Religion is a laughing matter

The Infidel shows how comedy can fight prejudice.

Heard the one about the funny Muslim and Jew? Thought not; the concepts of religion and comedy rarely sit well together, let alone comedy that involves two cultures. But although Islam and Judaism seem unlikely comic bedfellows, there is a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene on the circuit. I'm a performing member and trustee of MUJU, the Muslim-Jewish collective housed at the Tricycle theatre, where we devise and perform comedy and drama that not only satirises both cultures, but also the "mainstream" perception of them.

As MUJU embarks on its first tour, the comedy has extended beyond gags about Muslim and Jewish dating to satirising the governments "preventing violent extremism" strategy. Against a backdrop that includes radio campaigns warning us "if you suspect it, report it", to school teachers being trained to identify "extremist children", MUJU's sketches include the reformed extremist desperate to educate the Muslim community on how not to be a fundamentalist, to the doctor reviewing a pregnant Muslim's ultrasound scan for signs of a radicalised baby.

MUJU recently acted as community partners to David Baddiel's new film The Infidel, a comedy starring Omid Djalili. The film centres on Mahmud, an east end British Asian Muslim taxi driver who discovers he was adopted and was actually born a Jew. Cue cultural gags, including lessons on the correct way to say "oy", in what is ultimately a body-swap movie. MUJU advised on cultural aspects of the script and provided support in casting. While a Muslim-Jewish comedy sounds controversial, none of this was reflected on set; for many of the Muslim extras it was a chance to be part of something that attempted to portray an "everyday" Muslim family, albeit one that comes across extremists when Mahmud's son falls for the daughter of a fundamentalist.

The need to be perceived as "normal" remains key for many British Muslims. Referring to a scene in the film in which a burqa-clad woman is reading celebrity gossip, depressingly one journalist asked the co-chair of MUJU whether British Muslim's "Really do read Heat magazine?"

Baddiel claims that The Infidel is not designed to promote interfaith dialogue but is a buddy movie that comes from a place of affection. He does believe that political correctness has made people afraid to make comedies that deal with race and religion, and claims that the BBC dropped out of the project over concerns about a backlash.

For MUJU, writing and performing is an obvious way to give voice to members' opinions; an opportunity for some of the so-called silent majority to shout as loud as the roofs of fringe theatres and comedy clubs will allow. But the gulf between fringe arts and mainstream film and television is as vast as the one between fundamentalists and moderate Muslims, and it is one that can only be narrowed by those brave enough to commission projects that don't shy away from culture and faith.

"The Infidel" is in cinemas from today
www.muju.org.uk

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser