04/11/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

How I Won't Joke About Muslims

This is about a week late, because, I'm in America right now and only able to watch British TV in small doses, through semi-legal means, but I just saw the BBC documentary Are You Having A Laugh?. In it, former politician, anti-abortionist, and pregnant woman shackler Ann Widdecombe argued that Christianity and Jesus have come in for an unfair amount of abuse in recent years from comedians and comedy shows.

There's a whole world of points this opens up, about good and bad done in the name of religion, the bounds of satire and freedom of speech, the entitlement of any given group, their rights to protection and so on, but I'd like to focus on one small but significant element of her argument. One that's so trite, simplistic and just plain wrong, but gets churned out time and time again without being questioned, and commanded a fair chunk of this show:

"You wouldn't say that about Muslims."

"Yeah, you can kick Christianity, but imagine saying that about Islam."

"How come Jesus is always the one that's fair game? Mohammed is never mentioned."

Which is NONSENSE. Absolute nonsense.

I couldn't even begin to count the number of times I've heard this, and it's drivel for at least three (that I've counted so far) reasons.

Firstly, IT'S NOT TRUE.

They very much do. I can think of plenty of my comedy colleagues who have jokes about Islam and/or Muslims. Some, admittedly more sophisticated than others. Nick Doody, for example, had a whole, well thought out and intelligent routine about Islam in his Edinburgh Fringe show a few years ago, jokes he also did on the circuit.

This year's festival has wonderful comedian and provocateur Scott Capurro bringing his new show Islamahomophobia. I'm not entirely sure what the whole show's about, but I've a sneaking suspicion Muslims get a namecheck.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are so many jokes about the number of virgins suicide bombers are supposedly handed in the afterlife, that the whole topic has been consigned to the deepest pits of hackery.

The second I hear someone start the bit, I'm absent-mindedly mouthing along, "Let me guess? You'd rather have one experienced woman who knows what she's doing? Good for you."

That's how many jokes about Islam there are: some of them are hack, up there with cats and dogs, airline food and the line, "He knows what I'm talking about"


This was a point that was touched on in the show by Steve Punt, but then ignored. There aren't as many Muslim jokes because not as many people know about Islam. Not the comedians making the jokes, nor their audiences. Britain is a culturally Christian country (albeit a relatively secular one), and America even more so.

I'm an atheist of Jewish origin, yet I went to Christian-run schools for the vast majority of my childhood. To this day, I probably know the words to Onward Christian Soldiers better than I know Adon Olam. I'll talk about Christianity (and Judaism and Atheism) more than Islam for the same reason I'll talk about Birmingham more than Belarus. It's what I know, and it's what my audience knows.

There is another practical reason we talk about Christianity more than Islam, and it's one that's always being hinted at by those who bring it up but never explicitly said:

Some, and I stress some... in fact, let's over stress that -- a tiny, tiny minority who in no way represent the vast majority of mainstream Islam...

But SOME Muslims are a little bit killy. They tend to overreact to what they perceive as blasphemy with murder. While this isn't really an issue for the club comic -- radical fundamentalists don't tend to pop down to the Amused Moose for a beer and a chuckle -- it's definitely a concern for mainstream broadcasters and publishers.

And to be honest, if that's a reason why your religion is mocked more than theirs, then well done you. You should take that as a compliment -- your crazies aren't quite as crazy as their crazies. You see? By mocking Jesus, but not Mohammed, they're paying you the highest respect. They're saying, "You can take it."

But thirdly, finally, and most importantly, I DON'T BELIEVE YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU'RE SAYING

Or, at least, what you're implying. I think you're being disingenuous in the extreme when you make that argument. Because what you're suggesting when you say, "You wouldn't joke about Muslims" is that the only thing you object to is the lack of parity. But I don't think for a second that if a comedian's routine were "fair", if it hit other religions equally you'd be fine with that.

Do you, Ann Widdecombe, or anyone else who makes that point, honestly believe that if you heard a comedian tell a joke about Jesus that hit too close to home, but it was immediately followed by one about Mohammed, or Yahweh, or Buddha, Shiva, Zoroaster or whomever, you'd revise your opinion and renounce your earlier offence? "Well, I was uncomfortable with how he portrayed the Virgin Mary, but then he really stuck it to Abraham and Vishnu, so it's fine by me."

Because I doubt it, I really do.

A more cynical writer might claim that the main reason you bring up Islam is to piggy-back off of bog-standard racism to distract from a sub-par argument. To appropriate the prejudices of those who are either afraid of Muslims, or jealous of what they perceive to be special treatment, to buy sympathy for your cause. But that's not my style -- I'm much more sophisticated than that. He knows what I'm talking about.