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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.