Thomas Sutcliffe: The comedy guide to anti-Islamic prejudice

Social Studies: Comedians know that you can take a short cut to a laugh by way of a received opinion

Tuesday 25 January 2011 01:00 GMT

It's not a dinner party, exactly – Baroness Warsi's preferred method of taking the pulse of our prejudices – but you could make a case that Radio 4's much-loved panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is almost as good a diagnostic test of what's sayable these days. And in the most recent episode there was an exchange that seemed to substantiate her argument the other day, when she argued that prejudice against Muslims had become socially acceptable.

In a regular section – the Uxbridge English Dictionary – the panel were asked to provide new definitions for existing words. "A la carte," offered Tim Brooke Taylor. "A Muslim wheelbarrow". "That was Tim's joke" said Jack Dee pointedly, after a short pause – the basic implication being clear: Muslims don't have much of a sense of humour when it comes to Allah. And while there wasn't any malice in this off-the-cuff remark it struck me that it might be a little depressing for any Muslim listener to be so reflexively associated with retaliatory violence.

A little while later Ross Noble offered another suggestion: "Juniper – an Israeli toddler", and Dee suggested the programme might have got itself off the hook. So – the comic logic ran – as long as you have a crack at the Jews as well they might let you live, a gag that seemed to add innate anti-Semitism to the caricature.

I don't believe that Jack Dee is Islamophobic, by the way. But he knew, as comedians do, that you can take a short cut to a laugh by way of a received opinion. And for me, that passing incident chimed oddly with another one, an experience that suggested I might not be entirely free of the same kind of prejudice myself.

In one of London's big cultural institutions last week I found myself looking at a work of art which, four years earlier, had been withdrawn from public display in a different cultural institution on the grounds that it might prove provocative to Muslim sensibilities (they reportedly received police advice to that effect at the time). How interesting, I thought. Institution Two surely deserves congratulation for its show of nerve. But then I hesitated. Might not a public congratulation bring about exactly the trouble that Institution One had feared?

This work's pre-history was not mentioned anywhere in the publicity material, and even the label was circumspect about its nature. For the moment, then, the kind of idiot who might seize it as an opportunity for pious self-publicity was in a state of happy ignorance. Better, perhaps to keep it that way – hence the ludicrously vague nature of my description. I still can't quite decide whether I'm paranoid or they are, or whether this has just become the air we breathe.

It needs to be talked about, surely – whether it's at dinner parties or anywhere else. It isn't, after all, completely irrational to think that there might be some Muslims who would react violently to a joke about Allah (it has happened, after all). And it isn't unsubstantiated prejudice to think that a work of art might galvanise troublesome, even dangerous protests (that's happened too). Or that atrocity has become the chosen form of debate for some Muslims.

Who really, on hearing of yesterday's news from Moscow, thought "Hmm ... I wonder if the bombers were Greek Orthodox militants?" And yet those hard facts become a genuinely hazardous prejudice if we let them colour our attitudes to Muslims in general. Which means that precisely the distinction Baroness Warsi found so depressing – between "moderate" and "extreme" Muslims – remains absolutely indispensable.

It's unfair – in its implicit suggestion that the question always has to be asked. And it's misleading in the way that it subconsciously tugs you towards an idea of balanced opposites, when the crazies are actually a tiny minority. But the alternative is not making distinctions at all – or simply falling silent altogether out of fear of saying the wrong thing. And that doesn't counter prejudice. It just lets it simmer.

Strange ethics under the covers

Some important relationship advice emerges from an undercover officer who spent four years infiltrating an anti-racist group. He confirmed that casual sex was widely accepted to be part of deep penetration work but that it was relatively easy to avoid serious attachments: "The best way of stopping any liaison getting too heavy was to shag someone else," he told a journalist. "It's amazing how women don't like you going to bed with someone else." Amazing indeed. Who knew?

Thank goodness this arduous work has produced some top-grade intelligence. And that officers of this acuity were been given the important task of keeping an eye on those dangerous anti-racists. Thank goodness too that we have senior policemen with a grasp of ethics as clear-sighted as that of Jon Murphy, ACPO's National Coordinator for Serious and Organised Crime, who described sexual activity by undercover officers as "morally wrong because people have been put there to do a particular task and people have got trust in them".

Exactly right. When you've given a man the job of lying, deceiving and betraying people's trust on a daily basis it is clearly essential that he be a character of unimpeachable integrity. And – one assumes – take a vow of celibacy too. I don't know what else we secured for the very high costs of running these operations, but when it comes to making policemen look like ingenuous fools, we've surely more than got our money's worth.

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