Joking and Islam

A Dutch Arabist, Maurits Berger, recently called for the Dutch to stop talking about Islam. It's not Islam that's really up for discussion, but rather immigration and integration, he said. The Dutch are "creating" Islam by talking about it so much, since we're in fact talking about many diverse and fragmented social groups (ie, Moroccans, Turks etc) and not one body.

That seemed rather strange to me, especially coming from somebody who is a certified researcher into Islam and Arabism. Looking up at his other articles, I thought I could start going over them all, though I was not sure it was worth the effort.

However, I thought I'll go over at least one. An article which looked interesting is titled "Muslims Laugh a Lot, But Not Over Everything". Can Arabs take a joke? Why did the Muslims go crazy over the Danish Mohammed cartoons? I found his conclusions to be very interesting.

The article starts off with a joke, which was found to be funny by Muslim friends of his as well as Christian.

A Christian comes to a sheikh and asks to convert. After making sure that the guy knows what he's doing he informs him he will have to be circumcised. The guy is frightened, but agrees. Not 5 months later, he comes back. He's had enough of all the praying and fasting. He wants to go back to Christianity. The sheikh asks the Christian if he realizes that this would be apostasy and that there's a death sentence for that. The Christian then cries out "What kind of religion is this? One in which your foreskin is cut off when you want in and your head when you want out?"

I didn't this this joke was very funny. I tried to think of all the "Jew converts to Christianity" jokes I know, and for some reason, none of them end with the guy getting killed. Today, when a man in Afghanistan is being put on trial for converting to Christianity and is facing a possible execution I find it even less funny. (And it is interesting that the Christian is called a "Christian" throughout. Didn't he convert and can't go back?)

Berger brings it as an example to show that Muslims can laugh at themselves and their religion. So what is it they don't laugh about? The icons of religion. There are three taboo subjects in the Arab world - religion, government and parents and no jokes can be made on those. As Berger calls it, "this has to do with the self-imposed limits on freedom of speech." (That is, it's not that we're dealing with dictatorships and police states who will prevent any criticism of the regime, but rather a cultural ban on making fun of authority figures).

In any case, these three taboos do not exist in the Western world. Religion's authority has been cut down by enlightment, the government's by democracy and the parents' by anti-authoritanism.

We want Muslims to lose their respect for religion. But what we don't understand is that Muslims, and according to Berger also Christian and Jewish Arabs (if there is still such a thing), see their religion as part of their identity. Your faith is not just a label you can change around whenever you feel like it, but something much deeper.

Berger suggests that the West comes to a ceasefire with the Islamic world. Not that we should give up our western morals and norms, of course, but we should understand where the Islamic/Arabic world is coming from.

I did not agree with almost every other sentence in his article. However.. let's say that he's right and that religion means so much more to the Arabs than the general (maybe even religious?) European. Then what is worse? A secular Dane making caricatures of Mohammed or a religious Muslim making caricatures of Jews? I would suppose the Dane thinks he's just making a statement about freedom of speech. The Muslim is actually attacking Jewish identity.

How about the flag burning? If Muslims have respect for authority figures, isn't burning a flag a much more serious offence than when somebody who doesn't care does it?

Leftist liberals like to point out that Muslims come from a different culture and that we should understand them. I tend to agree.

Source: Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Dutch)

1 comment:

ShrinkWrapped said...

Excellent post; I linked to it today at