Comedians in a precarious position are the funniest. Photo: Flickr/wonderferret
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HaLOL: can the UK have a laugh about Islam?

The Comedy Store in London held a rare showcase of Muslim comedians this week, who gave sharp insights into navigating Islam in the UK.

We’ve seen some new faces popping up in British comedy over the past couple of years. A few more women pepper the stand-up circuit now, and there are a handful of comedians with disabilities who are gaining popularity. Plus acts that were once simply filed under “LGBT comedy” are making it to mainstream stages.

But the perception, too often a reality, of stand-up comedy as a beery pastime for middle-aged white men exasperated with their wives/jobs/hair loss persists. And it’s telling that the most high-profile stand-up who specialises in political satire is Al Murray, whose mock-bigot Pub Landlord alter ego has known to appeal to genuinely xenophobic audiences.

So what happens when the country’s best-known comedy venue hosts an evening of solely Muslim comedians? Are UK audiences able to laugh about Islam?

Watch Imran Yusuf:


The Comedy Store just off Piccadilly Circus in London showcased six Muslim comedians in a beautifully-named comedy set, HaLOL, this week to a packed venue. And their routines – at once risqué, affectionate, edgy and daring – proved that the best comedy springs from a precarious standpoint.

As the journalist Caitlin Moran recently told the Guardian in an interview, “men have made all their jokes; now all the jokes are in the ladies’ corner”, there is a definite feeling that the old high command of comedy (usually respected middle-aged white male comedians for whom the Comedy Store is a spiritual home) are far too comfortable to hog all the jokes any more. And could there be a less naturally comfortable subject to have a laugh about than Islam, and the experience of British Muslims today?

Watch Tez Ilyas:


HaLOL is slickly compered by Imran Yusuf, an energetic young thing who bounds about the stage and gently ribs the audience (“these are my three wives”, he says gesturing to some women in the front row, and “I love Celtic people, they are the Palestinians of the British Isles,” he shouts, fist raised, when he hears from some Irish audience members).

Yusuf, who has been nominated for Edinburgh Best Newcomer and appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, talks a bit about his Kenyan-Indian roots, and informs the audience before the show begins that life is “not easy for Muslims” in Britain at the moment – a statement that is brought to life by the acts he hosts.

The biggest laughs by far – but also the most extreme periods of shocked silence – are elicited by the only woman in the line-up, Shazia Mirza, a comedian and writer of Pakistani descent from Birmingham. “It’s a woman,” she says in mock-awe when she takes the stage, “turn your face the other way, it’s all Haram now.”

Watch Shazia Mirza:


Her set is by far the most daring, veering from giving audience members in hijabs a dubious welcome – “good to see you out of the house” – to explaining Grindr to an elderly Muslim man in the front row, and from an excruciating punch line linking bikini waxes with FGM to being mistaken for Malala. “That’s right,” she deadpans. “I got shot in the head and now I tell jokes”.

Ironically, the theme of her set is her dismissal of people who get offended. She also laments the media’s insistence that she represents “my lot”, a frustration voiced by many writers, entertainers and public figures of a minority background.

Watch Prince Abdi:


Over and over, stories of discrimination, casual racism, and rising misinformation and hysteria about Islam in Britain supply each performer with rich comic material. British Nigerian comedian Nabil Abdulrashid opens his set with a description of performing in Kent, and how terrified he was of his audience of "22 bald white guys". "Are they naturally bald?" he asks, "or do they just have strong opinions about immigration?"

The cheeky, sharp-suited Tez Ilyas’s confessions about life as a young British Muslim man – staying sober on a Benidorm stag weekend, receiving sexts from a potential date who uses the word “Paki” – are a painfully hilarious illustration of the difficulties of growing up as a Muslim in the UK.

The Somali-born Prince Abdi’s impressions of characters encountered by a black man going about his life in London – a cockney, rudeboys, a strict Jamaican father, night bus maniacs and gang members – are searingly accurate, matched only by Abdulrashid’s impersonation of a fey TV executive telling him his name’s “too Muslim”.

Unusually for a two-hour comedy run, all the material is high quality and very few of the jokes fall flat. But the loudest cheer all evening is in response to Yusuf’s simple declaration at the end of the night: “Fuck Isis”.

Watch Nabil Abdulrashid:

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.