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Prejudice is not a joke

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Friday, 12 October 2007

Comedy can have a serious purpose. It reminds us of the dangers of forgetting history.

None of us can honestly claim to be without prejudice. It's much easier to see people as being defined only by their race, religion or sexual preference, whether actual or presumed. It's much harder to understand people as complex individuals with numerous, often conflicting, layers of identity.

When it comes to exposing and challenging prejudice, humour is often far more effective a tool than passionate opinion articles. Three young Australian Muslims - Mohammed El-Leissy, Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman - are performing Islam-101: Don't Believe The Hype at this year's Melbourne Fringe Festival. They are following the example of Arab and Muslim comics in North America who have performed shows under such titles as Allah Made Me Funny and The Axis of Evil.


On the ABC each week The Chaser's War on Everything lampoons popular perceptions of terrorism and security. In one skit, a Chaser chap dresses up as an American tourist taking video shots of the Sydney Harbour Bridge without any security present. He then dresses as a stereotypical Arab, with long beard and chequered kuffiyeh headdress. Security was onto him within minutes.

But not all skits elicit laughter. A recent episode showed their man in the US, Charles Firth, interviewing a sample of everyday Americans. All agreed Muslims should be forced to carry ID cards and even wear special identification badges. Most suggested Muslims should be incarcerated in internment camps. Comedy can be a potent vehicle for exposing uncomfortable truths.

During his recent visit to Australia, Bosnia's mufti charmed Australian audiences with wisecracks about Bosnian villagers and about his experiences of being bossed around by his wife and daughter. But Dr Mustafa Ceric also has a serious message for Westerners of all faiths.

He reminded us that Muslimphobia is reaching such endemic proportions in Europe that he fears a second Holocaust. He compared popular perceptions of Muslims in the West with popular perceptions of Jews in parts of Western Europe in the decades leading up to World War II.

Ceric used the experience of his own people to illustrate his point - more than half a million Bosnian civilians massacred and more than 20,000 women gang-raped, including girls as young as six and women as old as 80. Many atrocities were committed by people against their neighbours, teachers, students and others with whom they otherwise had daily interaction.

What kind of thinking leads to such atrocities? One Bosnian victim, a red-headed 25-year-old married woman, told a Canadian newspaper why she was raped by 15 soldiers: "Because I am a Muslim. Their aim was to humiliate me, to make me lose my honour."


Hence, one can only wonder at the sanity of those Muslims who, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believe that defending their own necessarily involves denying the historical suffering of others. In yet another year when Ramadan and Yom Kippur coincide, what possible benefit could be gained for Jews or Muslims from Ahmadinejad's remarks?

As American Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson writes in the US Jewish magazine Tikkun: "Muslims, of all people, should be conscious of this as their religion is predicated on the same epistemological premises as many major events in history, such as the Holocaust. To deny such things is to undermine Islam as an historical event."

Instead of denying the Holocaust, Muslims - and indeed peoples of all faiths and no faith in particular - should study its causes and consequences, especially the rhetorical devices used by political leaders, columnists and commentators in the decades leading up to it.

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First published in The Age on October 1, 2007.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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