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Comedy And Islam In America – OpEd

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My focus here is on North American Muslims, who have been a major force in challenging the Islamophobia now rampant in the West, using only ‘the word’. The comedians I highlight all travel on world tours and have played an important role in breaking down anti-Muslim prejudice in their own unique ways.

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For humor to be in accordance with Islam, the joke should not be blasphemous and should be within the limits of adab (manners). The Prophet used to smile, rather than laugh. Aisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad narrated: We are exhorted to smile in hadith, to be self-deprecating.

“I never saw the Messenger of Allah laugh fully to such an extent that I could see his uvula. He would only smile.”* 

“The Muslim does not slander, curse, speak obscenely or speak rudely.”* Humour is not haram, though the image of the Prophet is no Falstaff and Muslims are traditionally solemn, praying, fasting, intent on doing good deeds. The Prophet’s humour was in double-entendres or gentle sarcasm, as in his chastising a boy who served the Prophet in the daytime, but who was distracted and played. ‘Oh you of two ears, listen up!’  

There is at least two jokes that the Prophet is accredited with. 

*An old lady asked, Will I go to heaven? Prophet: Haven’t you heard, old ladies don’t go to heaven. Old lady: Woe is me! Prophet: Don’t worry. Allah will make us all young and beautiful before we enter heaven.

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*A man who came up to Muhammad to ask him to give him a beast to ride. The Prophet jokingly told him, “I will give you the offspring of a she-camel to ride.” He said, “O Messenger of Allah, what will I do with the offspring of a she-camel?” The Prophet said: “Are riding-camels born except from she-camels?” (Reported by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi, as Sahih).

The Prophet’s companions would limit jokes, joke at appropriate times, and be cautious of joking. Umar ibn al-Khattab narrated: “Whoever laughs too much or jokes too much loses respect, and whoever persists in doing something will be known for it.” Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz said: “Fear joking, for it is folly and generates grudges.”

In Al-Adab al-Mufrad, Bukhari quotes Bakr ibn ‘Abdillah: “The Companions of the Prophet used to throw melon-rinds at one another, but when the matter was serious, they were the only true men.” Classical scholar Ibn al-Jawzi commented, “Humor serves as a much needed natural relaxation, and is approved for this purpose by many statements of Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims.”

What does the Quran have to say? 

*That it is He who granteth laughter and tears. (chapter 53 (An-Najm), Verse 43. translation Yusuf Ali) 

*The Quran discourages insulting anyone. ‘O ye who believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others: It may be that the latter are better than the former: Nor let some women laugh at others: It may be that the latter are better than the former: Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong.’ (Quran, chapter 49 (Al-Hujurat), Verse 11.)

*The Qur’an discourages mocking Islam. “If thou dost question them, they declare (with emphasis): ‘We were only talking idly and in play.’ Say: ‘Was it at Allah, and His Signs, and His Messenger, that ye were mocking?’ Make ye no excuses: ye have rejected Faith after ye had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin.” (Quran, chapter 9 (At-Tawba), Verse 65-66.)

Islam arguably produced some of the greatest humour in world literature. What would we do without the 8th+ century 1001 Nights, 13th century Nasreddin? 

A 20th century version of a Nasreddin anecdote:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, ‘this is where the light is.’

This sums up Trump’s latest foray into international affairs. The Abraham Peace Accord, like Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, has little if anything to do with ‘peace’ but rather with cementing Israel’s drive to colonize Palestine. Laughter through tears.

And Sufis in general are celebrated for their light touch, highlighting the folly of the dunya. Aesop’s fable of the crow and fox becomes one of two thieves who stole a donkey. One goes to sell it and on the way is asked if it is for sale. ‘Can you hold my tray of fish while I test drive it?’ and disappears with the donkey.

Islamic humour is traditionally for moral uplift, delight in simple pleasures.

Today

So how do Muslim humorists adapt to modern secularism? There has been an explosion of Arab and south Asian stand-up comics in the past two decades, coinciding with 9/11. It’s as if Muslims and all ‘brown’ people, regardless of religion, were pushed so far onto a terrorist limb in public perception, that the only way to deal with it is to laugh, and Muslims in the West rose to the challenge of defending themselves and their heritage with the only weapon they had — the word.

Wokeness and humour

But before we can look at specifically Muslim humour today, we must begin with the lower common denominator ‘brown immigrant’ stereotype, whether Muslim or not, which has entered especially American culture via The Simpsons. Most Americans have been brought up on the stereotypical Asian immigrant (whether Hindu or Muslim, not important) as portrayed in The Simpsons‘ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon,  a naturalized PhD in computer science, who runs a the Kwikie-Mart, notorious for its high prices and the poor quality of its merchandise. 

The part was created in 1989 at the very start of the series, a servile, devious, goofy, but endearing merchant. And with the thick, musical Indian accent, spoken by Hank Azaria,  son of Sephardic Jews. The Simpsons  is smart, funny and political all at the same time, making it the longest running show in TV history. And Apu gets in many anti-racist digs. To a racist customer: And soon you will be telling me I should be going back to a place I’m not actually from. Thank you please come again. 

But the stereotype leaves all Americans with brown skin chaffing, immigrant or native, slotting them into a demeaning TV image for life. The subject of bullying in school, ribbing for all ages. Finally, an Indian American comic teamed with a filmmaker to produce The Problem with Apu, a 2017 documentary film written by and starring a very brown comedian Hari Kondabolu (parents from south India).  Apu was, at the time, the only figure of south Asian heritage to appear regularly on mainstream US television. Apu is very Indian, but not particularly Hindu, and became the default south Asian stereotype. 

Indians have indeed become a regular feature of small town commerce, taking the place of Koreans (and a century ago, European Jewish immigrants). Hindu immigrants have also become the main owners of small motels across the US, as Paul Theroux describes in Deep South (they are invariably all run by Mr Patels), so the stereotype sticks, as does the other stereotype of the Indian immigrant doctor or scientist (often a Mr Patel running a rundown motel in the boondocks).

However, new ‘woke’ western culture decries all stereotypes, and the widespread bullying of all brown-skinned children as ‘sons/ daughters of Apu’ is a reality. The Problem with Apu contextualizes Apu within minstrelsy and other tropes in American pop culture history that have historically stereotyped minorities. The Simpsons 2018 episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’ was widely received as a response to Kondabolu’s film. In it, Marge finds that a book she loved as a child contains elements that would now be considered offensive, and edits the book herself to remove these elements. In doing this, she finds the book loses its ’emotional journey’. She and Lisa then look to a picture of Apu, and Lisa comments that ‘something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?’ 

Touchy Kondabolu wrote on Twitter that he was disappointed that the message of his film had been reduced to the concept of politically incorrect. In an interview with USA Today, creator Matt Groening dismissed the criticism of the Apu character, saying “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”. The Problem with Apu, even without Azaria, became a popular, even cult, documentary on the internet.

On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Azaria said that he would be “perfectly willing to step aside” from the role of voicing Apu, saying that he was increasingly worried about the character causing harm by reinforcing stereotypes and that “the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it … I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers’ room, genuinely informing whichever direction this character takes.” 

Azaria announced in January 2020 that he ‘won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something.’ In June 2020, in the wake of Floyd George, the show’s producers announced in a statement that The Simpsons will no longer have non-white characters voiced by white actors. 

Through all this, I couldn’t help thinking that it is 

scientifically incorrect to refer to races as still existing. attempts to characterize a genetic trait which may exist among a group of people as a racial trait simply indicates ignorance, because 85% of human genetic variation exists within any group. genetic differences between individuals overwhelm all other attempts to differentiate mankind, while genetic differences between groups have no predictive value for any single individual.* (E Fuller Torrey, Freudian Fraud: The malignant effect of Freud’s Theory on American thought and culture, HarperCollins, 1992. 235.)  

It is perceptions that are the problem, words, which humour attacks. Fighting fire with fire. Hence, the ‘second American Revolution’ (abolition of slavery in 1865) and the ongoing struggle to overcome these perceptions today. Humour has an ambitious role cut out for society. It’s no laughing matter.

9/11

9/11 put Muslims front and centre in the world, feared and respected, loved and hated. The anti-Muslim bigotry and the need to face it down can be seen most sharply via comedy and satire. The most celebrated of TV shows is still Little Mosque on the Prairie, created by Zarqa Nawaz, originally broadcast from 2007 to 2012 on CBC, filmed in Toronto, Ontario and Indian Head, Saskatchewan. The Muslim community is centred on their mosque, presided over by Imam Amaar Rashid, and located in the rented parish hall of the town’s Anglican church, and Fatima’s Café, a downtown diner run by Fatima Dinssa. The community patriarchs are Yasir Hamoudi, a construction contractor who originally fronted the money to establish the mosque under the pretense that he was renting office space for his business, and Baber Siddiqui, a college economics professor who served as the mosque’s temporary imam until Amaar was hired. The town of Mercy is governed by Mayor Ann Popowicz. Sarah Hamoudi, Yasir’s wife, works as a public relations officer in Popowicz’s office. 

The title is a play on the name of the classic American book and TV drama series, Little House on the Prairie, though it’s not related. There actually is (a now legendary) ‘little mosque on the Prairies’, Al-Rashid Mosque founded in 1938 in Edmonton, which was moved to Fort Edmonton Park in 1988 as a ‘heritage site’. The sitcom developed an enduring cult following in the US and Europe. There have been other TV sitcoms with Muslims, but none so tasteful. Situations highlight media bigotry, Muslim conversion, Muslim-Christian relations. 

Since 9/11, there has been an explosion (pun intended) in the number of Muslim comedians and humour festivals. 

Aziz Ansari, a stand-up comic and actor, first gained attention with his TV sitcom  Parks and Recreation (2009–2015) as Tom Haverford, a lazy, feckless landscaper, and the Netflix series Master of None (2015–2017) for which he won two Emmys and a Golden Globe, the first award received by an Asian American actor for acting on television. Ansari also authored Modern Romance (2015), where he concludes that humans pretty well figured out things romantic long before computers. He was most impressed interviewing octogenarians, happily married for 60 years, having met through family or in their neighbourhood, with no sex before marriage. (Does this sound familiar?) Ansari was raised Muslim (parents Tamil) but insists he is ‘not religious’, though for all his flirting with ‘haram’, there is a strong moral sentiment underlying his humour. He was included in the Time 100 list of most influential people in 2016. 

In his Netflix Buried Alive special (2013), Ansari poo-poos having a child. He tells his friends: ‘You’ll have to look after it for the rest of your life! All my options are still options.’ He spoofs social media full of not just baby pictures, but baby videos, and feels sorry for the kids whose parents will be his wild, ignorant friends, that at 30, he still feels unready to be a father. His skirting with racism is clever: ‘And white babies? Disgusting, gross! Like unripe fruit.’ 

He was troubled by the reality show 16 and Pregnant which ran on MTV 2009–2014 (and which spawned multiple spin-offs), for just using the abandoned teen as a ‘reality show’, not helping the poor mother-to-be. His own careful Muslim upbringing tells him how important experience and extended family support is in raising children, and how tragic it is to give birth without the maturity and commitment. 

He also tackles child molestation: ‘Why did no camp councilor try to molest me? I guess because I was super cute, so maybe they were all intimidated. And I can see you’re feeling sorry for the scared molester. But if my football coach had tried it, I would have told my mother: you want me to go back so he could stick his dxxx in my mouth again?’

Ramy Youssef, an Egyptian New Yorker is more subtle, sophisticated in his style of humour. The Hulu series Ramy, written by and starring Ramy Youssef, is a ‘charming, melancholy meditation on the verboten.’ (‘Ramy’s Comedy of Spiritual Errors, The New Yorker, May 18, 2020.)  Youssef’s standup material is drawn from the comedy of errors that is his life. Youssef is a practicing Muslim, a diaspora kid who has spoken of being profoundly changed by the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11. As a storyteller, he alternately resists and embraces the role of representative for all Muslim-Americans. ‘Just make your story narrow!’ Youssef said in an interview with GQ in May 2020.  In Ramy, Youssef’s persona is a contradictory mess—by turns holy, horny, and prone to playful chauvinism. In the first season, when Ramy’s parents set him up with a Muslim woman, her sexual agency freaks him out and he cowers, unable to bring himself to please her. ‘I’m in this little Muslim box in your head,’ she laments. ‘I’m the wife or the mother of your kids, right? I’m not supposed to come.’ Youssef won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy in 2020. He jokes that whereas he feels sorry for his gay friends have to come out, they feel sorry for him in LA being a religious person who struggles to come out to the gay community.

In 2017, Youssef appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with his tongue-in-cheek homily: 

Hi. I’m a Muslim. You know, from the news? Have you guys seen our show? You listen to Fox, any news show? They’re all about us. Sometimes I feel like I’m just going to turn 30 and get a Hogarth’s letter from ISIS.

I believe in god. Yah, God god, not yoga. In the hope that there’s more to life than what’s in front of us … I’m not trying to be preachy. Just submit to Islam. It’s the truth. That’s the only way. You’ll be saved. Seriously, trust me.

Quoting Youssef doesn’t do his delivery justice. His reference to Hogarth was thrown in for the knowledgeable, Hogarth being the 1918 messenger for Sykes Picot to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, following Hussein’s request for an explanation of the Balfour Declaration.

Mohammad ‘Mo’ Amer, of Palestinian descent, became, overnight, a media celebrity, when he was upgraded to first class on a flight from New York to Britain in 2017. Eric Trump was his companion. Mo, who is best-known for his work with comedy troupe Allah made me funny, was headed to Scotland to launch his Human Appeal Comedy Charity Tour. ‘I’m sure the lady that upgraded me to that seat was a Clinton supporter.’ 

I looked at Eric immediately and said ‘Look man, FYI I’m not doing that shit.’ He’s like ‘what?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to get a Muslim ID number bullshit. I’m not doing it.’ ‘That’s not gonna happen,’ Trump assured him, adding, ‘Come on man, you can’t believe everything that you read.’ Mo complimented Eric on his sweater, which featured an embroidered Trump crest. ‘Wouldn’t you, if you had a crest of your family? Eric asked. ‘I don’t want to scrutinize that too much, but if I had a dope-ass logo, I’d pimp that too.’

Mo was on a roll. ‘Build all the walls you want, Eric. I flew in. I can’t help myself. My name is Mohammad, I’m a comedian, I came here as a refugee. ha, ha.’ ‘Eric told me to take it easy on the Trumps,’ recalls Amer. ‘He told me to tell Chappelle to take it easy on them,’ referring to the fellow comedian’s scathing Saturday Night Live monologue about Trump. ‘I was like, you can’t do that, that’s not what we do,’ Amer told Trump. ‘It’s our job essentially to scrutinize the king.’

Eric claimed to have Muslim friends and, though a bit embarrassed, seemed to enjoy his flight, also flying to Scotland, to check in on the Trump International Golf Links. His politics seem to have changed little, as just 3 weeks before the presidential election in 2020, Eric was the star at a gun owners’ rally in Michigan, not far from the organizers of a failed attempt to kidnap the Michigan governor, which President Trump poo-pooed, ridiculing the governor for ‘whining’.

Mo milked this ‘material from God’ (and his name Mohammad) thoroughly, making it the centrepiece of his 2018 Netflix comedy special Mo Amer: the Vagabond, in Austen Texas, which is mostly about his this-is-not-a-passport passport, trying to get his US citizenship, and anti-Muslim prejudice rampant in America. In a telephone interview inquiring about his US citizenship application (he and his mother waited 20 years), when asked his given name:  My name’s Mohammad. ‘No. Stop joking. … You ain’t gonna get your citizenship baby.’ When he is particularly furious over this, he thinks: … and if this continues, I’ll blow up the whole airport! (Just kidding!) Or when stopped by a policeman for dangerous driving, but who himself had been speeding and almost hit Mo, the policeman: How did I not kill you? Mo: Because of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ. Policeman: Amen. And no ticket. The closeness of Islam and Christianity shines through at such moments.

The youngest of six children, Amer’s father worked as an engineer for the Kuwait Oil Company. In October 1990, at the age of nine, Amer, his sister, Haifa, his brother, and mother fled his birth country of Kuwait during the Gulf War, his mother sewing their dollars in the lining of her and Haifa’s clothes, as they gambled the likelihood of a mother and daughter being strip-searched was slim. His escape from Kuwait as the ‘first Gulf war’ got underway is riveting, culminating in ‘my mother the gangstah.’ Then Mo looks at his mother in the front row, the camera pans to her beaming face. 

Mo’s mercurial style, perfect English (his early schooling was in Kuwait at the international school, with British teachers), has served him well. He can play Jose, white Mr Amer, or black Mohammad as necessary. When in school, he would feign Hispanic with the Mexican gang and with the black gang, Mohammad was a plus. ‘I use my super white voice on the phone to get shit done, late checkouts.’ His sending up of the wall: I just flew in. Or, I’ll just jump over the unfinished fence.

It is a feat for a Palestinian refugee to rap for an hour without any overt political statement. The closest Mo gets is in Germany. The airport official queried his this-is-not-a-passport stateless citizen passport. Mo: Palestine’s not a state. German: So get a state. Mo: It’s all your fault we don’t have one. Mo has adoring followers, mostly non-Muslim. He is proud that he has performed to troops on over 100 US bases, including Iraq and Kuwait, even before he was granted US citizenship, the only Arab-American refugee comic to perform for US and coalition troops overseas, and has performed tours in over 27 countries on five continents, including Germany, Italy, Sicily, Japan, Korea and Bahrain. He has also performed in Tel Aviv. 

Mo was also featured on Bassem Youssef’s Al-Bernameg as the only Arab-American comedian to appear on the show. In June 2013, Amer featured on an interfaith special, What’s So Funny About Religion?, which was broadcast on CBS. He also starred alongside Ramy Youssef in the Hulu sitcom Ramy as Ramy’s Muslim cousin Mo, who owns a diner. 

From August 10–13, 2015, Amer joined American-Israeli rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed for four nights of comedy in Ramallah, West Bank. In March 2017, Amer made his US network television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Amer’s work promotes art and understanding between the diverse cultures of the world, and his ethnic and family background situates him to speak about the problems of religion, terror, and current politics of—through the lens of personal stories about his family and himself. He talks about his Palestinian background, family histories and growing up American. In 2009, Amer became a US citizen which enabled him to travel to Amman, Jordan and visit family he had not seen for almost 20 years. He also returned to Kuwait and Baghdad for the first time since his family fled. Mo: Comedy is a protest art form. It’s an honest art form. You reveal your inner secrets. It’s positive. You get things off your chest, make them hilarious, positive.

A comedy team came together in 2003 including Mo, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman in the Allah Made Me Funny comedy tour. By 2006 they were performing to sold-out shows worldwide, including Royal Albert Hall. 

Azhar Muhammad Usman is an American Sufi Muslim, comedian, actor, writer, and film producer of Indian descent. He is a former lecturer, community activist and lawyer and has been referred to as the Ayatollah of Comedy and Bin Laughin. He jokes about being mistaken for a terrorist, Muslim customs, religious holidays, families and himself. Usman is an artist and activist and was a co-founder  and director of The Nawawi Foundation, an Illinois non-profit dedicated to contemporary Islamic research and private Muslim think tank. Usman serves as an Arts and Culture advisor to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago. He also runs a law practice Numinous Company for comedians and creators. In 2005, ABC Nightline ran an entire episode about Usman. He is one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims according to Georgetown University’s The Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding and Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan. He is divorced with four children.  

Ahmed Ahmed is an Egyptian American, winner of the first annual Richard Pryor Award for ethnic comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in 2004. Ahmed was a member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (2005–11). He was also a notable guest for Axis of Justice which is a rock and heavy metal concert which fights for social justice. Following 9/11, and through 2004, Ahmed Ahmed and the comedian Rabbi Bob Alper toured the United States with their ground-breaking show One Arab, One Jew, One Stage about interfaith harmony and essential human dignity. His name matches the alias used by an Osama bin Laden acolyte, noting that he is frequently stopped by airport immigration officials on suspicion of terrorism, including a 12-hour stint in a jail in Las Vegas. King Abdullah II of Jordan attended their show in Jordan. Alper and Ahmed Ahmed celebrated their bar mitzvah together in Jerusalem in a show in 2015 in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The duo have been performing together since 2002, making people laugh in synagogues, churches, mosques, theaters, corporate events, and most often, colleges, where Arab and Jewish student groups jointly co-sponsor their appearances. Ahmed starred in the cult Adam Sandler movie Don’t Mess with the Zohan in which Sandler starred as an over-the-top stereotypical Israeli and Ahmed played a clothing store owner named Walid. 

The Muslims Are Coming! is a overly earnest 2013 American comedy documentary film co-directed and co-starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. It follows a team of Muslim-American comedians as they tour the American South and Southwest performing free stand-up comedy shows, and engaging in community activities, with an aim to ‘reach out to Middle America’ and counter Islamophobia. Though not a smash hit, its premiss is thoughtful and its script innovative:

* In Lawrenceville, Georgia, they set up an ‘Ask a Muslim Booth’ in the town center. 

*At the Islamic Center of Columbus (in fact, Masjid Al-Jannah), performing during Ramadan, they stop to have iftar. 

*At AMF Peach Lanes in Columbus, they invite community members to ‘Bowl with a Muslim’. 

*After performing in Birmingham, Alabama, they invite passers-by to play ‘Name That Religion’ where they try to guess if a quote read to them came from the Old Testament, New Testament, or the Quran.

*In Salt Lake City, Utah, they perform at The Complex, and in front of the Salt Lake Temple they hold a sign inviting passers-by to ‘Hug a Muslim’.

Obeidah is co-creator of Stand Up for Peace which he performs across the country with Jewish-American comedian Scott Blakeman, bringing Arab-Americans, Muslims and Jews together through comedy in the hopes of fostering understanding and supporting a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In June 2019, a federal judge ordered Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer to pay $4.1 million to Dean Obeidallah, whom Anglin had accused of orchestrating the Manchester Arena bombing.

On a very sour note, there is Bassem Yousef, the Egyptian doctor who showed with a vengeance what a fickle taskmaster humour on the internet can be. I wrote of him in CM22.1. Youssef used YouTube to launch El-Bernameg [the programme], a satirical show which spoofed mostly Muslim Brotherhood politicians in a way unprecedented in Egyptian history. El-Bernameg ran from 2011 to 2013, uncensored despite its increasingly ad hominem attacks on Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, promoting the opposition’s distorted exaggerations of actual events, claiming that Morsi was becoming a dictator. Anyone watching Youssef skewer Egypt’s Islamists, learned nothing, but was titillated in the cynical style of western political satire. The most famous media byte was Morsi looking silly in a ceremonial hat. As the campaign of subversion intensified on all fronts, Youssef (dubbed the Jon Stewart of the Arab world) let his programme, fresh from witnessing the overthrow of a real dictator (Mubarak), set the stage for el-Sisi’s coup in 2013. In June 2012, American satirist Jon Stewart invited Youssef to The Daily Show in New York. Youssef recorded one of the highest viewership ratings in the world on both TV and internet, with 40 million viewers on TV and more than 184 million combined views for his show on YouTube alone. He was a political power created by social media, the biggest Egyptian star in the West since Omar Sharif. 

Youssef’s humour looks maudlin and shameful in retrospect. This American-style humour is poisonous in a troubled Muslim society lacking democratic foundations, a doctor using his cold-blooded skills to inject Egypt with US cultural poison.  He handed Morsi’s head to Sisi, though Sisi hesitated, leaving Morsi languishing, sick and dying. How convenient that he just gave up the ghost during his trial. Human Rights Watch official Sarah Leah Whitson said Morsi’s treatment in prison was “horrific, and those responsible should be investigated and appropriately prosecuted.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called June 18 for a ‘prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation’ into Morsi’s death. The Toronto Star highlighted the goulish last minutes, Morsi in a glass cage blinded by bright, garrish light, disoriented, collapsing. Such a vision makes for powerful theatre, but has little effect on the official level. Sisi’s crimes, as with bin Salman’s killing of nemesis Jamal Khashoggi, have gone unpunished. Geopolitical concerns will keep Sisi safe. Morsi–and Youssef–already footnotes in a Muslim tragedy with no comedy.

Youssef went beyond Islamic bounds with tragic consequences . He is the exception to the implicit rule of comedy and Islam, that promotes tolerance and understanding. The only case of overstepping the bounds in Muslim matters that has gained notoriety in the West has been the 2017 ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’, a parody of ‘Real Housewives, broadcast by the BBC2 show Revolting. It was tasteless, sexist, insulting to Islam.

So many stories. America outdoes the world in anti-Muslim bigotry, but at the same time in positive Muslim response — Ansari’s embrace of assimilation, Ramy Youssef’s moral dilemmas and struggle to practice Islam in today’s decadent, violent world, Mo Amer’s subtle witness as Palestinian, the Axis of Evil cheering up US troops occupying Muslim lands, Ahmed Ahmed’s engagement with the political nitty-gritty of America. Only Basem Youssef’s treasonous misuse of humour leaves a bad taste behind. Identifying Ramy Youssef’s attraction in the ‘verboten’ really goes for all these contemporary humourists. In a secular age, religion is the ultimate verboten. It is heartening to see the Other breaking down prejudice through laughter. 

*Sunan Abu Dawood Volume 3, Book 41: Kitab Al-Adab (General Behavior), Hadith Number 5079; Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73: Kitab Al-Adab (Good Manners and Form), Hadith Number 114 (Tirmidhi).

An edited version at Critical Muslim 38 2021

Eric Walberg

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s. He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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