In 2005 Albert Brooks starred in a film called Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Like a lot of things associated with fundamentalist Islam it bombed. Perhaps one reason was that the film was set largely in India, a nation that is 80 percent Hindu. And while Indians have a sophisticated, dry sense of humor, Mr. Brooks’s lame stand-up routine provided little incentive for laughter.p>Had Brooks gone to Saudi Arabia or Iraq he would have met with the same stony silence, though for reasons having little to do with his material. In totalitarian states a sense of humor is both a survival skill and a dangerous quality to have. Sovietologists have long noted that Russians and East Europeans relied on humor to get through the darkest days of communism. Black humor was in itself a form of resistance, or, in Orwell’s phrase, “a tiny revolution.” Russians were natural comedians because they were eager to “attack the beliefs and virtues on which society necessarily rests,” which Orwell claimed to be the chief characteristic of the humorist. Ben Lewis, writing in Prospect , gives this example of a Soviet-era joke: br> /p>
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”br> Unlike the Russians, Muslims have been forced to suppress their sense of humor for centuries, a fact which has doubtless led to its diminution. But there’s another reason Islam seems to lack a funny bone.
“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!” He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. Eventually he gets to the front of the line and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world,” he says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”
“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor. “Why such a long queue?”
“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water…”
When I first saw the T-shirts and bumper stickers featuring Islamic Rage Boy and the caption “My child beheaded your honor student,” I got a chuckle out of it. Muslims, however, are unable to see the absurdity in it. Not only do they not find it funny, they cannot understand how it can be funny, simply because they do not understand the concept of absurdist, satiric or ironic humor. Satire and irony are largely Western concepts dating back to Ancient Greece. Aristophanes employed political satire to criticize certain prominent Greeks while Socrates was celebrated for his sense of irony (hence the term Socratic irony). Absurdism is a more recent phenomenon originating with early 20th century Dadaism, and later the surrealists and the Theatre of the Absurd. These were philosophical and artistic forms that highlighted the essential precariousness and meaninglessness of human life, again concepts foreign to Islam.
Islam, on the other hand, has very strict rules about what is funny (very little) and what kind of jokes one can crack (very few). Seriousness is prized as a virtue. Hurtful jokes (such as mother-in-law jokes) are not allowed, nor, obviously, are religious or sexual jokes. Exaggerated or continuous joking is said to distract from the worship of Allah. Some Islamic scholars teach that “Everything has a beginning and hostility begins with joking.” And again, “Joking shows foolishness and arrogance” and causes one to lose respect for the joker. Eddie Murphy would last about ten seconds on a Tehran stage, before the spectacle degenerated into a more satisfying public execution.
I WENT POKING the Internets looking for examples of acceptable Islamic jokes. They weren’t easy to find, but I eventually located a few on the Islamica Community Forum. Get ready to bust your gut:
Once Ali was sleeping on the ground and was covered with dust. Muhammad happened to pass that way and said to Ali, “Father of dust.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?