no jokes, please, we’re Muslim

October 26, 2006

Shazia Mirza is a Muslim woman from Birmingham who is a stand-up comic. She has been invited by the British Council to go to India to try and convince Muslims there that there is such a thing as a sense of humour. A similar trip to Pakistan was cancelled when the Pakistani authorities decided it was too likely to stir up violent reactions. It seems that while most non Muslim audiences of both sexes warm to Ms Mirza, the reaction from Muslim men is less enthusiastic to the point where she has been attacked while on stage. It appears, too, that her appearances in the States caused a certain amount of unease. With statements like ‘Americans love to ask questions and not learn anything.’ it’s not surprising. Although Ms Mirza does not like being branded as a Muslim woman comic, she might not be quite so successful if she weren’t and it’s clear that that’s where the source of her material lies. Add to that a style that seems to owe something to Jasper Carrott and Dave Allen and you get lines like these which definitely seem more Birmingham than Islamabad:
“I was walking past this building site in Mecca when a group of Muslim builders shouted, ‘Show us your . . . face.’ “

—  On arranged marriages:“My friend Julie says, ‘How can you sleep with someone you don’t know?’ – but she does it all the time.”

— On the search in Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction: “Look up his wife’s purdah , because nobody looks up there.”

— Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mirza captured laughs this way: “My name is Shazia Mirza. . . . At least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.”

— She recounted the time in Mecca when a man touched her inappropriately: “I felt a hand on my bottom. I ignored it. I thought, ‘I’m in Mecca. It must be the hand of God.’ It was great, I’m going back there”
— “Anyone with a moustache is now a target,” she says, poking fun at strained Anglo-Muslim relations. “My mum’s been attacked.”
“Muslims in America are the new blacks. Great, they’re going to be playing our music, wearing our  clothes…”
“Afghanistan has banned high heels because the click is sexually attractive to men. All goats have been locked up.”
“The news that there are British bombers means that they’re going to blow us up but they’ll do it politely”

She recounts her experience with American customs when she was asked for her profession and said ‘comic’. “Prove it,” was the officer’s reply. She was then asked a series of questions including “Have you ever grown a beard?” to which she replied  “yes I’m a South Asian woman of course I have.”

The Ayatollah Khomeini maintained that “there are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam.” but the average Muslim’s humour continues to exist in spite of their unfunny Islamic faith. Humour has long flourished in the Arab world both in its literature and in everyday life. Your average Muslim enjoys a good joke as much as the next man, and I suspect the differences with Western humour are not that great. I got the impression that humour was not quite as prominent in Muslim South East Asia but have absolutely no evidence to support this feeling. The Muslim firends I’ve had certainly loved telling jokes, much of the humour being directed against Egyptians unless the speaker was from Egypt when it was either against Israel or Saudi Arabia.  Their jokes included laughing at themselves (as long as it’s not an outsider making fun of them) but also a fair amount of cruelty. Religion was almost but not quite off limits-I’ve often heard Mulsims say that they don’t drink wine but they can drink whisky because it is not expressly forbidden in the Koran. In this sense the Thais, who can respond to the most unfunny of situations with gentle humour, are less liberated as their religion, the King and even, as I have been told on several occasions, the spirits are taboo topics for jokes. I imagine we all have our taboos as far as jokes are concerned- either the topic, the language or the occasion. I think I have a pretty good idea what mine are. Do you?
Back to the Muslims, we are told here that “both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence.”

In present-day Iraq there’s even more humour, most of it, as one might expect, a grim attempt to make light of the rather unfunny events around them. Some examples, quoted here:
Nearly every night here for the past month, Iraqis weary of the tumult around them have been turning on the television to watch a wacky-looking man with a giant Afro wig and star-shaped glasses deliver the grim news of the day. In a recent episode, the host, Saaed Khalifa, reported that Iraq’s Ministry of Water and Sewage had decided to change its name to simply the Ministry of Sewage — because it had given up on the water part.
Another show’s raucous theme song, which has become a popular cellphone ring tone here and is sung by children in schoolyards, laments that it would be better to be a lowly cat on the street than an Iraqi: “No one asks the cat where you are from, which party you’re from, whether you are an Arab, a Kurd, a Sunni or a Shiite.” He sings on, “I am the last Iraqi alive, but I still do not own a house,” a reference to the country’s acute housing shortage‘.

It’s good to know that “since the fall of Saddam Hussein, comedies have proliferated on Iraqi television.” Shame that humour and chaos often go hand in hand.
Azhar Usman, one of the many Arab-American comics in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, who has very similar material to Ms Mirza, says: “Just about anything is fair game, just as long as it’s done tastefully and artfully,” he said. “I have some boundaries, based on religion. I won’t do any sacrilegious material, make fun of God or the prophet.” One of his gags goes: “I’m a Muslim, but I’m an American Muslim. That’s right, I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for my country. By blowing myself up. Inside a Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Back to Ms Mirza, at least her jokes are better than the one joke with which Mohammed is credited: “On one occasion, the prophet Muhammad told an elderly woman that her likes will not go to paradise; she was obviously astounded by the Prophet’s remark… But he explained that this is so because in paradise people are forever youthful…” But then, I don’t imagine Jesus would have had them rolling in the aisles in the Comedy Store and the Bible, whatever its other merits, does fall a bit short in the jokes department. Will Ms Mirza’s humour offensive prove successful in bringing extreme Muslims more into line with the West?  Will waving a red rag with ‘did you hear the one about…’ scrawled on it endear you to the bull?

Here’s a nice cartoon by the Syrian  Ali Farzat

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5 Responses to “no jokes, please, we’re Muslim”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    I think that laughing at yourself and tolerating other people doing so is the mark of a mature personality. Britons and Americans seem to me to be traditionally good at this.

    Religions that take themselves seriously tend to regard jokes about them as deadly insults and blasphemy. I am sure that those who condemned Giordano Bruno to the stake wouldn’t have taken kindly to jokes about God, Jesus and Christianity, either. It’s interesting that a Muslim living in Britain can “catch” the habit of making jokes about Islam religion and culture.

    I think one reason for the disparity might be that the difference between acceptable “teasing” and unacceptable “insult” is quite subtle. I suspect that some cultures are too black and white to tolerate this area of uncertainty between humour and insult. As Mirza’s experience with American Customs shows, authoritarians don’t take kindly to humour, either. Perhaps the authoritarianism of Islam is another obstacle to its being able to make jokes about itself. (Does the Pope ever make jokes about Catholicism, I wonder?)

    There is something literally “childish” in this: children are much more likely than adults to be hurt or angered by jokes at their expense. Is self-deprecating humour something that these humourless communities will never be able to accept or will they eventually learn? Shazia Mirza is a symbol of hope that the latter is true.

  2. Kirana Says:

    i’ve seen a lot of remarks on the net wondering why muslims don’t seem to have a sense of humour, comparing googles searches and whatnot. i’m a southeast asian muslim, and in my country there are local humour magazines – most of the gags are nation-centric, but a fair bit is related to muslims. but OF COURSE the magazines are NOT IN ENGLISH!! plus, the usual format is not nearly dominantly in the form of build-up-then-punchline style of english and even arabic/persian jokes (a la mulla nasruddin).

    many mosque imams and religious teachers here are humourous, often using humour and making fun of themselves to convey teachings and knowledge. of course, only people who go and listen to them will know this, since they don’t bother to make websites and post their jokes online. we have tell jokes to have a fun life, we don’t have a life in order to tell jokes. it’s like the difference between eating to live and living to eat.

    besides, in this day and age, some kinds of jokes are difficult to take. when you feel threatened, of course jokes that press onto what triggers the threat is not funny especially if delivered by someone from a group that is threatening you – or if delivered by one of your own it’s just black humour. sexist jokes are not funny to most women whose daily reality is a life struggling against gender discrimination and harassment. so, *who* tells the joke matters in how the joke will be perceived. groups that are in a superior position will nearly always find most things funny, even jokes very much at their expense. it is removed enough from their reality that it’s easy to be detached from it and see the funny side.

    also, cruel ‘jokes’ repeating untrue assumptions as true and bigotry will definitely not be funny to the group who is being misrepresented. imagine making a joke revolving around jews killing babies and drinking their blood – would that be well-received? yet when such jokes are made about muslims when muslims are facing real persecution, it’s muslims who don’t have a sense of humour if we don’t laugh? go figure. besides, you share jokes and laugh together with your FRIENDS. surely you wouldn’t share jokes, especially about yourself, with people who spout vitriol at you and your people, right?

  3. Edward Says:

    very nice article.

  4. Lukman Says:

    very nice, i liked it


  5. dear sir, i am homelass in the city of seattle (wa) our here police department doing crime aginest with me police do not have any evidence to i am doing stealling crime our here and i all so report to the police department same one assault me but police officer do not assist me and i all so contact to the law firm the do not assist me and i all so contact to the media all around the national no one want to take the responsibility about the crime,
    i am from india i all so contact to the my country media the do not take the responsibility about the crime
    i beleave behand the crime (us) government
    i need your help, thank you
    note, i am in (u,s,a) since 1994


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