22 Nov 2006

Allah Made Me Funny

By Irfan Yusuf
It's been a bad year for laughs among Western Muslims, writes Irfan Yusuf, until Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman rolled up

It hasn't been a funny year for Muslims living in Western liberal democracies.

First, they've had to put up with the gross embarrassment of watching their less civilised co-religionists burning embassies and carrying on like a pack of galahs in response to a dozen or so quite ordinary cartoons. Then they had to try and hose things down when the Pope decided citing a medieval Byzantine Emperor was a good way of talking about religion and reason.

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Down Under, recent attempts by Sheik Hilali to write new advertising jingles for the cat food industry haven't gone down well with many Aussies. Hilali's half-hearted apology followed by his farcical call to be tried by an 'ethical court' left Aussie Muslims with little to laugh about although his antics almost sucked in the poor Kiwis.

Still, better to have a Mufti making adverse comments about cats than sheep.

Many Aussie Mossies find their communities caught between living in complete denial over Sheik Hilali's increasing lack of credibility on the one hand, and the Government's embrace of a fringe Lebanese cult  opposed to Hilali on the other.

And anyone who saw the shemozzle on the last two episodes of Channel 9's Sunday program will understand just how unhappy Muslims are.

But being caught in a whirlpool  of equal and opposite currents of stupidity around the Hilali row, is nothing compared to the crap American Muslims had to face after September 11.

Consider this: There was initial disbelief that Muslims could seriously be involved. (After all, the previous terrorist attack on US soil, at Oklahoma City, wasn't exactly the work of native Arabic speakers.)

Then you had at least 200 Muslims among the dead (including New York fire fighters). Then you had anyone who looked even slightly Muslim subject to reprisal attacks even if they were Sikhs!

At one stage, all the clarifications in the world couldn't stop American Muslims from facing a barrage of hatred and suspicion. How can you find the will to smile, let alone laugh, in such circumstances?

According to comedian and anti-racism activist Preacher Moss, midnight FBI raids became so common that you couldn't even tell a knock-knock joke to a Muslim without receiving the response: 'Don't answer the door!!'

Thanks to Bill Leak

For Moss and his colleague Azhar Usman, bringing laughter to a faith community suffering from collective post-traumatic stress is all par for the course. They've joined forces to generate some post-9/11 laughs in their Allah Made Me Funny! Official Muslim Comedy Tour.  

The show has been performed to sell-out crowds across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. This Friday and Saturday nights (24 and 25 November), Sydney plays host to this lively pair as they entertain us with their 'divine' comedy.

I caught up with Azhar Usman late last Sunday night in Sydney's CBD. The setting a Turkish kebab shop in Liverpool Street wasn't exactly Hollywood, but I doubt gin-soaked bars are the types of places this observant Muslim (I mean Usman, not me) would want to be seen in.

Usman is a 31-year-old lawyer born and bred in Chicago. His family originated from Bihar in India, and migrated to the United States in the early 1970s. Apart from running a boutique law practice, Usman is a Director of a private Muslim think tank. He's been dubbed 'the Ayatollah of comedy' but his Islam is anything but politicised. Usman told me that, like many young Western Muslims, he grew up in a community dominated by people with sympathy to (if not affiliation with) movements associated with political Islam.

In the US, the two most powerful strands of this thinking were the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) based in the Arab world and the Jama'at-i-Islami (Islamic Party) based in the Indian sub-Continent. Both groups sought to implement Islam as a political ideology, with aspirations to govern Muslim majority States. Their form of Islam created a dichotomy between things deemed 'Western' and things deemed 'Islamic.'

Like many followers of classical Islam, Usman views this as a false dichotomy, responsible for many hostile forms of pathology that plague Muslims. While such thinking may have some relevance to post-colonial Muslim countries, Usman sees little relevance for such distinctions in Western Muslim communities.

Some of you might be worried that political Islamism has been so influential in Western Muslim communities. But don't blame us Mossies. Blame conservative governments under Reagan, Bush (senior) and Thatcher who used these groups to fight an all-American jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And thank them for allowing Middle Eastern governments like the Saudis to spread this kind of Islam as a bulwark against revolutionary Iranian Shi'ite Islam.

And if you think history isn't repeating itself in this regard, think again. Andrew Robb and John Howard have made it clear they will do anything to oppose Hilali, even if it means supporting a fringe Lebanese group with sympathies to the Syrian Ba'ath Party. The group shares some peculiar features with the Exclusive Brethren, and forbids Muslims from supporting non-Muslim congregations to build houses of worship.

When they aren't providing funds and support  to fringe, foreign-backed cults, allegedly conservative politicians and columnists speak of integration and adoption of allegedly Australian or Western or even Judeo-Christian values as the solution for Muslims. But Allah's comedians have a more positive message.

Despite being influenced by politicised Islam, Usman was able to remove himself from its influence. That's the good news. Here's some even better news.

The stuff needed to remove young kids from the dangerous dichotomy of 'West' versus 'Islam' is found within mainstream and classical Islamic theology itself. Usman says classical Islam never saw any dichotomy between 'Islamic' and 'non-Islamic' culture. Instead, Islam is like a clear stream, colourless and odourless, and able to be expressed using the language and symbols of any culture.

Usman told me the attitude that creates the 'West' versus 'Islam' dichotomy places unnecessary chips of Muslims' shoulders. Political Muslim groups love shouting about 'Islamic economics' and 'Islamic politics,' filling people's ears with empty slogans and their heads with no substance. They end up worshipping what they see as Islam instead of worshipping God.

He says the challenge for young Australian Muslims is to develop a form of expressing their faith that is truly Australian. The same challenge applies to Muslim youth living in Europe and North America .

Usman points to numerous examples from classical Islamic teaching in which comedy has played a prominent role. He believes comedy's religious role is to expose the folly of our nafs (baser self).

Usman's hero among Muslim preachers is a medieval Javanese saint known as Sunan Kalijaga who spread Islam across the Indonesian archipelago. He admires Kalijaga for using existing Hindu cultural symbols of gamelan (classical Indonesian music) and wayang (shadow puppets) to communicate Islamic values peacefully.

In America, the shadow puppeteers are replaced with stand-up comics and hip hop artists. Usman sees no problem with using Western culture to express his faith. His comic method and message is much more powerful than the current pompous political preaching about integration and citizenship tests that emanates from Canberra.

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