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It's Time for Muslim Comedians to Stand Up

By Sarfraz Manzoor
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Woody Allen is my God. Nothing strange about that, you might think -- except that he is an Upper East Side New York Jew, and I am a British Pakistani Muslim from the working class. His characters are moneyed intellectuals whose only contact with dark-skinned people comes through the jazz soundtrack playing in the background while they agonize over their relationships. I grew up with a father who worked in a car factory, and the only white person who came near our home was the newspaper delivery boy.

And yet, when I first saw "Annie Hall" as a teenager, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. It didn't matter that I had never set foot in the United States or that I missed some of the cultural references. (Who is this Marshall McLuhan character, anyway?) I saw myself in Woody Allen. Self-doubt cloaked in self-deprecation? Check. Existential dread rubbing up against carnal desire? Check. He was so much like me that I almost forgot that I wasn't, in fact, Jewish.

Woody Allen isn't the only comedian who uses humor to take the audience where it might otherwise fear to tread. Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor also harnessed comedy's power to expose fears and challenge prejudices. Today, Chris Rock uses humor as therapy, self-expression and social commentary. But while Jewish and African American comedians have learned to universalize their experience and laugh at themselves, we Muslims sometimes struggle just to convince the world that we have a sense of humor.

What comes to mind when you hear the word "Muslim"? It's more likely to be beards, bombs and burqas than stand-up comedians. Muslims aren't exactly famous these days for lightheartedness. Sudanese Muslims weren't laughing when a British schoolteacher, Gillian Gibbons, recently allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear "Muhammad." She narrowly escaped a prison sentence for that transgression. But I think my fellow Muslims in Sudan went too far with that one. Wouldn't it have been funny if British Muslims had demonstrated against her arrest with a "Spartacus"-inspired mass march to the Sudanese embassy, each person carrying a teddy bear?

Consider some other examples of over-earnestness. In January, two Moroccan journalists dodged five-year prison sentences after publishing a feature article called "Jokes: How Moroccans Laugh at Religion, Sex and Politics." According to the Moroccan government, they had insulted Islam and offended public morality. And, of course, there were the global protests and killings last year after a Danish newspaper published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons offended many Muslims because depicting the prophet is prohibited by our religion. The cartoons were particularly provocative, since some of them conflated Muhammad and terrorism; one even depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban and a lit fuse. I can understand why Muslims were offended, but I do not understand how a series of cartoons, no matter how offensive, should lead to protests that ended up killing more than 100. Talk about a disproportionate response. No wonder Albert Brooks could title his 2005 movie "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

But why is this? Why do other cultures and religious groups seem able to withstand mockery, while Muslims seem chronically hypersensitive?

If you think it's because we don't have a sense of humor, you haven't met my mother. When I was a child, she insisted on buying me shoes that were three sizes too big and stuffing them with newspaper so my feet wouldn't slide out. In my early teens, I was known as Ronald McDonald. A few years ago, she became so concerned about her 30-something bachelor son that she persuaded me to consider an arranged marriage. We agreed that she would pass along the names and numbers of a few suitable women. Among them, she told me, was a dentist who had graduated from Cambridge University. She turned out to be a dietitian who had once been to Cambridge.

When I tell these stories, my friends say that my mother's just like a stereotypical Jewish mother -- overprotective, overbearing and overly involved in her children's lives. But my mum isn't typically Jewish; she's typically Muslim. It's just that too few Muslims joke publicly about their mothers, so we haven't created a stereotype. Perhaps that's why we can seem so humorless: The funny ones haven't been speaking up.

Until now. Earlier this year, I sat in a West London hall watching a heavily bearded Muslim man rip into his audience. Azhar Usman is no fundamentalist; he's an American comedian who tours with two fellow Muslims in a show they call "Allah Made Me Funny." Everywhere I looked, British Muslims of all ages -- some women wearing head scarves, some men in suits -- were doing something you hardly ever see: laughing. Here were ordinary, moderate Muslims reveling in a good time, as if in defiance of the extreme voices that overpower theirs in the public square.

The irony is that "Allah Made Me Funny" springs from a tradition that stretches back to the days of the prophet Muhammad himself, who by all accounts enjoyed a good laugh; indeed, he had a companion with the honorific title "jester of the prophet." It's only recently that Muslims have become sensitive about religious jokes.

But comedians like Usman are reclaiming the Muslim tradition of humor. After the Danish cartoon riots, a Dutch imam wrote a book of jokes about Islam. One suggests that because of a mix-up in how Arabic is read -- right to left rather than left to right -- those martyrs expecting 72 virgins upon their arrival in heaven are presented with one 27-year-old virgin. The newspapers that published the Muhammad cartoons claimed they were making a point about Islam's inability to take criticism. Better to rebut that by cracking jokes than by attacking embassies. I've made my own small contribution with a memoir about growing up Muslim in Britain during the 1980s and having my life transformed by -- don't laugh (no, do!) -- the music of Bruce Springsteen.

In Canada, Zarqa Nawaz has mined her experience as a Muslim woman living in rural Saskatchewan for a sitcom called "Little Mosque on the Prairie." In one episode, a Muslim defends his plan to turn the parish hall into a mosque. "It's only a pilot project," he tells a local man, who responds, "You're training pilots?!"

Nawaz, who has named her company Fundamentalist Films, understands the role that comedy can play in challenging the mainstream representation of Muslims as angry, alienated and dangerous. Like "The Cosby Show," her series is deceptively gentle, simultaneously shocking and unthreatening.

Several Muslim comedians have also emerged in Britain during the past few years. The most popular female stand-up is Shazia Mirza, who first attracted attention after Sept. 11, 2001, for wearing a hijab on stage and beginning her routine with, "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that's what it says on my pilot's license." These days, Mirza has dropped the hijab and is gunning for broader appeal, preferring to be called a comedian rather than a Muslim comedian. She doesn't tell jokes about Islam so much anymore. That's a sign of progress, because most of Muslim comedy is still in its infancy. Many of our comedians focus on the same subjects: airport security, the dangers of having a beard (as well as the advantages -- you can always get a seat on the bus). But just as Chris Rock and other African American comedians speak not just about race but also about politics and relationships, so the challenge for Muslim comedy is to mine the comic veins not just in our culture but also in the human condition writ large.

The maddening thing for liberal Muslims, however, is that all the good work done by people such as Azhar Usman and Zarqa Nawaz can be undermined by fury over a teddy bear or a riot because of a cartoon. At those moments, voices of moderation must speak up. For did the prophet not say: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly"?

That prophet, of course, was Woody Allen.

sarfraz.manzoor@guardian.co.uk

Sarfraz Manzoor, a British writer and broadcaster, is the author of the forthcoming memoir "Greetings From Bury Park."

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