ISLAM AND HUMOUR – PART 2 – STEWART LEE’S ANTI-ISLAMIC STAND-UP

Following on from a previous blog post about Islam and humour

Stewart Lee is one of the best British stand-ups around. His recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe, A Room With A Stew, was critically acclaimed almost universally.

Below is a clip from one of his earlier stand up shows, Carpet Remnant World, where he amusingly and intelligently tackles the subject of Islam from the perspective of stand-up comedy.

The full 2 hour show is currently available here, and the 2 specific parts of the show transcribed below are here and here. Enjoy!



Anyway, that’s enough making fun of America and the West. It’s time now to mock Islam and to ridicule individual Muslims.

(LAUGHTER)

People are very keen on that now in comedy. There was a big piece in the Daily Mail in December by Jan Moir saying there’s not enough anti-Islamic stand-up in Britain at the moment. Of course, they’re very keen on balance at the Daily Mail. It’s been a watch-word of the paper going way back to the 1930s.

(MILD LAUGHTER)

I know, it’s a good joke. No one gets it.

(LAUGHTER)

So…it’s an occupational hazard of stand-up now if you do a joke about anything and you don’t immediately follow it up with a joke about Islam.

People are like “What’s wrong with you?”

These are the kind of e-mails you get. This sort of thing.

“Dear BBC, I enjoyed Stewart Lee’s making fun of Chris Moyles on TV last night and I look forward to him mocking the Prophet Mohammed in the same way next week.”

(LAUGHTER)

“Yours, Norris McWhirter.”

(LAUGHTER)

“Nuremberg.”

(LAUGHTER)

Another one here. “Dear BBC, I enjoyed watching Stewart Lee making jokes about crisps last night, but I doubt we will be seeing him having a go at any Muslim snacks in the near future.”

(LAUGHTER)

“On the politically correct BBC, it appears there’s one law for crisps…”

(LAUGHTER)

“…and quite another for those mini poppadom things that they sell in Marks & Spencer’s.”

(LAUGHTER)

“Yours, Norris McWhirter”

(LAUGHTER)

“Argentina.”

Yeah. Well, it’s a later postmark. So, erm…I know, they don’t get it…it’s time…

(LAUGHTER)

So time to ridicule a Muslim now, in accordance with the Daily Mail’s demands, and the Muslim we’re gonna be ridiculing tonight is called Mohammed al-Qubaisi. He’s from Dubai, he’s one of the top Muslim guys out there.

(LAUGHTER)

Yeah, people down there are laughing at that, as well they should because, of course, in Islam, there is no pyramid power structure.

(LAUGHTER)

So succession of Imams, er, Imams, all with equal power, so the idea of a top Muslim is…haha.

(LAUGHTER)

Now, anyway this is what he said. Mohammed al-Qubaisi about Bin Laden being buried at sea. He said, “They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam. Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances only, and this is not one of them.”

(LAUGHTER)

Let’s have a quick recap on those circumstances.

(LAUGHTER)

Osama Bin Laden was shot in the face at point blank range in front of his family after a possibly illegal American incursion into Pakistani airspace following a 10-year campaign to bring him to justice for flying two hijacked, fully-laden passenger aircraft into the World Trade Center killing literally thousands and thousands of people. What has made this Mohammed al-Qubaisi so jaded…

(LAUGHTER)

…that this does not fit his definition of extraordinary circumstances? What a jaded, jaded man, Sheffield. Not the sort of man you’d wanna have to organise a surprise birthday party for.

(LAUGHTER)

So that’s a Muslim ridiculed. Time now for some anti-Islamic stand-up. Jan Moir in the Daily Mail says there’s not enough stand-up about Islam. There’s loads, actually, if you think about it. There’s Roy “Chubby” Brown, your spiritual king in this region. He, er…

(LAUGHTER)

He goes round and round doing loads. And Tim Minchin’s done stuff about Islam to stadiums full of people. Of course there’s dozens of British comics of an Islamic background talking about it all the time, night after night. So I think really there’s so much stand-up about Islam, I don’t really know what to bring to the table, so what I’ve been trying to do on this tour is something that has not been done before, I’ve been trying to do observational comedy. Yeah. That’s kind of BBC One, ITV One, sort of “Oh, look at that,” kind of stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

I’ve been trying to do observational comedy of a specifically anti-Islamic bent. Yeah. Anti-Islamic observational comedy. I’ve had some good reviews for that. You know, people going, “Brilliant! Like an Islamophobic Michael McIntyre!” That was good. “Superb! The John Bishop of cultural relativism.”

(LAUGHTER)

So, here we are now, Sheffield, with some anti-Islamic observational comedy. Anti-Islamic observational comedy. Observational comedy.

(RUNS AROUND ON STAGE IN A STYLE MOCKING MICHAEL MCINTYRE. MOVES THE MICROPHONE STAND FROM PLACE TO PLACE. RUNS AROUND SOME MORE. DOES THIS IN SILENCE FOR A FEW MINUTES, OCCASIONALLY SIGHING. AUDIENCE LAUGHTER THROUGHOUT)

Have you seen these Muslims they have now?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

That’s the end of that bit.

(LAUGHTER)

People up there are going, “Ooh, now it’s picking up.”

(LAUGHTER)

I’ve got three, erm, anti-Islamic one-liners now that I’m hoping to sell on to Roy “Chubby” Brown. Here they are.

(IMITATING BROWN)

“Hey, you know, one in two kids born in Britain today is called Mohammad. And that’s just the girls. (TRAILING OFF) I’ve not got the exact figures.”

(LAUGHTER)

(IMITATING BROWN)

“Did you know one in two Islamic hate preachers in Britain today has got a hook for his hands and a bad…(TRAILING OFF) I’ve done no research.”

(LAUGHTER)

(IN HIS OWN VOICE)

Do you know one in two people claiming to be a spokesperson for the entire British-Muslim community is, in fact, the unelected leader of a non-democratic special-interest fringe group given ideas above its station by a misguided New Labour community bridge-building initiative?

(LAUGHTER)

Some laughs. A lot of people going, “What was that? What was that supposed to be?”

(LAUGHTER)

I’ll tell you what that was, my come-in-error friends, that was the best joke about Islam in Britain anyone has ever done. That’s what that was. It was even-handed. It was informed. It’s what you say you want, isn’t it? You go, “Do stuff about Islam!” I just did. “Not like that, Stew…”

(LAUGHTER)

“…Not where you have to know anything…”

(LAUGHTER)

“…When we said do stuff about Islam, we meant make fun of their hats.”

(LAUGHTER)

What can I do? I got nothing. You know, I drive around. I look after kids. I got nothing. But fair enough, for not laughing at that. It’s an edgy subject. It makes people uncomfortable. You’re thinking “Where is this going?” If you got stuff that makes people uncomfortable what they say on the comedy courses now, they say, take the curse off it. Take the edge off it. Personalise it, yeah? Make it personal to you. So I was walking around with my son, who’s real.

(LAUGHTER)

I walking around where I live with my son and there was a Muslim lady coming on the road towards us. It’s a very cosmopolitan area, where I live in London, very cosmopolitan area.

(MILD LAUGHTER)

No, it is. My, er…

(LAUGHTER)

My dentist…It’s a very cosmopolitan area. My dentist is actually a lesbian.

(LAUGHTER)

At least, I assume she’s a lesbian because, er, she had me out under general anaesthetic and when I came around, I hadn’t been sexually assaulted…

(LAUGHTER)


…Anyway, I was walking along where I live with my son. He’s 4 years old. There’s a Muslim lady coming towards us. Full burka, just her eyes showing and my son, he’s 4. He meant nothing by this. He looked at her and then he said to me, “Is that a ghost?” Right? I thought, “What are you gonna say? What am I gonna say?” So I said to him, “No, it isn’t a ghost. It’s a lady. She’s religious and she believes in God and she believes that God wants her to cover her face.” I thought, “That’s all right, say that.” And then my son said, “Why?”

(LAUGHTER)

It was at that point that I realised I’d reached the limit of my knowledge of Islam.

(LAUGHTER)

Don’t really know any more about it than that, and the killings and stuff, and neither do you, do you? You don’t know anything about it either. Even those of you of an Islamic background are normally quite hazy…

(LAUGHTER)

…about the details when pressed. And that’s why it’s so difficult to do jokes with any real depth on the subject. Because there isn’t really enough of a shared collective pool of knowledge between performer and audience to be able to move off the most obvious areas really. So stop sending me your stupid fucking e-mails.

(LAUGHTER)


 – Stewart Lee, from his stand-up show Carpet Remnant World

ISLAM AND HUMOUR – PART 1 – COMEDY SUBVERTS ISLAMOPHOBIA

“Islam” and “humour” are two consciously uncoupled words that rarely share the same sentence space. However, I am hoping this way too long blog post (sorry), along with forthcoming blog posts, will challenge this commonly misheld misconception.

Islam Laughs

JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, ATHEISM, AND COMEDY

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.

Funny Bone

WHAT ABOUT ISLAM AND COMEDY?

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!? – Zahra Noorbakhsh

Adding to this view, we have TV programs 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 7 Muslim-American Actors On Hollywood’s Terrorist Typecasting).

Likewise, the news continues to demonise Muslims on an almost daily basis (Muslims ‘Dehumanised’ Warns Qatar’s Sheikha Moza). Such demonization has led 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. – Dean Obeidallah

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 behavior. 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. – Mucahit Bilici

THE TRADITION OF HUMOUR

However, it should be noted that 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:

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. – Ze’ev Maghen

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 shariah law than for more subtler aspects of humanity, such as comedy. This view is not entirely true because:

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. – Shelina Zahra Janmohamad

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, in a show called 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 humor…The prophet said, ‘My way is the middle way.’ So, to be extreme is not right and to be totally secluded is not right.”

Even some of the Muslim scholars of today are jumping on the comedy band wagon, scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (You’re All Going To Hell!), Mufti Menk (Praise Your Wife’s Cooking), and others:

SEPTEMBER 11TH 2001 CHANGED THINGS

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 Center 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 completely change 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 humor. Needless to say, in reasoning like this, humor usually stands for humanity. If someone has a sense of humor, then he is just like us: likable. – Mucahit Bilici

Shortly after 9/11 Malcolm Kushner said the following, emphasising the greater importance of humour in analysing both sides of the war on terror:

There has been a lot of handwringing and soul-searching lately about “why they hate us.” Explanations have ranged from the religious to the economic. Let me offer another idea. Consider the words of English writer George E. Saintsbury: “Nothing is more curious than the almost savage hostility that humor excites in those who lack it.” The current conflict has been characterized as good vs. evil; right vs. wrong; freedom lovers vs. freedom haters; and the list goes on. But Saintsbury’s observation suggests another way of looking at it: the humorous vs. the humorless. Just think about it. 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. – Malcolm Kushner

THE POWER OF COMEDY

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. – Chris Bliss

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. – Saul Landau

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. – Bill Hicks

Another reason to use comedy is because today it has become more influential than ever. In the 1990’s stand-up comedy became known as the new rock and roll, with acts like Newman And Baddiel, Peter Kay, and Lee Evans. These comedians no longer performed in folk clubs and 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 on April 1, 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.” Muslim ethnic comedy is part of the Americanization process: the power of comedy becomes a means of undoing otherness. The comic vision rehumanizes 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. – Mucahit Bilici

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:

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 humor, but it’s also talking about what’s happening around you. – Mohammed Amer

COMEDY AS DAWAH

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. – Mickey Mouse

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.

REFERENCES

Finding Mecca In America: American Muslims And Cultural Citizenship by Mucahit Bilici

Finding Mecca In America: How Islam Is Becoming An American Religion by Mucahit Bilici (Chapter 6 Funny Jihad: Muslim Comedy Takes Flight)

Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond The Politics Of Enemy And Friend by Andrew Shryock (editor) (Chapter 8 Muslim Ethnic Comedy: Inversions Of Islamophobia by Mucahit Bilici)

The Merry Men Of Medina: Comedy And Humanity In The Early Days Of Islam by Ze’ev Maghen

To Laugh, Or Not To Laugh by Shelina Zahra Janmohamad

Truth In Comedy by Saul Landau

Unleash USA’s Secret Weapon: Humor by Malcolm Kushner

11 QUOTES FROM SHAYKH HAMZA YUSUF

As you may know my favourite scholar is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and I have quoted him many times before in previous blog posts. Below are 11 quotes directly transcribed or adapted from various lectures by him. Enjoy!

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf


  1. I never heard the adhaan except that I was yearning for prayer. (quoting another Islamic scholar)
  2. If Islam is not making you happy, then something is wrong with your Islam. And woe unto you if your Islam is not making others happy.
  3. No one increases in his akhirah except that it harms his dunya, and no one increases in his dunya except that it harms his akhirah. This is because, by their nature, they are two opposites, so increase in one is a decrease in the other.
  4. Now we have demons teaching our children. We have demons. If anybody came to your house and knocked on the door, and you opened it up, and they looked like Madonna, or Britney Spears, or any of these people, Russell Brand…you know these people, because we’re in a global civilisation, but if any of them knocked on your door and said “Excuse me, do you mind if I come inside and just entertain you children for a few hours?” Which mad person would say “Oh! Of course, tafadul (please)”? Even with the wonderful Malay hospitality you wouldn’t do that. You’d say “Get the hell out of here” and you’d slam the door on them. You know, who does he think is, or who does she think she is? And yet so many of us simply turn on the television and plop these little children in front of this mindless box, and literally allow strangers from a whole other civilisation with a whole other set of agendas to raise our children…So this is a major problem that we have is that we’re not thinking about what our young people are growing up with. (speaking in Malaysia)
  5. The highest form of knowledge in the Islamic tradition is to know your Lord.
  6. The human condition in Islam is made up of three things: imaan, Islam, and ihsaan. Imaan is our truth, there is no God but Allah. Islam is the way that we behave with goodness in the world. Ihsaan is the profound need for the human being to make things beautiful and also to recognise beauty. This is the human condition.
  7. The Prophet (S) said in a hadith that “Islam began as an alien thing, and it will return to being an alien thing, so blessed are the alienated ones.” And the world is an alienating place.
  8. The ultimate abstraction is to recognise that this diverse creation has a Source…when you abstract the essence of existence you realise that this essence is God…this world is an extraordinary theatre of manifestation created by God to come to know Him in the short time that we tarry here.
  9. The worst state for a Muslim to be in is not just to be ignorant, but to be ignorant of your ignorance.
  10. The yearly corruption indices that are calculated, usually in Scandinavian countries, usually show Nigeria as the most corrupt country in the world, followed closely in second place by Pakistan, but, as any good Pakistani will tell you, or indeed any bad Pakistani will tell you, Pakistan bribed Nigeria to take first place.
  11. When you look at the vastness of creation, you see behind it something that we simply cannot comprehend, something that we can only comprehend in our incomprehensibility of it, and this is our Lord.