What's funny about Islam?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor   |   Feb. 3, 2006 at 4:43 PM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Allah or Jehovah or God or Providence evidently has a playful and penetrating sense of coincidence. We might have called it a sense of humor, but for the seriousness of the extraordinary row that has erupted between Islam and much of the European media over the decision to run the Mohammed cartoons.

These 12 cartoons that first ran in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten last September, and now in newspapers in France and Germany, Spain and Italy, Norway and Holland and on the BBC, are not a barrel of laughs. They are almost as un-funny as the coincidence that has Hollywood's rather wan new comedy movie titled "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

The only cartoon of the 12 that seems to have raised even the ghost of a smile portrayed Mohammed the Prophet (Peace be upon him, as Muslims say) at the gates of paradise, waving away some freshly charred suicide bombers, and saying "Go away - we are running out of virgins."

And one of the few funny moments in the new Alan Brooks movie was when he was invited by al-Jazeera TV to star in a new Arab sitcom to be called "That Darned Jew."

Humor is one of the greatest gifts that the aforementioned and multi-named creator ever gave to suffering humanity. It is one of the ways we measure our difference from other creatures. And there does not seem to be much of it about.

Muslims protested, at first rather politely, to the Danish newspaper. The editor said he was sorry if he had unwittingly caused offense, but he reckoned that by the principles of a free press, he had a right to print them.

So he does, and there is a fine and politically useful tradition of caricature and satire and puncturing of all sacred cows that makes up part of the discourse of free democracies.

If Muslims who choose to live in Denmark or another European country where this tradition is valued and understood do not like it, then they are perfectly free to leave for more devout and authoritarian shores. They are also free to write letters of protest to the editor, march in protest around his newspaper, boycott the paper and its advertisers and adopt all the other forms of expressing strong, principled and peaceful dissent that are also intrinsic to democratic societies.

Muslims abroad are also entitled to express their views, although wild threats to kidnap European diplomats and the armed takeover of the European Union offices in Gaza Thursday are foolish and self-defeating. Those EU offices have disbursed over $3 billions to the Palestinians, and are one of the few life-support systems that Palestine has. If a poll were taken among Europeans today, there would probably be a considerable majority for leaving the empty offices to the gunmen and keeping the money for deserving causes in Europe.

So in the spirit of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" (and Muslim readers who may not know this work should look it up), it seems worth proposing some alternative uses for those EU funds.

One very deserving cause would be an education campaign to explain carefully to newspapers in the Arab world why their vicious cartoon depictions of Jews, and their now hackneyed way of depicting Ariel Sharon as Adolf Hitler, is in appalling taste. Not that they should be stopped for revealing their curious thought processes if they insist on repeating such Jew-baiting nastiness, but it might be useful to explain to them why it neither wins friends nor influences people.

The money might also be spent on holding public debates across Europe asking why sharia law demands the death penalty for any Muslim who abandons the faith, when Muslims are free to proselytize and win converts in Europe.

Or one might ask why Saudi Arabia allows no Christian churches on its soil, when the desert kingdom feels free to pump some $3 billions a year into building mosques and subsidizing Imams and proselytizing their puritanical Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Some of that European money the gunmen of Gaza are spurning might even be used for a referendum on which Europeans are asked if all the mosques in the EU should be closed until such date as the Saudis welcome some Christian churches and missionaries into their land.

Maybe the best use of the money might be to finance a dual-language Arabic and English movie titled "Looking for Comedy in the Christian World," or to subsidize the distribution of Hollywood's search for laughs in the Islamic world. It would be interesting to learn if there's anything beyond slapstick that makes all of us laugh, almost as useful as explaining to the Arab world why freedom lf the press is so important to the West.

Some of the money might also be used to reprint the sensible editorial published by the splendidly-named Jihad Momani, editor of the Jordanian tabloid al-Shiran, under the headline: "Muslims of the world, be reasonable."

"What brings more prejudice against Islam, those caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"

A good point, and hats off to Jihad Momanu for making it. A pity that he was fired just hours after that editorial appeared. A pity also that the editor of Paris newspaper France-Soir was fired by his paper's Egyptian owner after he reprinted the Danish cartoons. An even greater pity that the French supermarket group Carrefour decided to cave in to the boycott campaign's demand to remove Danish products from the shelves of its stores in the Arab world.

And it is a real tragedy that the Turkish premier Tayyip Erdogan should have called for limits on press freedom in response to this "attack on our spiritual values."

Erdogan is currently trying to get his country into the EU by insisting that Turkey now abides by EU standards of human rights and freedoms, and he may just with that remark have shot himself in the foot. He clearly understands freedom of the press no more than Saudi religious zealots understand a level playing field, no more than Egyptian cartoonists understand the Holocaust, no more than Hollywood understands Arab humor.

And that should give us all pause for thought, because it is not funny at all, so unfunny that if we didn't laugh about it, we'd have to cry.

Ends

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