Can Muslims take a Joke?

By Maqsood Ahmed and Majed Iqbal-

Borat approached a passer-by in a New York street and said in the style of his Kazakh alter ego: “I like your clothings. Are nice! Please may I buying? I want have sex with it.” But the target of his joke didn’t see the funny side and punched Cohen repeatedly in the face.

This is not the first time Americans failed to get the Borat joke. Two US students who appeared in the Borat movie are suing Sacha Baron Cohen, the architect and player of the notorious Kazakh Borat character claiming they have suffered “mental anguish” after they were filmed making racist and sexist remarks.

Borat aired international reputation after the launch of his film ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ where audiences apparently laughed non-stop as he poked fun at Jews, feminists, gays, blacks, US President George W. Bush’s “war of terror”, frat boys, evangelicals, Kazakhstan and its neighbour Uzbekistan and included a clip where he goes into a redneck bar and sings “a song from my country, ‘Throw the Jew down the well’”.

Despite all the offence, ridiculing, wrongful depiction, satirising characters, abuse of people, stereotyping, only a few raised eybrows on the content of the movie even after overt discriminatory attempts made in the movie. “After all, it’s only a laugh and joke and nothing real- its all character based on a looney tune from central Asia. Let’s laugh at it and with it!” are the comments which people keep expressing.

The same discussion comes in light of a story which has been picked up by hundreds of newspapers, blogs and radio stations around the world. Comedian and writer Ben Elton has said the BBC is too “scared” to broadcast jokes about Muslims for fear of provoking radical Islamists.

Elton told the magazine how he had sat on a panel and suggested a joke involving Mohammed, which was rejected. “I wanted to use the phrase ‘Muhammad came to the mountain’ and everybody said, ‘Oh, don’t! Just don’t! Don’t go there!’

Both the Borat debacle and Elton’s comments rest upon the concept of freedom of thought, considered as a fundamental component of western Liberal democracies. The ideas sacredness is sanctified, more dogmatically adhered and overrides any other scriptural texts as a key thought.

It is in this spirit that the character Borat is able to ridicule ethnic minorities in his film, for Jyllands Posten, the Danish newspaper to publish and consequently re-publish offensive cartoons of the prophet of Islam, for Dutch MP Geert Wilders to equate the Quran to Hitler’s Fascist book “Mein Kampf” and consequently call for banning both books, for Jack straw to air views that the Niqab is a sign of segregation in Britain and for Politicians throughout Europe to use the Islam and Muslim card to further their narrow political agendas.

In the desire to protect the principle of freedom of speech, little regard and responsibility is exemplified towards others, even if this means offensive statements are openly aired against a section of society and are consequently marginalised and made vulnerable to further ridicule and attacks.

No doubt, some will view Borat’s film as a new artistic expression of comedy sketches with little worry of the effects it will have on those it has sought to malign and make a laughing stock of. Whilst others will cringe at scenes in which the character vilifies his subjects.

It begs to question the unquestionable for proponents of Liberal democracy; is freedom un-restricted or should it come with responsibility? Can such concepts guarantee tolerance and cohesion of communities in a society or does it diametrically oppose the gelling of people? Who draws the line of where to stop? In fact, should there even be a line?

For a society to function in a harmonious way it must be tolerant. How can the line between satire and insult become so blurred that the society spirals towards becoming dysfunctional?

The last years have seen commentators continuously argue that Muslims are over-sensitive and cannot stomach liberal values. More often than not, Muslims have been asked to either integrate with such norms or simply book a ticket and fly over to another destination more compatible to their tastes.

Ben Elton’s audience who halted him to use the phrase in a joke ‘Muhammad came to the mountain’ exemplified the very horrors that the idea of freedom of speech is able to create which Borat, Jyllands Postens, Geert Wilders, and many others have totally disregarded.

Whilst commentators continuously batter at Islamic and Muslim values and highlight their incompatibility with modern secular values, it would be apt now more than ever to show a mirror reflection of Western liberalism and open a debate on what it is able to bring onto the table for building harmonious societies, especially when compared to the rich track record of the Islamic civilisation in catering for all peoples and nations.