Religious rib-ticklers

Heard the one about the Muslim comedian? This and much more in our round-up of quirkier parts of the

What with the rain, the football, and the massive data loss on an unprecedented scale, there was not all that much to laugh about this week.

Bucking the trend was Allah Made Me Funny, a Muslim comedy tour which reached the UK recently. Its arrival caused a fair bit of chin-stroking in the British press, despite the fact that there are already a number of cracking Muslim comedians around, including NS columnist Shazia Mirza and members of the provocatively named Axis of Evil group.

There are also quite a few websites where you can get a regular dose of Islamic drollery (check out the one about a Rabbi, a Mullah and a Nun).

So why is 'Muslim comedy' still treated as such a novel phenomenon? Do shows like Allah Made Me Funny utilise this novelty factor in the way they are promoted and thus implicitly give sustenance to the unhelpful notion that funny Muslims are pretty rare? Or should the tour be praised for effectively and flamboyantly counterbalancing a number of damaging and pervasive stereotypes?

Either way, it’s been hailed as a genuinely amusing show and the debate it has provoked is a good deal more interesting than the increasingly unedifying 'Is Martin Amis the new Bernard Manning?' spat, which is still trundling on, its news value buoyed by a number of celebrity interventions.

Meanwhile, racial identity underlay a number of the other arts stories of the week as we asked if the modern music scene has become too segregated, while The Guardian questioned if a film telling what it called "a black story" should be made by a black director.

Fakebook Revisited

It was recently revealed on this blog that Noble Laureate Doris Lessing has a MySpace page.

Which other great writers are maintaining a strong web presence? The good news for Doris is that she is streets ahead of most of her contemporaries, aside from trendy Dave Eggers who has a page over on MySpace rival facebook.

However, there are a number of unofficial and spoof literary MySpace pages, some of which are serious minded fan sites (like this one on Martin Amis), some of which are blatant parodies (on this page someone purporting to be Salman Rushdie lists their interests as “pissing people off” and “watching the telly”). Worryingly for Doris, despite her page being legitimate, she has only a paltry 345 online chums while the obviously fake Salman has an impressive 487.

Moreover, aside from the fake contemporary novelists, an alarming number of deceased literary greats are living out a ghoulish electronic afterlife on the net. Even Shakespeare has a page (“It is correct. I am backeth!”): he’s got 6298 friends, lives in Elsinore Castle and offers you the chance to buy ‘original merchandise’.

You can check out a blog from "Tolstoy" (who is currently reading If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?) or pages ostensibly set-up by TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and multiple Dostoevskys.

This is all waggish enough but as publishers latch on to the marketing potential of social networking sites (“Hi this is Philip Roth inviting you to check out my new novel”) it might not be long before someone clamps down on the fake literati of cyberspace. It seems only fair to Doris.


MySpace homepage

A blog entry on literary fakers

Short Cuts

Things you may have missed this week included the Third Annual No Music Day and the bizarre news that Queen star and physics buff Brian May is to take over from Cherie Blair as the next Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

Meanwhile, the opening of the exhibition King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the former millennium dome (now rehabilitated as the London O2 Arena) has been causing a stir, with some commentators criticising the hefty admission price, the choice of venue and the allegedly gaudy design of the galleries. Are the complaints of King Tut’s Wah Wah Club justified? We’ll have a full review in our next issue. In the coming week you could check out work by the acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, support a popular Youth Theatre’s redevelopment plan or enter yourself (ethnicity and gender permitting) into the 2007 Miss India UK Competition. Enjoy.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood