The Muslim world spans a vast array of lands, speaks many tongues, and boasts many cultures and races. But the question is, can Muslims take a joke?
“Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet,” say some as an affirmation of the truth of Islam and the inevitable nature of its spread. However, it is uttered by others as clarion call, a bleak and harrowing glimpse into the future.
The statement is not entirely honest. Islam is growing at a faster rate than other religions, but this is due high fertility rates and not because of conversions to religion.1 While Islam is growing in number, it has never been so weak and impotent. I am speaking here with respect to its contribution to human thought, scientific discovery, art, literature and technology over the last 500 years.
The British historian David Starkey said in a Question Time debate that
“Islam was at the centre of the intellectual universe because it was open, it was diverse, it was welcoming, it accepted challenge. The moment Islam turned on itself, forgot freedom of thought and freedom of speech, it started dying. Nothing has been written in Arabic that matters for at least the last five centuries.”2
Mr Starkey’s words may sound damning, harsh and arrogant, but they are true. Islam has been growing in number but dwindling as an intellectual force for centuries. What about colonialism, Western foreign policy and the endless number of conflicts in the Middle East, I hear you say as a rebuttal. No doubt Western intervention in the Muslim world has caused much harm and destruction. The unrelenting support of Saudi Arabia by Western powers, the Iraq war and the overthrow of governments have all contributed to the destabilisation of the region and stymied any true chance for development.
Should we, however, lay all the blame at the feet of the West? Is there nothing within Islam or Muslim cultures that has crippled all hope for Islam’s intellectual resurgence? To assert that the West is solely to blame is to concede that Islam or Muslims are nothing but a collection of automatons incapable of determining their own future and taking responsibility for their own actions. Quite a colonial and paternalistic outlook, don’t you think?
A is for Apostasy
I was born and raised in the UK as a Muslim, attended both Friday prayers at the mosque and Quran classes after school, and even went a Muslim boy’s school. I was never overtly religious, but I sincerely believed in Allah and that Islam was the truth. Around three years ago I became something I never thought I would become—an apostate. After many years of debating, questioning, researching and even defending Islam, I left it.
It was a tough decision that rocked me to my core and left me in a state of intellectual and existential upheaval. But fortunately, I belonged to a loving and decent family who despite their commitment to Islam, would never use violence against me. I was also fortunate enough to live in the UK, a country with no apostasy laws.
“There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256) is a categorical verse that one would think allows for freedom of religion. But this is not the case, as there are thirteen countries in the world that punish citizens for apostasy with death, all of which are of a Muslim majority.3 There are a minority of Islamic scholars and speakers who do not advocate for apostasy punishments, but their voices are often drowned out by the more well-funded and literalist speakers who peddle a brand of Islam heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi ideology. Depending on your familial situation and the country in which you reside, leaving Islam can be either a life-altering or life-threatening decision.
If Islam is to recreate itself as an intellectual force, Muslims must allow people to leave Islam with the same ease they can join it. The apostasy law betrays a sense of insecurity and brittleness. There is a serious fear among certain Muslim speakers and scholars that without apostasy laws there would be nothing stopping Muslims from leaving Islam. Shaykh Haitham Al Haddad, a UK-based Islamic scholar of Palestinian origin said on BBC Newsnight that family members should exercise pressure on someone considering leaving Islam, and even resort to psychological pressure or bullying tactics to bring them back to the religion.4
Al Haddad like many other scholars views apostasy as treason, equating one’s personal belief in Islam to their sense of familial or stately loyalty. As someone who has spoken to many ex-Muslims, I know this could not be further from the truth. Many ex-Muslims still love and care for their families and take part in religious festivals such as Eid and Friday prayers because they value their communities. If you believe your religion to be true, but can only maintain its numbers by threatening those who consider leaving it, how much faith do you really have in your belief?
B is for Blasphemy
Compared to other animals we are quite pathetic. We don’t have huge sharp teeth or claws, we can’t fly like an eagle, tear a carcass apart like a lion or pummel through thick ice and catch a seal in freezing water like a polar bear. But we are the most successful species on the planet because of one thing, our brains. Our ability to think, calculate, reason and imagine has given us the edge over all other species on the planet.
Pakistan is a country close to my heart as I was born in Lahore and have fond memories of playing cricket in its narrow streets with my cousins and flying kites on my grandmother’s rooftop. I was pleased when I heard that the former cricketer Imran Khan had won the recent election and broken the stranglehold of the Bhutto’s and the Sharif’s. I believe Khan will improve Pakistan, but I like many secularists have deep concerns over the issue of blasphemy.
Khan affirmed his belief in the blasphemy law and said he would complain to the UN about politicians like Geert Wilders from the Netherlands organising “draw Muhammad cartoon” days. I am not a fan of Geert Wilders but he should be allowed to draw any prophet or political figure without the threat of violence or the head of another state trying to curtail his freedom.5 In leading Pakistan, Khan has his plate full of corruption; blasphemy is the biggest non-crime one can commit, yet it receives a disproportionate amount of attention.
I believe that the blasphemy law is an abuse of power in and of itself. Its grossest misuse was in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian farmer who was incriminated for drinking from the same well as Muslims. She was also accused of blasphemy after asking the question, “What has your prophet (Muhammad) done for humanity?”. She remained in prison for nine years before being acquitted of blasphemy charges. The whole case was a huge waste of resources and most importantly of life. The former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his personal bodyguard for supporting Asia Bibi in her case, and the Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian), was also killed by Islamic extremists for taking up Asia Bibi’s case.6
To progress in the modern world, Muslims must embrace free speech and recognise that nothing is more precious than the ability to think and question authority. The blasphemy law is a tyrannical remnant of the past that does nothing but suppress people, especially minorities and free thinkers, and protect the power of a few elites. We must fight it together.
C is for comedy
In Britain, we have a strong tradition of satire and ridicule. Like many, I enjoy watching satire on politics, race, class and religion. But one religion that people have dared not ridicule unless they are prepared to pay a price is Islam. As a young Muslim, the fear surrounding mocking Islam troubled me, because not only were we denying ourselves a goldmine of wisecracks, but more importantly, it made Muslims seem weak, thin skinned and incapable of taking a joke. The only people brave or stupid enough to poke fun at Islam or Muslims are usually people who don’t have the interests of Muslims or Islam at heart or don’t want Muslims or Islam in the country. This made making fun of Islam synonymous with Islamophobia or anti-Muslim bigotry.
The challenge for me as an ex-Muslim satirist is to demonstrate that one can make fun of Muslims or certain Islamic ideas without hating Islam or Muslims. Satire is not about hate, but about laughter, and more importantly about challenging authority and levelling the playing field. Tyrants silence ridicule and punish its perpetrators to protect their image and crush dissent. It is up to the people to hold their government accountable and ensure its honesty; the same is true for organised religion, especially the Abrahamic faiths.
There are also those well-meaning non-Muslims who want to shield Muslims from ridicule because they perceive criticism or satire against Islam as an attack on Muslims. These people may be well intentioned, but they are stunting the development of Muslims by holding them to a lower standard of ridicule. Muslims need to be subject to the same societal pressures as other communities and learn to take it on the chin. Not every joke or cartoon will be funny or sincere, but growing a thick skin is vital in living in a free society and dealing with diverse opinions.
I have received many messages and comments from Muslims supporting my comedy videos and urging me to continue. Some have even suggested whom I should mimic next. Quite often a Muslim will write to me saying they are a fan of my videos but cannot share them publicly for fear of judgement from family or friends. Clearly there is a demand for satire in the Muslim world, albeit underground or online. I have little faith that the governments or religious institutions of the Muslim world will embrace free speech or satire on Islam anytime soon, but the people are watching and listening, and the message is getting through.
The internet has exposed the Muslim world to a wider range of opinions available to them by their school teacher or local Imam and the change is irreversible. There are growing number of ex-Muslims in the Muslim world who have shared their stories and caused shockwaves in their countries. There is a growing conversation and a nascent introspection taking place. This is a positive thing for Muslim communities that have been blighted by the stagnation and regressive fundamentalism of Islamic authority, whose only language is intolerance, violence and bloodshed. It is the weak who fear to question or laugh at themselves.
If our Muslim countries and communities are to drag ourselves into the twenty-first century, we must rediscover the courageous sense of dynamism and freethought that we had before we let our cultures decline and become backward. We must be free to speak and think our thoughts without fear of blasphemy laws and death penalties. To criticise and laugh at ourselves as well as politicians, the monarchy, priests or imams, may be the only weapon we have in questioning authority and resisting tyranny.
1 ‘Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group’ (Pew Research Centre, April 6 2017).
3 ‘The 13 countries where being an Atheist is punishable by death’ (The Independent, March 30 2016).
5 ‘Imran Khan criticised for defence of Pakistan blasphemy laws’ (The Guardian, July 9 2018).
6 ‘Pakistan minister Shahbaz Bhatti shot dead in Islamabad’ (The Guardian, March 2 2011).
Waleed Wain AKA Veedu Vidz is a YouTube comedian that creates satirical videos on a range of topics mainly focusing on Islam. Veedu is an Ex Muslim who enjoys engaging with his religious and cultural heritage by exploring different ideas and religious preachers in the form of parodies and discussions. Veedu is a free speech advocate and stands for individual rights.