one of the great entertainer-comedian-wisemen of Muslim history, dating back to the Middle Ages. I particularly like this one: A certain conqueror said to Nasruddin, “Mullah, all the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them. There was, for instance, ‘God-Gifted’, and ‘God-Accepted’, and so on. How about some such name for me?” “God Forbid,” said Nasruddin.
Comedy also serves different purposes within different Muslim communities. While one group of young comedians is using humour to introduce Muslims to a world apprehensive about their faith, another is using it to point out the challenges of their cultures and politics.
In Saudi Arabia, YouTube comedies address religious and political pressures alongside social observation. On The Fly, for instance, has tackled subjects such as the Egyptian uprising as well as TV coverage of Arabs Got Talent.
The internet allows usually unmentionable subjects to be tackled. A mainstream TV show, Tash Ma Tash uses humour to explore social convention. One particularly controversial episode addressed the cultural taboos around discussing polygamy by having a woman with four husbands.
Such developments are the hidden gems of Muslim cultures today. The most powerful thing about their humour is its universality: while the cultural contexts may vary, they take down human foibles and misadventures in ways that all cultures can connect with.
After all, the funniest jokes are the ones that you see yourself in, and which connect to your own experiences.
So here’s a multi-faith one to sign off with. A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says: “What is this, a joke?”
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.ukcontinue reading
You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the reality TV show “All-American Muslim”. The Florida Family Association is campaigning against it because it’s too ordinary, and various advertisers are pulling their spots. What other option is there but to just laugh at the absolute ridiculousness of their position?
In my weekly column in The National, it’s time for some fun to imagine the show that the FFA really want to see…
When it comes to reality television, most right-thinking people wish it would disappear into oblivion. But the actions of the little-known extremist group, Florida Family Association (FFA), are having the opposite effect. In response to the series following the lives of five ordinary American Muslim families going about their ordinary lives, it has declared: “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.” As a result, Lowe’s hardware store pulled their adverts from the show.
The problem, the FFA says, is that the show “profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks, while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish”. It’s all too dull. Instead, what they want is more suicide bombers, virulent niqabis and Sharia-takeover plots. And they want it in reality TV format. Now that’s a show I’d like to watch …
The programme opens with a woman dressed all in black, face covered, holding a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, turned to the “How to make a bomb” page. (FFA’s Muslim checklist: preparation to blow up the US, check.)
The camera zooms in on her face-veil. Suddenly we hear in an Arabic accent: “Sharia Sharia, jihad, jihad” (face-veiled woman, check; spewing Sharia and jihad, check; “scary” accent, check).
Six children play with dynamite (Muslim takeover by stealth through population growth, check).
“This is Sara Valin,” says the voice-over (a pun on “veiling” but rhymes with Palin, geddit?).
“In the garden, Accchhmed (the pantomime pronunciation of Ahmed) compares beard-lengths with some beardy friends.” Ahmed strokes his copious facial hair like the Bond villain strokes his cat (world domination intent, check).
Next door at the mosque, a group of young men record a suicide bomber video. They are having trouble making the camera work. “Told him to buy the warranty,” mutters one. “But he was too tight. Typical immigrant. Saving to import a wife.”
The cameras follow Sara Valin to a Chai Party meeting. Outside flags with the words “death to America” flutter in the wind. Sara drags a 10 kilogram bag of fertiliser behind her. A woman with a “Sharia4USA” badge opens the door. “Fertiliser is Buy One Get One Free at Lowe’s,” remarks Sara.
The Chai Party meeting begins by discussing strategies to destroy America, how to make all turkeys halal and whether having a Muslim Miss America wearing a bikini was a clever tactic.
“First order of business: the programme Friends. It shows only ordinary Americans and is clearly propaganda for the USA. Friends does not represent America properly and so we must complain. There are no crack addicts, no soldiers abusing their prisoners, no Tim McVeigh character, and not even a hint of political sex scandal!”
Cut to commercial break sponsored by Lowe’s.
Such a programme could save the FBI hundreds of millions of dollars in security and surveillance. After all, no need to hunt out prospective bombers. All they’d have to do is turn on the TV and watch “reality”; well, the kind of reality that only warped and bigoted minds constantly inhabit. How sad for them to live in a world they are trying to fill with so much hatred.continue reading
This is my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National (UAE).
I came to one simple conclusion: we women would be much safer.
Think about the dangers of male drivers. Men have higher rates of speeding, they are involved in more accidents and cause more deaths on the road. Their high-testosterone brains ignite higher incidences of road rage. They are notorious tailgaters, failing to observe any measure of safe stopping distance. And, they can’t even be bothered to ask directions when lost. The solution is simple: bar them from driving.
If men start to whine and whinge about their “rights” being infringed, then just to stop their “waagh waagh waagh” moaning, consider this modest proposal.
Driving lanes could be segregated by gender. Or, better still, we introduce gender-segregated streets, some for men, and some for women. This way, we women would not have to look at the horror of their balding heads, especially those of middle-aged drivers in convertibles, their toupees or comb-overs flapping in the wind.
By limiting their access to certain streets, we would also be safe from their high-speed antics and reckless driving, which, due to their biological design, they are compelled to engage in. They can’t help it, poor things. Have petrol, will accelerate.
Where there are roads that men insist they need access to (although what kind of roads these could be, I just don’t know – perhaps ones with football stadiums on them?), a timetable could be devised with restricted hours for men to use them at essential times only. Of course, these hours would exclude the times that the men ought to be at home putting out the rubbish, fixing shelves or cleaning out the drains.
Segregated lanes, limited access and a timetable could be combined into a new road system based on Gender Prioritisation and Separation (GPS).
Male drivers are genetically predisposed to road rage, and if we are to permit them to drive, then we must warn them they will only have themselves to blame if they are attacked in any altercation that ensues. Not driving is for their own good, so if they choose to ignore this, they must bear the consequences.
Of course, we must ensure that these male drivers are not a source of temptation for women. And even more importantly we must take steps to prevent them from driving willy-nilly around on frivolous activities like collecting the children from school, caring for sick relatives or attending places of employment to earn wages to buy food.
In fact, now that I think about it, these tasks are entirely trivial and the men can manage them quite comfortably by hiring a female chauffeur to drive them around. If they are in the back, then they won’t be able to use their wiles to tempt the poor female driver.
When it comes down to it, I am of the view that men don’t really want to drive, but they think it’s fashionable to say that they do. I mean, why would they bother with the hassle of parking? Why get hot under the collar trying to navigate traffic?
In short, men are simply not designed to drive. We tell them and tell them that driving is not good for them, and it’s not good for society. But that’s typical of men isn’t it: they just won’t listen.continue reading
My weekly column in The National was published today.
If you’ve ever felt nervous before delivering a speech to a high-powered audience, then spare a thought for India’s foreign minister. He stood up to address the Security Council at the United Nations, but instead of giving his own speech, he read out the notes of the Portuguese minister. An Indian official had to stop him as he read out statements of pleasure at seeing other Portuguese speaking officials in the audience. Oh dear.
Ordinary folks like me might be forgiven for thinking that the role of foreign minister is only ever occupied by those of the highest professional standards, and who have somehow been immunised from embarrassing gaffes. Not so. Reading out the wrong speech might have left the individual a little red-faced and provoked giggles from the audience. But it’s not uncommon for slip-ups to have more serious repercussions.
Jack Straw, during his tenure as foreign secretary of the UK, was infamously photographed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe. He claimed that although he had previously worn glasses, he had just started wearing contact lenses, and through his blurry vision had failed to identify the Zimbabwean president in time.
Of course ministers can and will get in a pickle and do embarrassing things. The trick is to ensure you have a credible excuse that explains it away without compounding the shame.
This week, the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, has failed to do exactly that. There must have been a lot of burning cheeks and nervous laughter at the failure of the James Bond-style SAS mission that was authorised to go into Libya. Eight operatives, at least six of them from the SAS, were dropped by helicopter near Benghazi at 3am, and suspicious local rebels took them prisoner. The irony is that the rebels suggested that there was no need for subterfuge, and the British would have been allowed entry to the east of Libya – all they had to do was ask.
So what is Mr Hague’s excuse for the macho mission? Er, it wasn’t my fault; it was the military. If you’re going to pick someone to blame, Billy-boy, I wouldn’t pick the guys with the tanks.
You might find these incidents to be the funny side of diplomacy. But poor judgement in the international arena can have serious consequences.
France’s foreign minister offered Tunisia help in restoring order shortly before the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In simple terms, France was advising on how to put down the protests. Definitely on the wrong side of history.
As the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair is a foreign minister of sorts. His words with regard to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were so ludicrous that one might be forgiven for thinking he himself was having a go at satire. In February, as the Egyptian protests began to gather momentum, Mr Blair said with a straight face that the Egyptian president was “immensely courageous and a force for good”. If the consequence of his words wasn’t so deadly serious, it would have been funny.
Foreign ministers hold a high degree of responsibility for peace between nations. Their errors are funny exactly because of the contrast between the stupidity of some of their actions and the high pressure stakes under which they operate. When their actions remain on the side of humour instead of crossing the line into horror, then we feel safe to chuckle, as we have at the French and the British in the past few weeks. But if things had gone wrong in Tunisia or Egypt, I don’t think any of us would have been laughing then.continue reading
This column was published yesterday in The National UAE
Today, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, wrote to me. At least that’s what it said on the e-mail that I found in my spam box.
Despite the austerity measures that the government has recently announced, he is giving me an ATM card with a £5,000 (Dh29,000) daily limit. I can collect it from the foreign secretary William Hague by e-mailing back a copy of my passport. Alarm bells ring: shouldn’t they have a copy already, them being the government?
Blog Blaster promises me two million hits on my blog. The US ambassador to Nigeria is just waiting, yes waiting on tenterhooks, to give me $5 million if I accept delivery of a package. And if you’re too small, too slow or just too obsessed with the opposite gender, there are a whole range of drugs and stimulants out there for you, along with eye surgery, or losing weight at better prices than you could ever imagine. There are even a dozen suggestions on how I can work less but earn more.
I think I’ve become addicted to spam.
In this universe, I could live the sensational life of James Bond with overflowing bank accounts, happiness and love, and those crucial better looks. This is a slick world that increasingly entices me to dip into it every day to see what unimaginable thrills the mere click of a mouse could bring me.
I’m beginning to think that the version of Shelina that exists in the Alternative World of Spam is a far more exciting and glamorous one.
This glorious spam world is not without social conscience. It is in fact a God-conscious, spiritual arena.
I received a heartfelt plea to help release $17m dollars which a woman’s deceased husband had put aside for the establishment of an orphanage. She exhorts me, in the Bible’s words, that “Blessed is the hand that giveth”, and that she doesn’t want her “late husband’s efforts to be used by unbelievers and greedy individuals for selfish and ungodly purposes”.
The Spamiverse is not religiously exclusivist. I also get requests to help with dying men’s wishes to build mosques and Islamic centres, and humanists who want to save cancer patients. Or humanists and Muslims in collaboration wanting to solve the world’s HIV problems. It’s a very creative, community-minded and tolerant place.
I cast my eyes over all the spam messages and feel warm and fuzzy at the world’s possible perfection. Life is good in the Matrix-like universe of the Spambox, assuming we believe the superficial messages and fail to look deeper.
However, to accept at face value and click through the nefarious links would be hugely dangerous, and the illusion would be shattered. Don’t click the links, whatever you do. Your bank balance will be drained. Your computer will be infected. Don’t be fooled by the sweet words.
Spam is all the evils of today’s illusory airbrushed world rolled into one. It feels personalised, but it’s not written just for you. You are just a commodity to be parted from its cash and self esteem. It promises impossible outcomes, appealing to the worst in human nature of greed and vanity.
Spam doesn’t only exist in your spam box. Those TV ads? That billboard across the street? That political rhetoric? You didn’t ask for it – it just arrived in your life.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. That piece of wisdom is the best, and only, thing to be gained from dipping into your spam. And that piece of wisdom applies to real life too.continue reading
This article was published in The National.
One definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
Yet tuning in to the news cycle of depressing political events that seemingly repeat themselves unchecked can lead to the sensation that we are stuck in a perpetual rerun of Groundhog Day.
BP’s oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is reminiscent of the gas explosion in Bhopal, for which Union Carbide has still not been held fully accountable. The United Nations was steamrolled as the United States led the war against Afghanistan, then the war in Iraq. Now America is sending worrying signals of similar action against Iran. And the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, followed by a barely lukewarm condemnation from the US, echoes the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and Lebanon in 2006.
If the same old responses create the same old outcomes, is it insane to suggest we should try new approaches? Whatever out-of-left-field solutions I can offer, will they be any less sane than what we have now?
Well, perhaps, but here we go.
The World Cup, that arena of nationalistic pride, could become a possible forum for international relations. Although in footballing terms the UK vs US match may have been a disappointing draw for England, the final result shows that England is not the puny side-kick, but very much on a par with America.
It’s a shame that neither the Saudis nor the Iranians made it through on this occasion, otherwise 90 minutes on the pitch could have been a much more amicable way to decide who is champion in the Middle East league. If we’d followed the World Cup model for power politics in 1998, when Iran defeated the US 2-1, then we could avoid the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. And perhaps North and South Korea could settle their dispute with a penalty shoot-out.
Maybe football isn’t your thing, or you think it is too sexist in its exclusion of women – although, to be fair, serious international problems such as war and conflict, like football, do seem to be a male preserve. So what about Facebook as a talking shop instead of the UN?
The Irish comedian Patrick Kielty imagines international relations according to Facebook going something like this: “America and South Korea are now friends. China likes this.”
“Hizbollah has poked Israel. Would you like to poke Hizbollah back?”
“America and Pakistan have gone from ‘In a relationship’ to ‘It’s complicated’.”
For the more culinary-inclined, we could have a cook-off in the form of an international Masterchef competition with nations cooking up their traditional cuisine. At least the audience would have something to eat afterwards, which might make negotiations more congenial.
Perhaps Turkey and Greece would make some happy discoveries: “This hummus, and these vine leaves – the same! We’re brothers! What have we been fighting for?” And perhaps India would be able to annexe the UK by dint of the fact that chicken tikka masala is Britain’s most popular dish.
We could use a different technique to moderate the scramble for Africa between China and the US. Play Monopoly, with the streets replaced by the African countries – first to arrive can buy; otherwise, you pay rent.
I wonder if we can apply this process to other international questions facing us today? Here are four big issues that need resolution:
First up, it’s the United Nations. When it comes to the structure of the UN Security Council, there is little that can be done about the five permanent members. As international relations theorists point out, their presence does not mean they are forces for good; rather it is to rein in the greatest potential to wreak havoc on Earth. But what about the remainder of the 15 council members? There is always a tussle over who should be appointed, but does it really matter? We could use a simple method to identify those with most cunning and savvy – rock, paper, scissors. In successive rounds of play-offs, the most adept at beating their opponents make it on to the council.
Next on my list is the global recession. Should we bail out every country on the verge of bankruptcy, or should we be more discerning? Perhaps Simon Cowell and his Got Talent TV format could help decide who is in and who is out. Picture Spain up first, a matador flapping his red cloth in front of a raging bull. Cowell bleats with his usual disdain: “I’m not convinced and not everyone’s going to like you, but at least you know who you are, and you’ve made it your own. We’ll see you in the next round.”
Next up is Greece, with a play about Socrates and Plato. Cowell’s verdict? “Yeah, it’s well done, but it’s not really contemporary, is it? A bit out of date, all this historical stuff. And the audience is asleep. It’s a ‘no’ from me.”
Then comes climate change. How can we get a speedy international consensus on reducing harmful activities and a commitment to more environmentally friendly approaches by our governments? Maybe the game of Twister is the solution. Each spin of the wheel means each country has to manoeuvre its activities into a different circle – all trying in theory to reach the green dots. I fear we might see a bit of wriggling around to get out of the targets, though.
Climate change isn’t the only threat to long-term human and planetary well-being. I for one still worry about the threat of nuclear weapons. But how do we first get full international commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then real action towards disarmament?
Today’s current situation feels more like playing Cluedo – who’s got the weapon, and where are they hiding it? (“Colonel al Qa’eda, in the caves of Afghanistan, with the enriched uranium.”) Maybe Scrabble is the solution. If you can spell the names of all the components correctly with the letters you’ve already got, then you get to keep them.
I know that some reading my analysis of these issues will not find my commentary comedic. Well, I don’t find the solutions offered by today’s world leaders very funny either. Can we really solve climate change by trading in fictitious carbon-production commodities? Can the global recession really be resolved by reviving the same banking system that created the mess, and allowing corporations such as BP to play havoc with our environment as long as large US shareholders get paid their dividends?
I think you’ll find that it’s not me who’s the comedian.
Of course, none of my suggestions is meant to belittle the terrible crises going on in the world and the genuine efforts being made and that are necessary to put an end to poverty and war and to create stability, justice, freedom and peace.
But maybe, just maybe, by looking at some crazy but very human ways that we’ve developed to manage relationships, we might realise that we don’t need to be bound by the same failing paradigms. We might realise that by doing things differently we are no longer beholden to insanity, but we actually have cause for hope.continue reading
A little humour for a Monday morning. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that it seems very plausible and that we believe from our instincts about human nature that it might be true, is telling in itself…
In a small town in East Africa, a person decided to open up a cinema showing films of disrepute, which was right opposite to the mosque. The Members of the congregation started a campaign to block the tawdry business from opening with petitions and prayed daily against his business. Work progressed. However, when it was almost complete and was about to open, a lightning bolt struck the construction and it was burnt to the ground.
The mosque folks were rather smug in their outlook after that, till the cinema owner sued the mosque authorities on the grounds that the mosque authorities through their congregation and prayers were ultimately responsible for the demise of his project, either through direct or indirect actions or means.
In its reply to the court, the mosque autorities vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection that their prayers were reasons to the cinema’s demise.
As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork at the hearing and commented:continue reading
“I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case, but it appears from the paperwork, that we have the owner of a disreputable cinema who believes in the power of prayer and we have devotees from the mosque who don’t!”
I have a theory, and I’m hoping you can help… I’m hoping that a bit of intercultural and interfaith humour can help bond us together and ease tensions. So I’m looking for jokes to bring together faiths.continue reading
Here is a starter for ten:
A priest, a rabbi and a mullah walk into a bar. The barman says “What is this, a joke?”
The MagicMuslims are here again, using their cartoon superpowers to make the world a better place. They bring levity and humour to a world that needs a smile. They are ‘Ordinary Muslims, with extraordinary powers.’ Brought to you by Spirit21, if you haven’t seen them before, you can read more here.
Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and the beginning of each month is signalled by the sighting of the new moon. This becomes a particularly frenzied and controversial affair for the highly auspicious month of fasting, Ramadan, and leaves many confused over how such a simple matter ever got so complicated…continue reading
Enjoy the cartoon.