21.4.10

Comic Fascism: A Funny Bone To Pick?

Comic Fascism
A Funny Bone To Pick?

By Farzana Versey

Countercurrents, April 20, 2010


Just when I thought Islam had cornered every available market, I was reminded about the comedy of terror. That has got to be Islamic. The only unfortunate aspect is that it has not arisen out of any ethnic need, but as a response to “painful topics such as terrorism and racial profiling”. And so we had the troupe ‘Allah made me funny’.

Researchers in Germany carried out a study on humour and found that it is not to make others laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge. Telling jokes is a method of reinforcing a social hierarchy. According to the lead researcher, Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education, “Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status...”

This goes contrary to what we see around. Muslim comic shows have sprouted as a defence mechanism. It sends out no message of control.


I have watched some of these with bearded guys taking potshots at themselves, their religion, their image as terrorists. Is it to mock the society that pushes you into a corner? I am afraid the effect is quite the opposite. It becomes an apology, quite akin to efforts to counter terrorism, to say, hey, we are the good guys, see we can laugh.

For someone who markets her religiosity and virginity, it is queer that British comedienne Shazia Mirza wants to be the flag-holder of liberalism.
As luck would have it, her hijab became Houdini and she magically transformed into the Great Other. In some ways, one might say she was saving her skin. If you tell your bosses, look mastah, mah peoples are so poo, they will let you do the cleaning up.

Ms. Mirza was promoted as the First British Muslim Female Comedienne, which was itself a joke on her, but she did not get it. They put her in the slot so that she can regurgitate only what is within that slot. She plays that up. As she once said, “The image people have of Muslim women that cover their hair is they're oppressed and have a hard life. It confuses people that I wear it and am funny. It breaks down stereotypes."

No, it does not. It only buffers the stereotype. Like the time she said, "I felt this pressure...I was being asked 'why are your people blowing themselves up?' It was like they'd never had anyone to ask before. I turned down Newsnight and Question Time because I don't want to be pigeon-holed. I want to be considered as an entertainer."

It is interesting that she believes they had no one to ask. She is the pigeon-hole. Parody is about showing the mirror, not cracking it and exposing your blood trickle. Take this: “All this talk about suicide bombers getting 72 virgins in paradise is a misinterpretation of the Quran. I don’t want to die a virgin. If I do I’ll have to sleep with one of the suicide bombers. That would be horrible.’’

If it is a misinterpretation, then why worry? In her supposedly comic avatar she is reinforcing the tired images. Her so-called sexually explicit talk is a desperate attempt at camouflaging real issues, that is when she is not being downright insulting.


When the USA sent teams of scientists to Iraq to search for Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, she volunteered: “Look up his wife’s purdah, because nobody looks up there.’’

If only she knew the sexual abuses that happen during wars and how pugnacious societies target women, she would stop being so pat: “I got on the plane to Denmark dressed in hijab, and this woman refused to sit next to me. So I told her, ‘I am going to sit on this plane and blow it up. And you think you’re going to be safer three rows back?’”

Is this confident assertion? Was this an actual incident or merely one of her acts? In either case, it reveals a paucity of true understanding. Those who fear Islamic terrorism will not lighten up with such jokes. She may get the applause in the auditorium, but that’s because they know she is being paid to make them laugh, make fun of her community. They are in charge.

She has often said her family was traditional. This traditional family, surprisingly, wanted her to be a doctor. Parents in many societies, even in the West, have set ideas of what they expect their children to do. Unusual professions take some time to be accepted.

While one understands that using her Muslim identity is her calling card, she does not realise that her personal reasons are not manifestations of reality
– and there are several realities. At an event in San Francisco in her early days, she had said, “I totally believe in my religion. I think if I were a practicing Muslim and a stripper, then there would be a problem. But there isn't a problem with me being a practicing Muslim and a stand-up comic."

She has been crying about death threats. Was she talking in her capacity as amateur religious scholar? Would a stripper need to announce that she is a practising Muslim? Is such practice public knowledge unless you wish it to be? For Mirza it is a strategy.


However, is she against Islam? Is she against Pakistan?
Her recent visit to her homeland became cause for celebration among one group and cynicism among another. The problem is not that she went and floundered, but she went back to Old Blighty and wrote an exaggerated version in The Guardian about her experience.

One wonders why she went there, since on her trip to India a few years ago she had stated, “Pakistan is not the place for comedy.” At that time the Taliban were not feeding her ego by ensuring that she got extra security. On this trip, she was all locked up so that she could crack jokes and people would laugh at last after years of being shackled. Or so she believes.

No doubt, each society has its threshold level. Early Bollywood films would not show couples kissing and even today an onscreen kiss is announced with much blowing of trumpets. Mirza was being simplistic, when she wrote, “In Lahore this time I am told by armed security personnel before going on stage: ‘Be careful, it's best you only do halal comedy.’ Halal comedy? There is no such thing. That's like saying, I only eat halal bacon.”

A bit of education is called for. There are different kinds of comedy – slapstick, satire, dry wit, and although it is not a genre, there is something called clean comedy, at least in our part of the world. It essentially means something you can sit with the whole family and watch. Her reference to bacon was only to ham it up.

Her constant mention of burqas, locked doors, security reveals a mindset that has not stepped outside the canned laughter zone. “The people in authority in Pakistan are telling the public what they can and cannot say, how to behave and what to wear – and this is totally incongruous with what the people really want. All the things the audience laughed at are the things they are most repressed about. Jokes about sex, religion and politics got the most laughter.”

Would it surprise her to know that like her there can be practising Muslims, virgins and political novices who can laugh
not because they are repressed but because they laugh at people who slip on banana peels too, and that could be a phallic symbol, if you really want to take it far?

She finally met hypocrisy. After all the homilies, Little Red Riding Hood was offered opium, vodka, porn films and a male Russian hooker. She ought to have been offended and asked herself why she was receiving such hospitality rather than blaming them.

I have met some really wild people in that country and not been offered any of these. Not even a female Ukrainian hooker, which Shazia Mirza missed seeing because she has discarded the hijab but has her blinkers intact.

11 comments:

  1. have you heard of the "Axis of Evil" comedy tour from Canada I think?

    Kind of the same thing. But, does get funny sometimes and even PBS likes it ;-)

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  2. Hi Farzana,

    I saw Ms. Mirza's Guardian piece. Your suggestion, that "she finally met hypocrisy," crossed my mind as well.

    Here is Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, where, on the occasion of Ishmael signing on as crew-member of the Pequod, he inquires of one of the Puritan ship-owners as to the decided incongruousness of a captain named "Ahab" in a Christian dominated society. The ship-owner had sought to allay any concerns Ishmael might've had, calling Captain Ahab "a grand un-godly, god-like man," offering that Ahab had "been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals," and concludes by reminding Ishmael that "he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!' Ishmael counters by reminding the ship-owner that what they knew of "Ahab of old" was that he was a "very vile" king," and, apparently deferring to the Puritan ship-owner's superior biblical knowledge, inquires: "When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?"

    The bible-spouting ship-owner responds:

    'Come hither to me -- hither, hither,' said Peleg, with a significance in his eye that almost startled me. 'Look ye, lad; never say that on board the Pequod. Never say it anywhere. Captain Ahab did not name himself. 'Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who died when he was only a twelvemonth old. And yet the old squaw Tistig, at Gayhead, said that the name would somehow prove prophetic. And, perhaps, other fools like her may tell thee the same. I wish to warn thee. It's a lie. I know Captain Ahab well; I've sailed with him as mate years ago; I know what he is -- a good man -- not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man -- something like me -- only there's a good deal more of him. Aye, aye, I know that he was never very jolly; and I know that on the passage home, he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about, as any one might see. I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he's been a kind of moody -- desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it's better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one . . . .

    I thought of this passage in the context of the German study you cite that suggests humour "is not to make others laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge." My sense in reading Ms. Mirza's own account of her performance in Pakistan was that she wasn't entertaining the rank-and-file so much as she was their bosses.

    In this sense one might say she was indeed "reinforcing a social hierarchy" as per the German study -- though there are, to be sure, as you suggest, "different kinds of comedy."

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  3. Hitesh:

    I have heard about it, but nothing beyond that. I am not saying some of these shows can’t be funny; it is what the funny means outside of the laughter zone. Could you tell me why PBS liking it is important? I am not tuned into this!

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  4. Mstaab:


    Hi Mark, what an apt description and analogy you have quoted. However, a couple of points:

    I thought of this passage in the context of the German study you cite that suggests humour "is not to make others laugh as much as it is to make others know who is in charge." My sense in reading Ms. Mirza's own account of her performance in Pakistan was that she wasn't entertaining the rank-and-file so much as she was their bosses. In this sense one might say she was indeed "reinforcing a social hierarchy" as per the German study -- though there are, to be sure, as you suggest, "different kinds of comedy."

    The reinforcement of social hierarchy avers that the jokester is in control, not the bosses. In this case, as in almost all, we do not see it happen. In fact, she becomes a strategic player of the elite game. The social hierarchy does not take into account the different kinds of comedy I mentioned. Unless, one delves deep and sees a stratification in dry wit’s superiority over slapstick that might, at most times, cater to the slightly less privileged.

    In Mirza’s case, it is the social hierarchy of the audience, then of the comedienne, then the ones who hire her, and finally and most importantly the social ethos she is trying to save the masters from by using her audience And putting them on the mat.

    A prayer mat?!

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  5. Melville, I think, was playing with the world-wide convention where children are named for notable figures past and present. His central character and narrator Ishmael, obviously, was named after Abraham's first-born. The good ship Pequod was jointly owned by Bildad (named for one of the "friends" come to "mourn" with the Patriarch Job on the loss of his children, wealth and health) and Peleg (named for one of Noah's great-great-great grandsons, "for in his days was the earth divided"). Peleg was the ship-owner seeking to reassure Ishmael as to Ahab's fitness to captain the Pequod by invoking Ahab's biblical name-sake . . .

    Ishmael's questioning reply of his new employer is both a statement and a question: 1) Unlike those with whom Peleg was accustomed to dealing with, some actually have read scripture, and 2) what sort of fool did he take him for?

    That Peleg instantly recognizes he'd mis-profiled Ishmael is evident in his then offering to take him into his confidence ("'Come hither to me--hither, hither,' said Peleg, with a significance in his eye . . ."). But does he really, or does he simply resort to another strategy?

    Ishmael, we note, states that Peleg's conspiratorial air almost startled him -- or, in other words, it was something he had anticipated before asking the question?

    Obscure as the analogy was/is, Farzana, I was fairly certain you'd find it apt. :)

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  6. A point to be contemplated is: had Ishmael not questioned Peleg,would the latter have resorted to the 'strategy'? Strategy it is, whether a genuine need to allay any misgivings or mere cunning. Would the original mis-profiling change?

    Ishmael, we note, states that Peleg's conspiratorial air almost startled him -- or, in other words, it was something he had anticipated before asking the question?

    If he anticipated, then he was fairly in control. Mere confrontation is not control, but knowing the respondent's behaviour beforehand is empowering. Is Ishmael then an equally adept strategist?

    Obscure as the analogy was/is, Farzana, I was fairly certain you'd find it apt. :)

    Mark, you are being wicked! But, the analogy is obscure only if you are seeking plateaus, not if you are striving to climb mountains, if not move them :)

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  7. I see your point and, yes, certainly Ishmael's question may have sort of nudged ship-owner Peleg -- encumbered as he was with the logistics of getting his and Bildad's (and other minor investors who'd kicked-in their two mites, i.e. Nantucket shopkeepers, clergy, widows, etc.) enterprise under-way -- out of what one might describe as a complacent, default position where his dealings with hired, ship-board hands were concerned. However, that Ahab had returned from his encounter with the white whale suffering from a sort of post-traumatic shock was common knowledge among Peleg's available labor pool (contrast this with the original Ahab who, we're told, languished in a sort of moody gloom following Naboth's refusal to sell him his comparatively diminutive birth-right). It seems reasonable that a businessman such as Peleg might then have anticipated having to resort to subterfuge, craft -- indeed, cunning -- to fill his ship's full complement. At the very least, I think we can say he was prepared to persuade through means other than logic (as logic suggested Ahab needed a time-out).

    So then we see Peleg initially employs a certain ethos with Ishmael by appealing to authority (that Ahab is "a grand un-godly, god-like man," that his patronymic was straight out of scripture) and, failing that, makes a sort of Aristotelian shift into pathos, i.e. he then presents Ahab, as per the conclusion to my excerpt provided above (and a type of appeal we've been hearing a lot of in more recent days), a tragic figure deserving of Ishmael's support:

    . . . So good-bye to thee -- and wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name. Besides, my boy, he has a wife -- not three voyages wedded -- a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!'

    In the blink of an eye (so to speak), we see Ahab's terrible, awe-inspiring grandeur transformed into a sort of cuddly teddy-bear . . .

    This latter, I think, segues nicely into your take on Shazia Mirza's Guardian piece.

    >>If [Ishmael] anticipated, then he was fairly in control. Mere confrontation is not control, but knowing the respondent's behaviour beforehand is empowering. Is Ishmael then an equally adept strategist?<<

    Well, it's not clear. Ishmael's questions with respect to Ahab occur almost as an afterthought -- he has already negotiated his "lay" or percentage of the profit and, in that it is suggested he might recoup his personal expenses at the end of this years-long voyage, the impression one has is that pecuniary profit is not a motive of his -- or, at least, not an overriding motive. Certainly it may have appeared to Peleg that Ishmael's questions may have been an opening gambit to re-negotiate his lay: "Thou art shipped," he reminds Ishmael at the outset of their conversation. But then we, as readers, know somewhat more than Peleg knows. At the beginning of his narrative, Ishmael offers this respecting his reasons for abandoning the relative security of the land for the watery deep:

    . . . Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can . . . .

    Therapy? A death wish? Perhaps Ishmael sees the ocean as a sort of mosh-pit? Of course, the better question might be: How reliable a narrator is Melville's Ishmael? :)

    >>Mark, you are being wicked!<<

    Who me? :D

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  8. Phew! I need to take in all this and come up with a response that will prove your wickedness :)

    Enjoy the Sabbath...

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  9. ya all ethnic communities are stereotyped but people just have to grow out of it. there is Hollywood, bollywood and then reality and I sometimes I think reality is overrated :)

    about PBS, it is always trying to be PC and in the process revealing core cultural biases. If redneck laughs at joke, you know found it funny but PBS anchor you always wonder..,,

    so there I was trying to be sarcastic in an offhanded manner.

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  10. Hitesh, thanks. I really do not know much about PBS. It is fine is groups are stereotyped superficially, but not with vicious intent. The problem with comedy is it appears innocent.

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  11. Mstaab:

    Cunning often requires logic.

    So then we see Peleg initially employs a certain ethos with Ishmael by appealing to authority (that Ahab is "a grand un-godly, god-like man," that his patronymic was straight out of scripture) and, failing that, makes a sort of Aristotelian shift into pathos, i.e. he then presents Ahab, as per the conclusion to my excerpt provided above (and a type of appeal we've been hearing a lot of in more recent days), a tragic figure deserving of Ishmael's support

    Great. You are right. It fits in with the Shazia I understand. Perhaps, pathos precedes authority and then becomes it? The attributes of classic blackmailing?

    >>If [Ishmael] anticipated, then he was fairly in control. Mere confrontation is not control, but knowing the respondent's behaviour beforehand is empowering. Is Ishmael then an equally adept strategist?<<
    Well, it's not clear. Ishmael's questions with respect to Ahab occur almost as an afterthought -- he has already negotiated his "lay" or percentage of the profit and, in that it is suggested he might recoup his personal expenses at the end of this years-long voyage, the impression one has is that pecuniary profit is not a motive of his -- or, at least, not an overriding motive.


    Oh, but not running after paltry considerations is a known gambit. We are, do note, at tangent with the initial purpose of this discussion, so don’t bait me later!

    After quoting Ishmael, you ask:

    Therapy? A death wish? Perhaps Ishmael sees the ocean as a sort of mosh-pit? Of course, the better question might be: How reliable a narrator is Melville's Ishmael? :)

    Maybe all. Or just the deep-end full of treasures. Of course, we cannot be sure of the reliability of the narrator, but then we would have to rethink the story and its interpretations. Then we would need to see if what was apt is in fact inept!

    And see the innocence of ‘Who me?’ as a real question or a wicked counter-query :)

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