In the current militaristic framework of „us vs. them“ and of War On Terror that dominates the political discourse and media, humor is the main weapon that boosts the discourse in which Islam can’t tolerate our humor and satire, and therefore, can’t tolerate our freedom. On the other side, more and more Muslim (but also non-Muslim) comedians and public people use that same humor as a diverse strategy to expose stereotypes and make them visible and laughable. Humour in pop politics should not be underestimated as „mediacracy“ or „dumbing down“, as indeed it is seldom innocent and is thus a highly complex rhetorical, social and political tool.
Muslims and humor in pop culture and politics
„I don’t do any Arab jokes in my act, it’s not that I don’t think you’re funny, it’s just … you know… I don’t want to die.“ – Russell Peters
„Islam and we Muslims, however, are not 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, vandalizing foreign embassies, beheading journalists, shouting “Death to the west!”, condemning all acts committed in our name, and much more besides.“ – Imran A. Khan
The socio-political situation in post-9/11 USA (and Europe as well) prepared the ground for a militaristic framework of „us vs. them“ and of War On Terror. It reflects on the content of media where politicians, journalists and comedians can now say things about Muslim or Arab populations that they would never dare to say about Jewish and Afro-American community or gay population. The discourse is, whether objective or just plain racist, often wrapped up in a joke or a satire.
Using humor to show off one’s (political) conviction (or lack of it) can serve as an intelligent way of presenting one’s politics… or as a safe zone that makes it possible to get away with anything. Even though the sociopolitical impact of such discourse in entertainment media and humor in pop politics is often subtle or unintended, the consequences could be – and were in some cases – huge.
From Ahmed the Dead Terrorist, Charlie Hebdo cartoons, portrayals of Prophet Muhammad, Sasha Cohen’s Dictator to New Atheism movement and „Politically Incorrect“ Bill Maher – the ability of humor to bypass more central information processing has been recognized in media increasingly dominated by entertainment.
Media characterized the current conflict has as good vs. evil; right vs. wrong; freedom lovers vs. freedom haters; but also – the humorous vs. the humorless. ”The freedom to laugh at each other and ourselves encompasses most of the other freedoms that we cherish”, claims Malcolm Kushner. The act of laughing itself is symbolic of an open society. This keeps „casual racism“ and Islamophobia well and alive in the mainstream, resulting in a deeply ingrained fear of Muslims and all things Islamic. Despite all, Gallup finds that Muslim Americans, are among the most integrated religious groups in the U.S.
„I kind of blame the media for what’s going on wrong in the world right now because they just perpetuate stereotypes about people. They don’t tell you that’s what they’re doing, like „hey, this is what you need to think“, but they know how people’s brains work. They will show you an image of somebody of different racial background and then they will show you an alternate image, like, right away, of something completely different. They don’t say these images are together, they kind of represent it like: „what do you think?“. (…) They’ll show you an Arab guy and an explosion. „I knew it!!!““ – Russell Peters, a comedian
Stop it, you’re killing me!
„All habitual joking – recurrent patterns of who makes jokes and who is joked about—will both reflect and create patterns of power“ (Susan Purdie, 1993:129).
When the Charlie Hebdoe tragedy occurred, many wondered why is it that Muslims can’t laugh at their own expense. After all, we don’t see any Catholic terrorist retaliation for funny and satirical pictures of Jesus.
This is where superiority theory can be useful: the gap between those who make the joke (part of the middle class, privileged white European, living in a Catholic-dominated country/continent) and those who are supposed to take it (Muslim minority, unprivileged, often living in ghettos or suburbs with no equal opportunities, faced with discrimination and coming from either a poor former colony or war-destroyed country) is too huge in both economical and socio-political way and it can not be seen through just black and white (funny vs. dead serious, free vs. dogmatic) lenses.
Humor as a weapon of mass resistance
I told my shrink I was feeling suicidal and he reported me to the FBI. – #MuslimRage
Many Muslim stand-up comedians today are standing up against bigotry and misperceptions. As Amarnath Amarasingam (2010:464-467) argues, they are increasingly taking on the role of Gramscian “organic intellectuals” capable of successfully participating in a quintessentially American activity—stand-up comedy – on behalf of their respective communities. In (contemporary) cultural studies increased emphasis has been placed on audience theory in analyzing the reception and construction of a joke, recognizing the power of the spectator’s active role in the transformative potential of comedy and humor, as opposed to seeing joke texts as non-social and non-historical (Zimbardo, 2014:62).
While some may argue whether comedians are politically significant at all, or are they simply „opportunists exploiting social idiosyncratic for cheap laughs“, many of these humorists serve at least two critical public functions:
- they comment upon and reveal potential failings or hypocrisies of (American) society, especially those perpetrated by individuals in positions of political and/or economic power
- they function as supplemental gatekeepers and framers in the agenda-setting work of the media – comedians play a crucial role in determining which news items become more widespread topics of conversation (Gournelos, Greene, 2011:3)
In the last 15 years, we have witnessed an explosion (no pun intended) of Muslim and Arab related comedy: from Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie to Allah Made Me Funny and Axis of Evil comedy tours, female Muslim comedians and random public outbursts of diverse comic strategies on Twitter such as #MuslimRage and #TraditionallySubmissive hashtag, Muslims and non-Muslim allies have used techniques of humor to create punchlines that destabilize stereotypes through making those assumptions visible and laughable.
Azhar Usman, an American comedian of Indian descent is one of those comedians. He is also referred to as “Ayatollah of Comedy” and “Bin Laughin“, and is a part of a comedy trio Allah Made Me Funny where he jokes about his American-Muslim anecdotes such as being mistaken for a terrorist or playing the role of „Sheikh Abdul, the radical imam“ and „Uncle Letmesplaintoyou“. When asked whether comedy can improve tolerance, he answers: „I hope so, I think so. There are a lot of examples that it has, given the American experience that I know about. Black American comics, Jewish comics, Latino Comics, Asian Comics, Gay comics, everyone was able to use stand-up to get their point of view across, to make an artistic contribution and to introduce new perspectives into the public discourse, so I think that Muslims, Arabs, and South-Asians and comedians from those backgrounds can do the same thing.“
As Zimbardo (2014:61) puts it: comedy and humor may be used to break the tension, to create a sense of community, to build solidarity through in-group inclusion and out-group exclusion, as a method of coping with injustice or trauma, as a survival tactic, as a form of political resistance, for therapeutic ends, and social commentary and critique.
„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.”“ – Mucahit Bilici