If there is one thing I can say with certainty, it is that British Asians of all religious persuasions feel more uncomfortable than others at satire regarding their faith.
A short clip from a new BBC2 show called Revolting has gone viral online and sparked controversy, not only for its title (The Real Housewives of Isis), but because it depicts their members alongside the kind of biting satire we rarely see.
One clip shows two women trading nasty looks because they’re both wearing identical-looking suicide vests on a day out. Another one has difficulty keeping track of how many dead husbands she has been through.
There’s a lot to unpack here, including the fact that I still can’t find the Isis emoji on my phone – and also whether using it might get me arrested by MI5. More seriously, I can see why the programme is being criticised. At a time when Muslims face stigma and racism, especially from vindictive tabloid newspapers which have been found guilty of smearing Muslim families, such humour can make things worse.
But the case for uncomfortable satire like The Real Housewives of Isis is far, far stronger.
We have been here before. It’s nearly 20 years since Goodness Gracious Me took Britain by storm. Asians laughing at themselves? Making fun of white people? Unheard of! Many British Asians initially hated it too, saying it perpetuated stereotypes and could fuel racism. Hell, it even featured a Hindu holy man who tricked gullible white people into parting with their money (and sometimes their clothes). You couldn’t get more cutting edge than that.
We underestimate the power of humour. Laughing at ourselves isn’t just a way to break down barriers; it is also a means to challenge fundamentalists.
Arabs know this better than most – they have been making satire and comedy shows about Isis for longer than we have. As the Saudi comedian Nasser al-Qasabi put it: “Warning the people about Isis is the true jihad [struggle], because we’re fighting them with art not war.”
The argument against poking fun at a terrorist group such as Isis, or even any religious group at all, rests on the idea that people shouldn’t be allowed to comment on others. What is satire, after all, if not a form of commentary?
Humour is subjective. If you don’t find it funny, so what? Others may do. When I posted about this on Facebook, I had a comment from a Muslim hijabi woman who said she loved it. But saying people shouldn’t be allowed to poke fun is to imply people cannot be allowed to comment on others. That is a dangerous proposition. It’s one step away from saying non-Muslims cannot write articles about Muslims and vice versa. Is that the kind of society we want?
The main argument against The Real Housewives of Isis is that its protagonists are victims who should be pitied, not ridiculed. Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were 15 and 16 when they were groomed and brainwashed into joining that death cult.
But the uncomfortable fact is that Isis also attracted older British women who knew what they were doing. Tareena Shakil was 26 when she fled to Syria with her son to join Isis. Khadijah Dare was 24 when she left with her own son. Samantha/Sherafiyah Lewthwaite was 32 when she joined; Sally Jones was even older.
Isis did groom their victims, but most of them were not underage. The group also attracted women who knew what they were doing and deserve to be ridiculed. Our sympathy should lie with the real victims of Isis: the underage girls who were groomed and the Yazidi women who were brutally raped and enslaved. Making jokes about them would be crossing the line, but The Real Housewives of Isis doesn’t do this.
I know that not everyone will agree with me and many still find such jokes in poor taste. That’s fine. We shouldn’t expect everyone to like them. But a society where satire has to be approved by everyone before being allowed doesn’t know the value of comedy.
The lesson from Goodness Gracious Me was the opposite of what its critics feared. We were able to laugh at white Brits going to an Indian restaurant and in turn they laughed at competitive Asian aunties. Shared humour can do a better job of breaking down barriers than a thousand articles. So, lighten up! Isis deserves all the ridicule it gets.
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