Foreign Affairs

Jihad, Comedy and Life

Did you read about the outrageous stunt staged last week in Australia (not Austria), site of the APEC (not OPEC) conference? For the sake of security, $130 million was spent on erecting a “ring of steel” around the summit venue. Nonetheless, a three-car motorcade, which featured an Osama bin Laden look-alike, made it through two police checkpoints and stopped very near to the hotel where President Bush was staying.

The merry Aussie pranksters were from the Australian Broadcasting Company’s satirical TV program, The Chasers. While the crew were being arrested, (and Osama’s fake beard was being confiscated) the police told them how lucky they all were not to have been taken out by sniper fire. The show’s producer, Julian Morrow, replied that the security people were lucky these were not real Al Qaeda guys. The police were heard chuckling while they chastised the group. The incident might easily have become another urban legend, but the cameraman held on to his tape and there was film at 11.
An editorial in the (Australian) newspaper, The Orstrahyun, observed that while the summit authorities were livid over being mocked, most of the rest of Sydney was cheered by this moment of sheer comic relief. The Chasers bold gate crashing had provided, “a good laugh to the miserable, repressive atmosphere forced on us by the blocked roads, blocked footpaths, snipers leaning out of hovering helicopters and the endless violations of privacy thousands of workers in the city are being subjected to on a daily basis, with demands to see ID, physical searches in city streets and briefcases and handbags opened and emptied.” This entire episode recalls the slogan which the Pogo comic strip made famous: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
An American comedian, Lewis Black, recently made an astute observation in an online comedy blog. “The difference between our country and Afghanistan is that Afghanistan didn’t have any comedians. They were very serious about everything and things went awry. Their whole country was doomed because they didn’t have any comedians to point out what was unbalanced about their culture.”
There are encouraging signs that – in Western societies – Muslim humor exists and may even be a growth industry. There is, for example, a touring Muslim comedy troop who call themselves “Allah Made Me Funny.” The Canadian Broadcasting Company premiered a new “light hearted” sitcom. In “Little Mosque on the Prairie” the Muslim and non Muslim citizens of a town named Mercy overcome misunderstandings as they interact. The show’s creators expressed a hope that their sitcom could someday become the Islamic version of Seinfeld. Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah has written a coming of age story about a young Muslim. girl who struggles with wearing her headscarf (hijab) – full time – to the new public school she must attend. The book’s title is “Does My Head Look Big in This?” It is warm and funny and insightful.

Things tend to be a little more tense in Europe. Oddly enough, September 12th is the first anniversary of Pope Benedict’s lecture at his old university in Germany. There he quoted from an historic source document which criticized an aspect of Islam. This single sentence evoked protests galore and resulted in the murder of a nun. And let’s not forget the worldwide kefuffle in 2005 over a dozen Danish editorial cartoons, the majority of which featured less than flattering images of Muhammad.

Given this Islamic proclivity for over-reaction, audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, held in Scotland this August, might well have expected to be literally blown away by Jihad: The Musical. The show was a wild and scathing parody of all things held holy, one might say, by Islamic radicals. Jihad: The Musical featured a chorus line of women clad is neon pink burkas whirling those curved Middle Eastern swords around as they danced. The central character is an Afghani flower seller, Sayid Al Boom, who gets sucked into a terrorist cell and is encouraged to become a suicide bomber. He is followed by a Fox reporter who also encourages him in this new path as long as she gets the exclusive rights to film his indoctrination in order to become a media star herself. Reviews were mixed, but one had to admire the guts it took to stage the production.
Downloads of the production – including such delightful tunes as “The Jihad Jive,” “The Suicide Song,” and “I Wanna Be Like Osama” can be found on YouTube.com or at www.jihad-the-musical.com.

Jihad was, in its fashion, a tribute to Mel Brooks’ 1968 film, The Producers. It had been scant 20 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, but Brooks’ took an inspired risk to illustrate that laughing at one’s enemies can be empowering. The sight of a goose-stepping chorus line, marching in swastika formation to the lilting tune of “Springtime for Hitler,” undoubtedly shocked some people, but getting the proverbial last laugh did prove liberating. The Producers has since become a cottage industry of sorts. Still, the comedy divide in this clash of civilizations remains skewed in our direction. When God turned up in a movie in the form of a cigar puffing George Burns, not even the most over-the-top evangelical Christian threatened to behead anyone. By comparison, in the past week, a group of Muslim fanatics announced it would be their pleasure to lop off the heads of Madonna and Britney Spears to stop them from strutting their satanic stuff. In retaliation, one can still order up Taliban Barbie Dolls in time for Christmas delivery. No lead paint on those burka babes.

Yes, the world was changed forever on September 11, 2001, but worlds are always being changed. Wars, genocides, assassinations, and natural disasters seem unlikely caverns from which gag writers can mine for laughs, but they are. With distance, it is humanly possible to extract some humor from what the unspeakable and unfathomable leave in their wake. When an enemy is pious and pompous, they become especially easy targets for good punch lines. Like the one about how there are no recidivist suicide bombers….That was a well placed zinger from a really great stand-up guy – Donald Rumsfeld.


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