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.
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:
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.”
“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…”
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.
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.”
Once Abu Hurairah was playing with a cat when Muhammad came along and said, “Abu Hurairah, ‘Father of cats.'”
Clearly the yucks got lost in the translation.
According to Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Rage Boy images that so amused me are not only not funny, but another form of Western racism and bigotry. Apparently Rage Boy’s offensive image promotes hatred and could ultimately get some young innocent American Muslim student beat up. As usual Mr. Hooper seems more concerned with how satire will cause violence than with how the actions of suicide bombers and their supporters will.
Mr. Hooper then compares the images of Rage Boy to the images and films created by the Nazis in the 1930s in which Jews were likened to rats. One problem: Nazi agitprop was neither satire nor absurdist humor, but racist propaganda. Unsurprisingly, Hooper is unable to see the difference.
Images like Islamic Rage Boy effectively use satire to ridicule the absurdity of Islamofascism. Far from being racist or anti-Islamic satire helps us deal with despotism. It is an all-American form of resistance. Jokes are simply a (mostly) harmless way to let off steam. Perhaps if Muslims joked around a little more there wouldn’t be an Islamic Rage Boy.
Christopher Orlet writes the Existential Journalist blog.
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