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Carnival and Islam By: David Solway
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 23, 2009

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun or joy in whatever is serious.

Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, radio sermon, 1979.

And when I’m introduced to one
I wish I thought
What Jolly Fun

Walter Alexander Raleigh, Wishes of an Elderly Man at a Garden Party

An interesting approach toward understanding the dilemma posed to the secular West by so weighty and systematic a theology as Islam may be modeled from the work of the great Russian cultural and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin who, in Rabelais and His World, elaborated the notion of “carnival” as an analytic category. Using his conceptual framework, we could say there is very little “laughter” in Islam, which teaches against “excessive laughter,” however so viscous a phenomenon is to be measured. In other words, there is very little in the way of cultural parody (or “carnival”)—that which, to quote Bakhtin, “demolishes fear and piety before an object…thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it,” and for the puncturing of pomposity and high seriousness. The razzing of other tribes that we occasionally find in the classical Arab qasida, or ode, scarcely qualifies as humour or satire, but as conventional insult and bravado. Authority is not attacked in the qasida whereas laughter (in the Bakhtinian sense) is the sworn enemy of every kind of tyranny and every totalitarian worldview, whether temporal or theological. It punches holes in all the Mercators of the world laid out in dogmatic theologies and ideological systems. For laughter, as Bakhtin writes, “purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naïveté and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level…” It restores what he calls an “ambivalent wholeness” to the psyche of man and reconfirms the festal, irreverent and material self in the face of a repressive transcendence. Or as Peter Sloterdijk puts it in Critique of Cynical Reason, using the word in its special Bakhtinian inflection, “laughter” is the “embodiment of that which has been negated, excluded, humbled, and declared evil. It is the id asserting itself as the ego.”

This is why Salman Rushdie’s sprawling and jubilant mock-epic, The Satanic Verses, came as an intolerable affront to Islamic worship and earned its author a price on his head. It is the same for Islam as it is for what Bakhtin calls “the high distanced genres” in which, certainly in theory and pervasively in practice, “there is not the slightest gap between [the individual’s] authentic essence and its external manifestation,” whereas laughter exposes “the disparity between his surface and his center,” so that “an unrealized surplus of humanness” may flow into the world to be celebrated.

A primary Western example of such grave, formal genres is the classical Greek tragedy in whose triple cycle the hero is ultimately shown to coincide strictly with himself; yet in the attached Satyr Play that brings the sequence to a close, the portentous tympany of Fate and the pretensions of the protagonist are subjected to the domestications of mockery and laughter. The lofty is humanized by the lowly, the unitary self by its inherent plural. Similarly, the medieval Saturnalia and festa stultorem reversed the established roles of Christian authority, if only for brief intervals, and the self-depreciating Jewish Joke is a cultural semiotic.

One thinks, too, of the traditional Purimspiel—the carnival antics celebrating the survival of the Jews related in the Book of Esther—with its satiric plays, masked balls and general topsy-turviness making light of potential tragedy, inverting the course of daily life and bringing genuine merriment into a somber and unforgiving world. But Muslim Monkeyshine is another matter altogether. Even the kind of mild playfulness we find in Israeli artist Avraham Guy Barchil’s illustrations of the grand, esoteric themes of Kabbalah through the medium of the comic book—another kind of Jewish Joke—may, in the Muslim domain, likely have cost him his freedom or more. Here it is revealing to contrast cultural modalities in the Middle East between the Islamic nations and their irritant neighbour. The Israeli TV cartoon show, Drawn Together, highlighting characters with names like Jew Producer, Foxxy Love, Toot Braunstein, Wooldoor Sockbat and Strawberry Shortcake, and making astringent fun for didactic purposes of some of the major currents and events of Jewish history, including genocide, could never be transposed, mutatis mutandis, into the cultural protectorate of Islam.

In classical Islam, “difference” is anathema and self-and faith-directed levity, an offence. Consider what the effect on the Islamic world would have been had the Monty Python film Life of Brian, with the lead character playing the Prophet rather than the Saviour, featured on the marquees. As Ibn Warraq facetiously asked in an article for City Journal (vol. 18. no. 1), “can we look forward, someday, to a Life of Mo?” Monty Python and The Holy Grail would not have fared much better either, though the Holy Hand Grenade might have struck a chord. Or how about Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, with its hilarious skit of Moses dropping one of the tablets, reducing the fifteen commandments to ten, had a similar disaster befallen one of the scrolls of the Koran. Muslims would react today as Christians would have in 400 C.E. or Jews in 400 B.C.E. (Brooks is “Jew Producer” par excellence, his The Producers coming very close, for all its ribaldry, to tempting the unspeakable.)

The only significant examples of filmic comedy/“satire” from the Islamic world that I am familiar with are from dissident Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Saman Moghadam. Panahi’s Offside protests the repressive, rule-oriented mentality of the Islamic Republic via the absurdist allegory of six young girls jailed for trying to crash a soccer game; Moghadam’s Maxx plays with the notion of mistaken identity in poking genial fun at the regime’s hidebound and reactionary nature. But these directors are heavily censored. Many of Panahi’s films do not circulate in Iranian theaters and it was reported in Time’s Europe Magazine that “the government found 140 ‘questionable’ points” in the screenplay of Maxx, many if not most (or all?) of which had to be left on the cutting room floor. This is cutting satire with a vengeance.1 Still, these films are a world apart from the Jewish self-spoofs like the movies of Woody Allen or the Charles Grodin vehicle The Heartbreak Kid and its Ben Stiller remake.

In Islam, submission to a unified structure of thought and worship is obligatory, fusing the individual with the collective and the inner with the outer in a seamless existential jointing. The discrepancy between surface and center, public and private, is not recognized and the prising open of the suture between the two is taboo. According to Tariq Ramadan in Western Muslims and The Future of Islam, Muslims do not in fact “merge the categories” of the “public and private” spheres of expression or being, but he nevertheless makes it plain that in their relations with the world Muslims must “take[ ] their Islamic frame of reference as a starting point.” In reality, the categories do merge. And, as to be expected, while the index of his book lists many words beginning in “hu,” including “Huntington, Samuel,” there is nothing under the rubric of “humour.”

Needless to say, despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous radio sermon, I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as laughter in the Muslim world, which would be an utterly laughable claim to advance, but rather that humour tends to manifest as a form of social levity common to all peoples or is patently non-subversive. But even the concept or practice of “harmless fun” does not seem to figure prominently in the Islamic mindset or prosper as a social institution. It should come as no surprise that the British theme park, Alston Towers, had to cancel its “National Muslim Fun Day” on September 17, 2006, owing to lack of interest—this notwithstanding the incentive of halal food, prayer areas, gender segregation and the enforcement of appropriate dress codes. British Muslims were obviously not amused. Speaking of harmless fun, what other religious faith in the world today would imprison a schoolteacher and even call for her execution for the crime of allowing her students to name a teddy bear after its prophet? Gillian Gibbons might have reflected whether her Sudanese hosts were capable of the spirit of kindly indulgence associated with certain forms of non-satiric humour before having exercised her indefeasible naivety.

Philip Hitti informs us in his monumental History of the Arabs that Arabic literature “abounds in anecdotes, jokes and remarks which to us today sound obscene,” but the drift of his observation clearly points to a tradition that has been for the most part superseded, and is certainly innocent of aggressive political intent or connotation. (There is a tradition of critique in classical Arabic poetry, going back to two contemporaries of Mohammed, Abu Afak and Asma bint Marwan, who dared criticize the Prophet, but those poets foolhardy enough to adopt the practice usually paid with their lives, as did their predecessors.) Naturally, there will always be exceptions to the rule of suppression, in the privacy of the courtyard, so to speak, and even in the media, provided the latter has been politically vetted. Take, for example, the perennial prankster of Arab folk humour, Joha or Juha (Hodja in Turkey, Goha in Egypt), a simpleminded/clever, wise fool figure à la Hershele Ostropoler, the smart aleck Jewish shtetl matchmaker, or like the good soldier Schweik who regularly gets into absurd scrapes but often manages to turn the tables on those who would deceive him.

Though poking fun at cultural foibles, what is missing in these caricatural hijinks are the elements of danger and aggression associated with the trope, the dimension of barbed satiric perforation of the social matrix from which it emerges, of merciless self-debunking and political and religious pastiche. There have been a number of semi-satirical cartoons in the Arab press attacking the terrorist phenomenon, but these are very much in line with official government policy which recognizes the threat to its own internal stability. It would be unrealistic to expect anything even remotely resembling Jeff Dunham’s famous comedy routine “Achmed the Dead Terrorist,” which punctures terrorist pretensions and beliefs through laughter. Jokes, such as they are, appear to be mainly of the coarse antisemitic variety; whether or not these represent a form of genuine humour, they surely do not qualify as Bakhtinian laughter. They are probably better described as just another weapon in the antisemitic arsenal of Islam. This would also explain why probably the most popular non-Muslim comedian in the Islamic world is the French-Cameroonian standup comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala whose antisemitism is now almost legendary.2

“What Muslim culture needs,” says Ayaan Hirsi Ali in The Virgin’s Cage, “are books, soap operas, poetry, and songs…that satirize religious precepts…Satire is a bitter necessity; it has to happen.” Only, pace Hirsi Ali, this is highly improbable. The accumulated resistance over the ages to self-criticism and satirical reflection is virtually impenetrable, reinforced by upbringing, education, religious dogmatism and pro forma violence. Where humour in the trappings of irony and satire may be said to exist in Islam is in the extraordinary individual, but even there it is not always as robustly developed as one could wish. And often, it must be said, what humour we may find is unintentional and should therefore qualify as bathos.

You Tube has circulated a video clip showing an Iranian professor, Hasan Bolkhari, lecturing on the subtleties of the Tom and Jerry cartoon, proving to an amphitheater of note-taking students that Jerry the mouse in reality represents the clever and manipulative Jew. He always gets the cheese. According to this luminary, the cartoon was devised by Jewish media moguls to counter the derogatory term “dirty mice” applied to Jews in 19th and 20th century Europe. By rehabilitating the image of the mouse, the Jew was equally shriven of his murine attributes and would thus be free to continue his nefarious activities under the sign of his endearing “cuteness.” There is an absurd humour at work here which does not originate in intent but in a kind of ablative displacement. Agency does not reside in the will of the speaker but in the disjunction from reality and common sense. The notorious Hamas kiddie film starring a Mickey Mouse character called Farfur, promoting armed struggle against Israel, including “martyrdom” operations, does not even qualify as displacement, let alone humour.

True, there are exceptions to the rule, one such being Palestinian-American comedian Ray Hanania, who is genuinely funny. But I would conjecture that his adherence to the Koran and its injunctions is not particularly strong and that his theocratic devotion is tempered by the American side of his character and a Jewish wife. Another such exception may be Birmingham comedian Shazia Mirza, often billed as “the world’s only female Muslim comic,” whose dry humour is intended to deflate cultural stereotypes. But as with Hanania, her brand of humour shows her to be influenced by Western norms and expectations and as such is not particularly “Islamic.”3 When such instances as Hirsi Ali advocates occur, they do not constitute an ethos so much as a deviation.

The rare satirical comedian or political critic in the Arab world is almost always silenced. This is the case even in the more “liberal” Muslim countries, such as Morocco where the editor of Nichane magazine was taken to court in January 2007 for the felony of printing an article entitled “How Moroccans laugh at religion, sex and politics.” The charge was “defamation against Islam and the monarchy” and the sentence was a punitive fine and a two month ban on publication—a rather light getting-off in the circumstances but still no laughing matter. There are fledgling efforts like the Saudi comedy show Tash Ma Tash although, according to reports, it is not only Islamists who are quizzed but “liberal intellectuals” as well; even so, fatwas have been issued to prevent viewers from tuning in.

Turning to the Palestinian “territories,” Omayya Joha, a political cartoonist for the Al-Quds newspaper in Gaza, has occasionally been critical of the surrounding Arab nations for their indifference toward the Palestinians, but since her work is almost exclusively devoted to the incitement of hatred against Israel, she is allowed to flourish. Similarly, her colleague Baha Boukhari, while suspicious of Hamas, is staunchly pro-Palestinian and something of a culture hero. (Boukhari has just been sentenced in absentia to six months in prison by a Hamas magistrate’s court for publishing a cartoon in the daily Al-Ayyam making fun of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.) There is a kind of light, underground humour in Palestinian folklore treating of sexual subjects, as in a book of folk tales called Speak Bird, Speak Again, compiled by two Palestinian intellectuals and published in English by the University of California Press, in French by UNESCO, and translated into Arabic, but it was pulled from the shelves of Palestinian schools and libraries by the Hamas government as “haram,” or forbidden by Islam. Needless to say, we will not find anything like the work of cartoonist Friedel Stern who lived just next door and whose mischievous drawings often skewer aspects of her own society.

Muslim raillery, when practised in the West, is a different proposition entirely, indulging from time to time in a kind of persiflage against its own. But is it satire? The Muslim comedy team of Preacher Moss, Azeem and Azhar Usman have embarked on what they call the Allah Made Me Funny performance tour, which they regard as halal entertainment. Their declared purpose is to make harmless fun of Muslim quirks and habits, thus rehabilitating the public image of Islam as non-threatening and broadly humanistic. What the comics do not wish to acknowledge is that you do not laugh at the Koran—you honour it or you fear it—and that any satire that probes too deeply into the cockpit of Islam will provoke a fatwa.4

But there is probably no need to worry. Azhar Usman is an official spokesman for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and a cofounder of the Wahabbi-inspired Nawawi Foundation. Preacher Moss, a Canadian convert to Islam, is a notorious purveyor of anti-Gay jokes. Azeem, also a convert to Islam, has a background in motivational speaking, widely advertised on the Net. He is, in effect, an excellent salesman for his cause. It is no accident that the group has been approved by CAIR, the Saudi-funded Council for American Islamic Relations. Plainly, Allah Made Me Funny, gentling Islam via stand-up comedy routines, is only a mode of ingratiation and the obverse of carnival disruption. It bears no comparison with—to take a very recent example—Sacha Baron Cohen’s send-up of antisemitism in the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which would have been taken literally commuted to the Islamic world and have earned its perpetrator the inevitable fatwa. The annual “running of the Jew” would not have been understood as satire had the event been billed “the running of the Muslim.”

More recently, the Canadian Broadcasting Company has mounted a sitcom called Little Mosque on the Prairie. But in a country that chuckles at such dismal, ostensibly satiric productions as Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the flat, scatological predictabilities of Just for Laughs, and the deadpan nonsense of Corner Gas, it seems that anything can be funny if the viewers are properly cued. The stated intention of the Little Mosque’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, is to put the “fun back into fundamentalism” and to give people “a sense that Muslims have so many similarities to non-Muslims…It’s the same issues, you know, a father and his rebellious teenage daughter…just because you’re Muslim your standards may be a little bit different, but they’re still the same issues.” Well, no, they’re not, and the standards are more than “a little bit different,” as even a cursory perusal of local and world news should bring home. Muslim daughters often have good reason to fear their fathers for whom rebelliousness is a capital offence.

Nawaz, who has produced a trilogy of films she calls, awkwardly, “terrordies,” has now given us something equally unamusing, a mosqueful of prattling pseudo-Muslims who have little in common with their real-world compatriots. The women on the show are cheeky, assertive, coquettish and adept at repartee—Western females in silky chadors lording it over their men and parading the gestures of a dubious emancipation. The clean-shaven, jeans-clad, latte-quaffing, yuppie imam exists nowhere in Islam. The mixed congregation is an anomaly. The bad terrorist jokes are meant to imply that terrorism is only a media bugbear, and the sort of problems which the little community must resolve—whether the fast of Ramadan ends with cucumber sandwiches or goat stew—are offensively disingenuous efforts to minimize the threat of militant Islam. And the fact that many of the sitcom’s non-Muslim characters—with the exception of the milquetoast Protestant minister who rents out church space to accommodate the mosque—tend to be rather wooden and doltish adds a layer of propaganda to this bland attempt at cultural laundering. It is a real stretch to suggest that there is fun in fundamentalism. And it must be said that there is not much fun in Little Mosque on the Prairie. The weird silence one hears beneath the chatter and the “business” is the absence of genuine laughter.

Interestingly, there are no Muslim actors among the cast. The true story involves not some charming little mosque where harmless characters traipse about trying desperately to be droll but, as Salim Mansur has written in the Western Standard, a situation in which “Canada has received its share of [Saudi] funding for mosques built across the country, where Wahabbi preaching prevails and Muslim dissidents are excluded.” The little mosque on the prairie is a flimsy pipedream; closer to the truth of things is the big mosque in London, to be erected by 2012 and staunchly backed by Muslim jihadists.5 And in Canada, the real deal is the Khalid Bin Al-Wahid mosque in Toronto, which has ordered its congregants not to acknowledge in any way Western holidays and celebrations such as Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year’s and the like. According to its website, even common activities, such as watching sports programs, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, walking dogs, etc., are to be avoided. Political activity is also forbidden except in those cases where community members are able to “exert some influence on the direction of the party so that it will take an Islamic direction” (National Post, October 3, 2007).

Admittedly, the proscription against laughter, criticism and the purgative function of carnival is common to all fundamentalisms. For despotic authority of any stripe, but especially for theocratic dispensations, “laughter stands,” to quote Walter E. Stephens writing in Diacritics (13), “in the same relation to mundus or cosmos as the Antichrist stands to the Logos.” Similarly, Charles Baudelaire deposes in Curiosités esthétiques that laughter is satanic in its origin and nature, something far below the “source of absolute truth and justice,” hence its feral and insurrectionary power. The threat inherent in laughter is ubiquitous and is recognized and feared by credal literalism wherever we may find it. Obviously, Western society is not immune to the many different forms that fundamentalism can take, from the totalizing dictates of religious faith and political doctrine to the general climate of political correctness in the media and the universities to the standardizing rules we find in the workplace, the school, the government, the various social bureaucracies, everywhere authorities can impose their regulative powers to implement a “universal system.”

Certainly, as Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out in The Defeat of the Mind, the postmodern Left with its multicultural pathology and sanctimonious invocation of identity politics, has become “a celebration of servitude…using threats of high treason to silence expressions of doubt, irony and reason.” We also have our forms of cultural repression and dour humourlessness. This is the central theme of Umberto Eco’s carnivalesque novel The Name of the Rose in which the monastic agelast, Jorge of Burgos, destroys Aristotle’s second book of Poetics in praise of laughter. (“Every word of the Philosopher,” says Jorge, “overturns the image of God” and laughter frees us “from fear of the Devil,” who is necessary as a principle of social control.)

Nevertheless, in the West the right to dissent, the comic peripety, is a basic principle. The right to write without censorship is sacred—or has been until the advent of our Human Rights Tribunals, the resolutions of the Muslim-dominated United Nations Human Rights Council and the “lawfare” suits of aggrieved Muslims protesting everything from “offensive” speech to sarirical cartoons. Movies, radio and TV, newspapers, the Net, however biased or corrupted these may be, are public fora that are largely free of state and clerical interference, at least until recently. The right to worship, to convert and even not to worship is legislatively enshrined. The political cartoon, like the theater of dissent and the satirical media, is a veritable institution which, as the Muslim riots of February 2006 protesting the Danish newspaper caricatures of the Prophet have shown, insecure and repressive cultures cannot tolerate.

The right of the individual in Western society to take exception to hierarchical structures and to express his nonconformity is at least theoretically countenanced—although the prevalent tendency we have seen among Western editors and Human Rights bodies to cave in to Muslim indignation is worrisome. Of course, there are very few authentic “individuals,” in Kierkegaard’s sense of the term (the phrase “That Individual” is incised on his tombstone, and the philosopher, we recall, was Danish) to be met in the West, those who, eschewing the intellectual fashions of the day, arrive at their convictions through original and independent reflection.6 But the option, the potentiality, is hypothetically open without the specter of incarceration or worse. The Socratic gadfly need not fear the hemlock—though he is always at risk of losing tenure, being fired, forced to pay hefty fines or compelled to attend sensitivity training sessions. However craven our public institutions, however feeble our political will and however compromised our public morality, the freedom to laugh both at oneself and one’s superiors, that is, the gift of skeptical inquiry no matter how abrasive, is the one “fundamentalism” we cannot abandon.

But when the feeling of heavy sobriety, absolute belief, collective subscription to a single master-text and devotional solemnity pervade an entire community of believers, a worldwide umma numbering between one and two billion human beings, we know we are dealing with a phenomenon of civilization, that is, with a people for whom, on the whole, the remedial corrosions of satire, the self-deflationary exercise of irony and the humanizing character of transgressive wit and sacrilegious humor have not been, as the evolutionists say, “selected for.” Impolitic jokes, ludic inversions of unquestioned observance, derisive critiques of hierarchy, satirical playfulness—an aspect of what Edward de Bono called “lateral thinking”—are not at a premium. Acclaimed British novelist Martin Amis feels that Islam, as a total system, “is eerily amenable to satire” but that in Islamism, “with total malignancy, with total terror and total boredom, irony, even militant irony (which is what satire is), merely shrivels and dies” (The Observer, “The Age of Horrorism,” September 10, 2006). But I am not so sure the fashionable distinction between Islam and Islamism is a viable one since, under the aegis of the Koran, violence is unambiguously sanctioned, irony is certainly frowned upon and satire is starved out of existence.7

Albert Brooks’ recent film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, furnishes a variation on the theme. On the one hand, it appears to suggest that humour is an ethnographic construct that is inflected differently in different cultures. But it also strongly implies that irony, which depends on verbal sleight and conceptual misdirection, will not readily be understood in cultures predicated on the lie, that is, in which deception is practised as a means of survival and is the currency of everyday life. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Lies and evasion play an important part in this culture…ignoring or simply denying what has happened is normal.”) Where the lie has become a standard form of discourse and where almost everything means the opposite of what is said as a matter of course, irony cannot thrive.

Laughter loses its subtlety and satire is deprived of its sting since it cannot be distinguished from common speech. The structure of dissimulation is too closely shared to admit of clear separation. This is palpably more or less the case in all totalitarian societies whose regimes are dependent on a subdued and uneducated populace. But in Islam, the religious prepossession tends to subvert even the possibility of lucid suspicion, adversarial skepticism and self-doubt which allows for ironic flexibility. Where the lie is reconceived as the truth and the truth is monumentalized as sacred and unassailable and incarnated in the Law—in the book of the Lord and not merely in the manifesto of the Leader—there is little room for Pantagruelizing, defined by Rabelais as “drinking to your heart’s desire and reading the fearsome exploits of Pantagruel” as he proceeds to slit the bellies of a culture’s sacred cows. Pantagruelism is the cultural tipping point for any potential Islamic satirist.

As a result, the tendency is for diverse forms of fanaticism, zealotry and blind obeisance to dominate the practice of everyday life as a ruling passion. Or to put it another way, Islam as a religious macrocosm is inhospitable to the challenge of laughter and comedy, and will not readily permit the unity of its overruling cultural discourse to be fractured by the vernacular of doubt, lampoon, farce and caricature—the language of genuine subjectivity and individuation—any more than it will sanction the translation of the Koran from the classical purity of the original Arabic. In clearing a novel and subversive space within the rigid sphere of the Law, Carnival can only be condemned as a form of heresy or treachery by a bestriding orthodoxy which feels itself threatened. For as LeRoy LaDurie explains in Carnival in Romans, carnival is replete with “symbolic systems” which provide “a comprehensive, dynamic, oppositional description of society,” issuing in the “peccant joys” of protest against the ossifications of authority, precedence and rank.

Carnival is a restructuring force with its mockery of the Partridge Kingdom (kings, judges, soldiers), its overturning of the ascetic values found in formal religious observance, and its dissident representation of “the class (or clan) struggle.” Through indulgence in satire, mockery and raucous festivity, it discharges the “flow of community…through the interstices of normative structures and ordering hierarchy” via the revolutionary upheaval of Lupercalian laughter. Carnival, of course, may paradoxically reinforce the dispensations of normative society by allowing for the temporary relieving of social pressures, a way of letting off steam, after which life returns to normal, but it may also in sensitive times erupt in social and political disorder, as LaDurie shows happened in the small French village of Romans. The therapeutic mayhem of carnival, however, is often a prelude to social restoration, public correction and the reaffirmation of our essential humanity.

Thus it will be opposed by all forms of what I have called credal literalness, whether social, political or religious.8 But in today’s volatile, powderkeg world, it is Islam with its billion and a half adherents, its gradual penetration of Western culture through rampant immigration, its stranglehold of the global economy via OPEC, its growing regional militancy and its theocratic retrenchment in scriptural orthodoxy, that stands most in need of redemptive saturnalia—and which it will continue to resist with the combined force of mosque, madrassa and social habitus.

Laughter can be strong medicine, but it must be taken in large doses to be effective, and the pharmacies are often poorly stocked. And there are always some who feel that medicine is hazardous to one’s health. What Jure Gantar in The Pleasure of Fools calls “ethical laughter”—an initial, methodological concept—is, as he says, highly problematic and something of an oxymoron owing to its agonistic and unsettling nature, which is why it is reproved by the more abstemious school of moralists and criminalized by dictatorial regimes of whatever kidney. As Gantar concludes, there may be finally something unhealthy or unethical about satrical laughter but, unsparing and rebellious, it may also be a powerful force for the good even as it wounds. The source here is probably in Aristotle’s Poetics (1) where the philosopher lays it down that “comedy is a representation of inferior people” and that “the laughable is a species of the base or ugly…an obvious example being the comic mask.”

With this definition in mind, we might say that satiric laughter is a subset of comic laughter, a kind of verbal flanning, in that it actively reduces the sclerosis of high dignity and self-importance to the level of the inferior, base or ugly. In this sense, satire is comedy with a subversive purpose, launching volleys of laughter in a war for political and intellectual freedom, which is why it is so often contra-indicated. (If there were such a thing as the satiric mask, it would be the entarted face.) For Gantar, the vulnerable cruelty of laughter, in its lancing of the many forms of tyrannical oppression to which we are subject, must neither be co-opted nor smothered by the stolid authority of moral sobriety or the firmans of theocratic rigidity. The free individual cannot flourish in a “humourless limbo” that forbids “marginal and decentered discourses” founded in a “multiplicity of perspectives” and the cauterizings of ironic laughter. Ultimately, it is this “multiplicity of perspectives” that is the defining element in the liberation of the spirit. As the literary critic J. Wilbur Sanders writes in a beautiful little book entitled John Donne’s Poetry, looking at the matter from a subjective perspective, irony implies a “willingness to have one’s feelings observed from many other viewpoints besides one’s own”—precisely what presupposes an inward strength of character as well as helps to create it, and precisely what is missing from any fundamentalist creed.

Ultimately, irony is good for the fitness of the soul: it has iron in it.9


1 Popular Iranian director Tahmineh Milani presents a more ambiguous case. Her domestic comedy Ceasefire, to take one example, shows a well-off and trendy squabbling couple who could just as well be living in an affluent suburb of Paris, London or New York. Their kitchen is state-of-the-art, the car in the driveway is a BMW, and they can afford to visit a marriage counsellor—who instructs them to confront their “inner dictator.” Nevertheless, the film is marred by its (necessary) concessions to the rules enforced by the external dictator. The “modern” wife is never seen without her headscarf, even in the privacy of the home, and they are never seen to exchange a harmless peck, even in the privacy of the bedroom. Milani is a fearless director who has taken considerable risks in the past, but she is hobbled by an oppressive religious authority and constrained by the need to survive. And for all its comical goings-on, the humour never really takes off and Ceasefire finally remains cloaked in the heavy garb of stifling religious and political conformity.

2 Many of Dieudonné’s routines, like dressing up as a rabbi and crying “Isra-heil” or, in a particularly virulent anti-Israel number, impersonating Hitler in his bunker and claiming that “in the future people will come to realize that I, Adolf Hitler, was really a moderate,” are much appreciated by antisemites everywhere. But he has become something of a culture hero to French Muslims.

3 Flying El Al to Israel, Hanania quipped that he knew he was on an Israeli airline when the toilets said “occupied.” But neither does he spare Palestinian sensibilities. “We Palestinians screwed up. We gave this country the wrong name. Feinstein, Einstein, Palestine.” According to Hanania, the Middle East “road map” to peace must fail since Israeli and Palestinian men are such terrible drivers. Mirza also has her moments, but anyone who in a comic routine performed shortly after 9/11 can joke, even in the effort to establish the innocence of the larger community, “My name is Shazia Mirza…at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence,” must give us pause.

4 So far as I can tell, there is little or no humour in the Koran, which is one of the ways in which it differs from the Bible. The parables and aphorisms of Jesus, for example, are filled with humour, parody and irony, and even the super-earnest Isaiah’s use of the word basar, translated as “preach,” carries the meaning of cheerfulness. Abraham’s haggling with God has all the marks of a comedy sketch. The Jewish Joke is a special case, a way of surviving in a bear market; like Noah, the Jew floats his stock in a situation in which everyone else would be in liquidation.

5 The Markaz mosque will accommodate 70,000 worshippers and will be erected beside the London Olympics center which it will dwarf. The mosque is supported by the Islamic radical movement, Tabligh-i-Jamaat, originating in the extremist Deobandi sect that also gave us the Taliban. Little Mosque on the Prairie is like a preschooler’s finger painting. A far more accurate picture of the Muslim reality is furnished by British TV Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, whose Undercover Mosque segment, aired on January 15, 2007, disclosed the painful truth. London is the West’s Islamic future. One need only look at the Regent Park Mosque, the Saudi-backed London Muslim Centre and the notorious Finsbury Park mosque and their involvement in terrorist activities. Again, in a real-world situation, minister Donald McKay of the Campbell Baptist Church in Windsor, Ontario, unlike his counterpart in the sitcom, had to revoke an act of interfaith hospitality. Having scheduled three speeches to be given on church premises by former Muslim terrorist Zacharia Anani, who argues that the roots of violence are planted in the Koran and cites a bordereau of relevant passages to substantiate his point, pastor McKay was forced by the uproar that ensued to cancel the last two lectures. “It’s hard to believe we’re in Canada,” he said afterward, “I feel like I’m in an oppressive regime…I think our liberties are being eroded…if something is not said, we’re all going to be under sharia law in 15 years.” This is the reality that innocuous fustian like Little Mosque works to camouflage. The hit TV series 24 also hews closer to our real concerns than does the CBC sitcom. For the Muslim community in the West, the problem is not negotiating a lease to establish a user-friendly mosque in Mercy, Saskatchewan but to prevent a nuclear suitcase bomb from detonating in Valencia, California.

6 In The Temptation of Innocence, Pascal Bruckner says of the concept of the individual that this “ideal must be constantly held up to the various counterfeits that circulate today under the name of individualism,” which for most of us who aspire to this distinction is really “only a series of lapses, of escapes into cowardice, routine, and subservience.” True individualism is to be understood as structured like a “pioneering experiment conducted by exceptional personalities who dared to emancipate themselves from prevailing dogmas and practices…” In the last analysis, a faltering individualism “will not be cured by a return to tradition or by increased permissiveness but by a more demanding definition of its ideal…”

7 Amis, be it said, does tend to collapse the distinction between Islam and Islamism when he considers what life would be like under an Islamic Caliphate. Such an imperium would introduce us into a world “of perfect terror and perfect boredom, and of nothing else—a world with no games, no arts, and no women, a world where the only entertainment is the public execution…Islam is total…Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma—the community of believers.” This is not a world in which humour, irony and satire may be expected to blossom. The Borg do not laugh.

8 In a cogent article for the National Post of February 8, 2006, entitled “They don’t get it,” Barbara Kay points out that while, in the West, “satire is a vehicle for moral, social and political correction,” public shaming “can’t work on a target that doesn’t ‘get’ irony…we forget that irony is a peculiarly Western critical marinade, flourishing in societies that value the unfettered freedom of reason and the imagination. Irony is not understood by solipsists and is viewed as a subversive element by totalitarian regimes.” Thus it must “wither[ ] among the literalist flock serving unitary ideologies like Communism or doctrinaire Islam.” Satire, she concludes, correctly, is only effective “when its target is capable of modifying the behaviour the ridicule throws into relief…But where no correction is possible, there is no humour.” The formula works in reverse as well.

9 Methodologically speaking, satire is a literary genre and irony a rhetorical trope, but for the purposes of this essay the two terms are used more or less interchangeably to indicate a habit of mind.

David Solway is the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity. A new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, will be released by CanadianValuesPress this fall.

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