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Outlook: Hey, Muslims -- Laugh a Little!

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Sarfraz Manzoor
British Writer and Broadcaster, Author of "Greetings From Bury Park"
Monday, December 17, 2007; 11:00 AM

"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. ... Why do other cultures and religious groups seem able to withstand mockery, while Muslims seem chronically hypersensitive?"

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British writer and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, author of the upcoming memoir "Greetings From Bury Park," was online Monday, Dec. 17 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article on the power of Muslim comedy to loosen up the culture.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Sarfraz Manzoor: Good afternoon, everyone, this is Sarfraz -- I'm going to try and answer or comment on some of your questions following the piece I wrote yesterday. So, here goes!

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Petersham, Mass.: Thank you! The only person who could've brought this up was indeed a Muslim. It must've taken some bravery. Humor is a precious thing. Great topic!

Sarfraz Manzoor: Thanks, greatly appreciated! I'm really pleased at the response the piece has had, although some people seem to have gotten the idea I'm a comedian myself. I'm just a humble writer!

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New York: A lot of the problem seems to be a sort of "Islamic solidarity." Here in New York, we say that you want your obstetric medical practice to be called O'Malley, Patel, Mohammed and Schwartz. (That way someone's on duty every day of the year.) But when Sudanese or Saudi idiots act idiotic, completely otherwise reasonable Muslims seem to think these idiots are their brethren in some way. When can U.K./U.S. Muslims just finally stand up and say "come on people, we're talking about the folks too stupid to get out of Saudi Arabia"?

Sarfraz Manzoor: Good point; my thought on that is that to defend something simply because of religion is daft. It's like "my country, right or wrong." The Sudan teddy bear thing is a good example -- it was stooopid, and the fact that the people who did it were Muslim doesn't make it any less so

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Naperville, Ill.: I am a fan of "Great Indian Laughter Challenge." Recently they had Indian and Pakistani comedians performing in a competition. It was a commendable effort to bring people of these rival countries together. However, I noticed that when Indian comedians were funny, Pakistanis were (while being funny enough) at least 10-15 years in past (in Indian standards) in their quality of humor. What do you think is the reason behind such a difference between these close neighbors who match in many other aspects?

Sarfraz Manzoor: I reckon it's to do with economics and class. I'm Pakistani by heritage myself, and on the whole Pakistani immigrants tend to be less well-off and thus worse-educated than Indians -- many more from rural or working-class backgrounds, for example. I think that is then reflected in things like humor and so on.

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KASJ: Inconsistency is a word that is best comprehended when applied to Islamic study and Muslims alike. Consider the following quotes taken directly from the article above; on one hand the author wrote: "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." And on the other hand he wrote "that's a sign of progress, because most of Muslim comedy is still in its infancy." Just how could Islam have a 1,400 years of humor that stretch from the prophet's time to date, but on the other hand "Muslim comedy is still in its infancy"?

Sarfraz Manzoor: I don't think its inconsistent to say that a tradition has been lost and that there are some who are trying to reconnect with it. It's like having blonde hair and spending years dying it brown and then returning to your blonde hair -- it always was blonde, but not everyone always saw that.

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Baltimore: The only joke is on the American public who have been told that "Islam is a religion of peace." I fail to find humor in Sura 9:5-6 and and other verses like it that require Muslims to "fight and kill Christians and Jews wherever you find them, seize them, lie in wait for them, beleaguer them in every stratagem of war ... until Islam dominates the world." No other religion requires the death of nonadherents in order to achieve its goals. The Hadith indicates that only "those who kill and are killed (for Islam's sake) will see Paradise." Incidentally, if you know anything about Arabic, the "72 virgins" promised in Hadith are written using the masculine plural form of the noun "virgin." Now that's funny!

Sarfraz Manzoor: Are you a Muslim scholar, or someone who has spent too much time online finding quotes from the Koran to throw around? In my experience it's always best not to just go on what you read online, as you'll find lots of nonsense to confirm every crackpot theory you might have. Instead I'd suggest maybe chatting to real people, reading about the lives of ordinary Muslims and seeing how they practice or don't practice their faith. Life is more complicated than you imagine, my friend.

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Washington: Riddle me this -- in junior high school most of my Muslim friends really did have a sense of humor about their religion. My friend Solamein demanded we call him Han Solo as a nickname. I remember I heard this joke that Frank Sinatra said about getting kicked out of a Las Vegas casino by Jack Entratter: "Never fight a Jew in the desert." That was a running gag with my Jewish and Muslim friends -- any time something bad would happen to them, one of our Jewish friends would say "never fight a Jew in the desert" and we'd all laugh.

But by age 16 they were deadly boring, and quite tiresome, about perceived slights and their constant and unending victimhood. In the wealthy suburb in which I grew up my Arab neighbor received a Porsche 911 from his grandfather when he turned 16 -- this was the last person you'd ever tolerate the "victimhood" lecture from! In college the Muslims I knew became completely unbearable and one famously said to a professor in front of our class "I don't have to listen to you, you're a woman." Not a way to win friends and influence people in your host country!

Almost universally my friends whom I knew well went from normal Americans with an ethnic heritage to these whiny wimps crying at every terrorist in an action movie like Munich never happened. Is there something that happens during the teen years at the mosque that drills in antisocial behavior?

Sarfraz Manzoor: I'm sorry, I don't really have an answer to that question. When I was 16 I got into Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp, and my life was never quite the same again!

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Maryland: Hi Sarfraz. I'm Christian and by descent European, and in that parts of the world countries have terrific senses of humor (like Britain), but some are notoriously humorless (like Germany). What majority-Muslim countries jump out for you as having the best and worst sense of humor? Is there a joke that the funny Muslim country tells about the humor-impaired Muslim country?

Sarfraz Manzoor: Hiya. To be honest I'm not really a comedy expert, but what I think is interesting is that although I'm Pakistani and Muslim, my sense of humor is very British -- so I think that maybe there isn't such a thing as "Muslim sense of humor" but rather American Muslims who have a sense of humor, British Muslims with a sense of humor and even, God help us, German Muslims with a sense of humor. But I wouldn't hold your breath about that.

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pjvm: Oh, yeah. Lotsa yucks about beheadings, bombings, murders, fatwas, fairy tales that cannot include the Three Little Pigs, teddy bear floggings, etc. Thanks Sarfraz for presenting the light side of jihad. Ha ha ha.

Sarfraz Manzoor: What a clever and insightful comment there. Well done.

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dunnhaupt: More than 100 countries now laugh at the wonderfully funny spoof sitcom "Little Mosque in the Prairie." Why is U.S. television too uptight to show it?

washingtonpost.com: "Aliens in America" (IMDB)

Sarfraz Manzoor: No idea -- it's pretty benign stuff. Maybe Americans hate Canadians even more than Muslims?

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BlueTwo1: Islam was organized as a way to deal with an unforgiving God who would punish your community with an earthquake or other major disaster when displeased. Thus, failure to properly worship God is not simply an issue between God and the individual; it affects the entire community. Self-appointed judges of proper Muslim behavior thrive on "correcting" the behavior of all persons, even those from a different culture. The constant worry that Islam would be insulted bespeaks an insecurity that the beloved and comforting religion would be or could be taken away.

Overreaction is the norm in Islam. Of course, when one isn't certain what will or will not please God then one assumes the worst, toes the invisible line, and makes certain others do the same. Those of the faith are still human and can appreciate humor, if only they can briefly let go of their constant fear of God. My recommendation is for Muslims to renegotiate their contract with God so that their lives are not so very concentrated on pleasing a God who is clearly understood only when punishing.

Sarfraz Manzoor: Thanks for your recommendation. Mine is to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us.

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Fairfax, Va.: I enjoyed your article, and the world could always use another Woody, Muslim, Jewish or otherwise. I remember a joke about the difference between Reformed and Orthodox Jews wherein the Orthodox Rabbi would not allow smoking while the Reformed Rabbi would light his cigarette from the Eternal Light hanging in the temple. Are there any jokes along those lines allowed in the Muslim world?

Sarfraz Manzoor: I guess it depends on the country, Muslim nations don't have the best record on free speech, do they? But I'm sure such jokes are told privately if nowhere else.

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asizk : Sarfraz, great piece -- at no time did we Muslims need a good laughter more than now. But despots and oppression at home and foreign intervention -- Israeli occupation of Palestine, American occupation of Iraq, Indian of Kashmir, Russian of Chechnya ... leave little time for a joke...

Sarfraz Manzoor: True but Jewish and black history hasn't exactly been a walk in the park either, and they both have managed to extract humor out of their experiences.

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Baltimore: In response to whether I am a scholar or just someone who found something on the Internet: I am a scholar who is well-versed in nine languages. If you care to know the truth about what Islam teaches, you would do well to learn the language of the Quran. Why aren't you in Saudi Arabia today throwing rocks at a wall with your Muslim brothers? It's supposed to be a holy event; however 300 people die each year in these rituals being stoned and trampled by careless worshippers. Now that's funny!

Sarfraz Manzoor: I'm not in Saudi Arabia, as I'm going to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert on Wednesday night in London.

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Arlington, Va.: Its hard to take Muslim comedy serious when "South Park" can have Jesus crap on a U.S. flag, but a mere picture of Mohammed has to be edited out by the network.

Sarfraz Manzoor: Yeah its a long road ahead I agree, but I think we can agree that it's a journey worth taking

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Washington: I'm just guessing here, but isn't the issue partly because of the extreme importance given personal honor in Islam? To joke is to risk offense, and this seems like something that many Muslims are very sensitive to.

Sarfraz Manzoor: Yes, and also the thinking behind the offense is also part of it. But for me, one should have enough confidence in one's beliefs that it is possible to have some fun with them.

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Washington: Do you make fun of Muslim Culture? Have you been criticized by any Arab press or countries? Jews and Blacks are great at making fun of themselves. Muslims don't seem to have it in them (at least in the media).

Sarfraz Manzoor: I live and work in the U.K. so I don't really have any dealings with the Arab press. Re: Whether I make fun of Muslim culture -- well I'm a writer not a comedian, but I definitely try to draw out the humor in all parts of my life. If you want some evidence of that check out "Greetings from Bury Park" which is my memoir of growing up during the '80s as a British Muslim. Many of the reviews mentioned it was very funny read, but I will leave it to you to decide.

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Sunnyvale, Calif.: Muslims and Jews are both grandchildren of Abraham. Hatred of Jews and Americans is a tool used by governments of Arab countries to take their people's focus off of their governments corruption. We are cousins. Your enemy is your governments, not you cousins. Jews don't hate Arabs, we want to live in peace, and share good food and conversation with you!

Sarfraz Manzoor: Great comment, and I have nothing to add except that when I was dating a Jewish girl we referred to each other as children of Abraham. Happy days they were, too.

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Washington: That was one great article! Many have said, at least about Jewish humor, that it's better to laugh than to cry (and there's plenty to cry about in that culture). Laughter is truly the very best medicine, and I take it in mega-doses on a daily basis. There has been a huge push on to demonize Muslims since Sept. 11 (oh yeah, big shock there), but what with the demonizers like the evangelical Christians out there in this country, I figured that the only difference between Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden was a beard and a turban. ...

Geez, people, if you can't laugh, what kind of person are you? If you're so insecure about your belief system (and I'm a highly devout, card-carrying atheist) do you really have to bark out death threats as if you're embracing a submachine gun? Um, how's a little introspection on ya? You're doing exactly the right thing. Good onya!

Sarfraz Manzoor: Another excellent comment and great to see the piece struck a chord with you. This was my first piece in the U.S. media, so it's great you thought I had something worth saying.

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Laurel, Md.: It's pretty easy to laugh at some Muslims, like the ones who demonstrated for executing Gillian Gibbons. But her charge was "insulting the prophet" and a lot of us quite frankly don't know where criticizing or laughing at or about Muslims becomes an offense. Seeing as some parts of the Muslim world will reach internationally to enforce religious laws (e.g. Salmon Rushdie) how can some of us laugh about Muslim life?

Sarfraz Manzoor: Salmon Rushdie? Was he the one who said he didn't believe in Cod?

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Washington: Lots of ethnic humor comes from an understanding of certain reasonably benign stereotypes -- like the suffocating Jewish mother, or the hyper-macho black male. Unfortunately, I can't think of too many stereotypes of Muslims that can be considered benign.

Sarfraz Manzoor: Well, next time try replacing Jewish for Muslim -- i.e. "suffocating Muslim mother" -- and you got yourself a benign stereotype there. If you want more of them read my book, because it's filled with them!

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Freising, Germany: Bury Park, Asbury Park -- you say that you're going to the Springsteen concert? I'm heartbroken that I'm not there as well. After reading your article, and especially this: "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." I think Muslim and Jewish people have lived together in many areas for thousands of years and share many values. How on earth did they become such global adversaries as they now appear to be?

Sarfraz Manzoor: I have no idea, but I suspect it's about politics, not people -- and people will he the salvation too, I hope.

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North McLean, Va.: Sarfraz -- hey, thanks for addressing this, and I hope you haven't gotten too many hateful comments. I suspect that Islamic Humor only will become mainstream when the West becomes comfortable enough with the notion that not all Muslims are terrorists. This will take some time. I am Italian, and there are still people who assume we all are gangsters, when in truth only some of us are.

Sarfraz Manzoor: Indeed. Not too many hateful comments, and those were from people whose minds were made up a long time ago. I think you're right that the West needs to become comfortable with the notion that not all Muslims are dangerous sorts -- and clearly there are people who stand to benefit politically from making that claim. The challenge for Muslims is to show another side to ourselves and so prove that there's more to being Muslim that some fear

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Sarfraz Manzoor: Okay, thanks to everyone who sent their comments -- hope it was vaguely entertaining and enlightening. Hopefully we'll do this again sometime.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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