Baron Cohen comes out of character to defend Borat

He is a comedian whose alter ego - a racist, sexist homophobe - has delighted many, appalled some and is selling out cinemas across Britain and America.

Now, after staying resolutely in boorish persona during previous interviews, Sacha Baron Cohen has spoken in depth about his motives in creating his comical anti-hero Borat. The journalist from Kazakhstan who sings anti-Semitic songs and refers to women as prostitutes was created "as a tool" to expose people's prejudices, he said.

The 35-year-old Jewish comedian from London has maintained a long silence over the controversy raised by Borat, whose extreme anti-Semitic remarks have earned censure both from the Kazakh government and from the Jewish community.

In one sketch from Baron Cohen's film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which premiered this month in London, Borat performs a song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well" in a country and western bar in Arizona.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, the comedian revealed he was a devout Jew, observing Sabbath and eating kosher foods, and he referred to the singing scene to defend his inflammatory comedy.

"Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudices, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism. 'Throw the Jew Down the Well' was a very controversial sketch, and some members of the Jewish community thought it was actually going to encourage anti-Semitism.

"But to me it revealed something about that bar in Tuscon. And the question is: did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism," he said.

Baron Cohen said the concept of "indifference towards anti-Semitism" had been informed by his study of the Holocaust while at Cambridge University, where he read history. "I remember, when I was in university, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.'

"I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic," he said.

He also talked of his astonishment at hearing that the Kazakh government was thinking of suing him over the offence caused by his comic alter ego, and stressed that the "joke is not on Kazakhstan".

"I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realise that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater. The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist - who believe that there's a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old...

"I've been in a bizarre situation, where a country has declared me as its number one enemy. It's inherently a comic situation," he said.

While Borat has drawn much criticism from Kazakh ministers - the government took out a full page ad in The New York Times to promote their country at one stage - Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakhstan ambassador to Britain, admitted to finding some humour in the film.

Baron Cohen, who was born in Hammersmith to an affluent Orthodox Jewish family, is the second of three sons. He went to an independent school in Elstree, and Christ's College, Cambridge, and worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs before starting his career in television.