Laughing at Islam


Legally BrownWhen I was at uni, my best mate's girlfriend took me to a pub. She probably did it just to shock me. I was rather devout back in those days, and the idea of going to a place filled with beer and cigarette smoke wasn't exactly spiritually appealing.

The pub we went to was the Harold Park Hotel. There was a new comedy show playing. Two wisecracks named Peter Saleh and Anthony Mir calling themselves the 'All Aussie Are Boofta' show were performing. After the show, she told me: 'I wasn't sure whether to laugh or be disgusted. So I laughed.'

Peter (now known as Akmal) was of Egyptian heritage. I'm not sure what Anthony's heritage was. They poked fun at all things Arab, Lebanese etc. From taxi drivers to suicide bombers — nothing was sacred. The show ended with a battle of the toilet graffiti. Peter spoke of visiting a petrol station dunnie to take a slash. On the wall, some redneck had scrawled: 'F*cking Arab terrorists go back to F*ckistan'. Or something like that. Below this in kindergarten-capitals, a 'fresh-of-the-boat' cabbie from Bankstown responded with 'ALL AUSSIE ARE BOOFTA'.

It wasn't terribly sophisticated. A purist might say it was racist. But it sure made the audience laugh. Including me. This was more than just 'Shuddupayerface' ethnic humour. Arabs and Anglos could laugh together at themselves and each other. Everyone could see that conventional fears were about as much of a threat as the on-stage gags.

It's all good and fine to respond to prejudice by marching through the streets or penning a pompous and outraged op-ed for fine publications like this one (God knows, I've done both). But perhaps the most effective and most difficult ways to tackle prejudice and fear is to laugh at it. And to get both potential racists and potential victims (two interchangeable categories of people) to laugh with you.

These days, people are scared shitless of suicide terrorism. Australia hasn't had suicide bombers attacking its churches as has been the case in Pakistan. Mother England has. London's home-grown 7/7 bombers targetted its public transport system, killing over 50 people. Pundits and politicians railed against Muslims, terrorists, Pakistanis, converts, etc.

The Daily Mail had a daily field day. The Guardian pumped out plenty of opinion pieces from self-styled Muslim spokespeople responding to the latest attempt at collective blame by some MP. Evangelists and evangelical atheists were weighing in on the discussion. Self-styled ex-terrorist terrorism experts were writing books and setting up thinktanks and making a fortune.

It's the kind of circus a satirist like Chris Morris would thrive on. His film Four Lions was based on three years of researching terror cells and speaking to imams, law enforcement officials and academic experts. According to Dr Imed Labidi of the University of Minnesota:

Unlike official profiles and the claims of political discourse in the United Kingdom and the United States which ... produced a 'regime of truth' about terrorists as maliciously intelligent, meticulously organised, highly calculated, well trained, extremely dangerous, blindly faithful to their radical doctrines and irrational ideologies, Morris' terrorists up end these truisms. They are the antithesis, the antiheros, and the opposite of terror suspects' official profiles ... Morris' dark humor aims at debunking terrorism as an inevitable, imminent, and almost unstoppable threat.

'What academic hogwash,' I hear some of you say. We all know that 'all terrorists are the product of an imaginary universal Islamic radicalism and Al Qaeda, the mysterious and supposedly sophisticated international terror network that operates out of caves and deserted faraway lands'. That's why we are docile enough to accept intrusive laws that eat away at our civil liberties. Surely terrorists aren't morons manipulated by smart masterminds that would never send their own kids out on a mission.

Here's Dr Labidi again:

Two of the film's characters ... could easily be standins for captured airline terror suspects Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber, and Umar Faruk Adulmutalib, who concealed explosives in his underpants and burned himself before he was discovered. They each, characters and real life terrorists alike, proved that the official discourse on who jihadists are can be opposite of expectations.

In Australia, our fear of Islamist terrorism extends to paranoia about Catholic and Hindu Tamil and Christian and Bahai Iranian boat people. The irrationality of these fears is real, even if they at times sound ridiculous. If they weren't real, there is no way Fiona Scott would have become Member for Lindsay after her laughable remarks blaming asylum seekers for the state of the traffic.

Asylum seekers are just one of the subjects covered by Australian tax consultant turned satirist and comic Nazeem Hussain in his SBS series Legally Brown. Hussain is one half of the comedy duo Fear Of A Brown Planet and appeared in the Australian version of skit comedy show Balls of Steel as investigative reporter Calvin Khan.

The show features a combination of stand-up and skits which do more than just poke fun. But not all will find Hussain's humour a blast. Writing in The Australian, Chris Kenny objected to Hussain's appearance on Q&A which Kenny described as 'highly disturbing and dangerous' and 'an apologia for terrorism'.

As an editorial writer, Kenny spends much of his time manufacturing the conventional fears that push the likes of Hussain to resort to such extremes of comedy. Kenny pontificates: 'If this is the message we get from a young, modern and moderate Muslim Australian, then we all have a lot of work to do.' And if this is the best allegedly conservative pundits have to offer, Hussain and his fans continue to have plenty to laugh about.

Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Akmal, Four Lions, Fiona Scott, asylum seekers, racism, Islam, Leally Brown, Nazeem Hussain



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Existing comments

All well and good, but it is not clear what point you are making.

Frank | 10 October 2013  

Long before al-Quaeda, George W Bush and "The War on Terror", which resulted, amongst other disasters, in the invasion and devastation of the secular Ba'athist dictatorship of Iraq, I had lived in a Muslim country for a time and known quite a few Muslims of a variety of ethnicities. The ones I remember with real affection all had senses of humour and were definitely three dimensional. They were not cardboard cut out characters with exaggerated nonsensical non-real "accents" nor was their behaviour abnormal in any way. Some of what is happening in the Muslim World and outside in the name of that grand old religion of Islam is a horrific distortion of all it stands for. In future times Muslims will look back in horror and ask how this horrific aberration ever happened. If slightly wacky humour acts as a safety valve for Muslims in the West and shows the rest of the populace that the vast majority of Muslims here are normal then I'm all for it.

Edward F | 10 October 2013  

Thanks Irfan You make a lot of sense I'll start watching

leo kane | 10 October 2013  

2014 events in Iraq led me to find a copy of "Four Lions" It's the scariest comedy I've seen. Unfortunately the bumbling quartet are lethal as well as funny. I take care to avoid an old Anglo acquaintance with a great resemblance to the the native Pom in this movie.

Ross | 14 July 2014  

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