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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad