Do Opposites Attract? Exploring Two Unlikely Partners: Humour and Religion

Published October 30, 2019 by Dr Lina Molokotos-Liederman

Religion and humour typically make mistrustful or, at best, incompatible bedfellows. We have come to know all too well how humour can be offensive and divisive, especially jokes about sensitive issues, such as race and religion. Humour is relative: what makes people laugh in a particular context may not translate well or be funny in another environment. One's sense of humour may be another's offence, as the Muhammad cartoon controversy and the Charlie Hebdo attack illustrated. This is also partly because institutional religion is typically founded on faith in certain moral truths or in a higher authority and order, and it is also based on religious teachings and principles. In contrast, humour is relative and thrives on ambiguity and transgression, on challenging, questioning or deviating from social norms and moral rules. Its appreciation also requires a certain degree of cultural knowledge to decode and understand a joke. In short, religion and humour make an odd couple.

More often than not, when religion and humour are brought together in the context of a joke, they have collided. Yet, we cannot firmly conclude that religion and humour are inherently incompatible; they share more in common than meets the eye. Both religion and humour have power: just as the power of religious belief cannot be overestimated, 'within a well-delivered joke lies the power to make a point'. They both have the power to push us to go beyond our own everyday reality, to search for alternative interpretations and meanings. Additionally, religion and humour are community-based and can bring people together just as they can divide them.

Humour and religion interact in different ways in public life. Many humourists, such as comedians and cartoonists, make jokes about religion and belief. We can see the interactions of religion and humour from a secularisation/post-secularisation thesis perspective: religion seems to have visibly entered the typically secular world of comedy and laughter, thus making a different type of come-back in public life, including in comic terms. Inversely, if humour has entered the world of religion, then this could be a small illustration of the secularisation of religion itself. According to some studies religious belief and practice affect both humour appreciation and creation, namely how religious and non-religious people experience laughter and appreciate humour, when laughing at jokes, or how they create humour themselves, when making jokes. The very fact that religion and humour cross pathways in many areas of public life 'redounds to their credit' and makes them 'a rather incongruous or implausible couple' with 'affording opportunities'.

Prophet Sharing comedy show at the Woolf Institute with Ashley Blaker and Imran Yusuf

One such opportunity was the recent stand-up comedy show at the Woolf Institute: Prophet Sharing. Featuring two stand-up comedian friends, one Orthodox Jewish comic, Ashley Blaker, and one unorthodox Muslim comedian, Imran Yusuf. Their show brought together a diverse audience for an evening of laughter. In fact, Blaker and Yusuf have brought their show all over the UK to a broad range of audiences comprised of people of every faith and none.

Prophet Sharing (2019) is a recent example among other 'interfaith comedy' shows featuring stand-up comedians who self-identify as Jewish, Muslim or Christian (or other) and perform alongside each other. They have popped up in the UK and other parts of the world. Although far from being block-buster comedy shows, a growing number of interfaith comedy performances are taking place, albeit mostly in western countries including the UK, France, the USA and Canada. In the UK, MUJU, bring Muslims and Jews using the creative avenues of performance and have featured several a comedy shows poking fun of current events, including extremism, which they have parodied with humour and satire. In the USA, the El Salomons, featuring the couple Jess Salomon, a Jewish comedian, and Eman El Husseini, a Muslim comedian, have created a humorous blog and performed various comedy shows. Other US-based interfaith comedy shows include the Funatical Comedy Tour (2011), the One Muslim, One Jew, One Stage (2012), The Jim Jeffries' Show - A Jew, a Christian, a Muslim (2018), the Laugh in Peace Tour (2018) and Three Amigos (featuring an imam, rabbi and pastor). In France, Younes et Bambi began performing in comedy clubs in 2012 aiming to 'reimagine contemporary Jewish-Muslim interactions beyond the conflictual model that dominates discussions in contemporary French political and media discourse'.

What such interfaith comedy shows seem to do is create opportunities for laughing together about anything from everyday life, to politics and current affairs, to more sensitive issues, such as religion, race or ethnicity. Their comedy shows appeal to people of different faiths and none, bringing them together through laughter. Interestingly, despite the fact that religion for many is a highly sensitive topic, joking about various aspects of religious belief and practice feature quite prominently in the repertoire of jokes in interfaith comedy shows. Plenty of laughter runs through both the commonalities and the differences between diverse religious communities, including between Jews and Muslims. Arguably, laughter seems to function as a tool helping to bridge some religious divides. In the long run it might even help counter religious prejudice by promoting mutual understanding and religious tolerance, all key ingredients of interfaith dialogue.

More broadly, interfaith comedy shows have to be seen alongside the rapidly growing number of Muslim stand-up comedians and comic characters in many parts of the world, including some in the Middle East, such as Egypt's political satire TV show Al-Bernameg, which was suspended in 2013. A diverse range of comedy shows in Europe and North America feature self-identified Muslim comedians who entertain diverse audiences. Their jokes poke fun at a broad range of topics, including politics and current events, but they also feature self-deprecating humour on the comic aspects of practising (or not) one's religion. Muslim stand-up comedians, including women and hijabi comedians, seem to be turning on its head the supposed incompatibility between Muslims and laughter. In fact, traditionalist and strict Islamic interpretations in the Muslim world of what constitutes permissible laughter often vie or co-exist alongside more open-minded humour practices, just as religious texts and dogma of any institutional or organised religion can often compete or co-exist alongside the religious practices of everyday lived religion.

Muslim stand-up comedians, whether they perform solo or alongside Jewish or other comedians with an explicit religious affiliation in interfaith comedy shows help delegitimise the negative portrayal of Muslims and counter the 'negative charisma' of Muslims and Islamophobic stereotypes since 9/11. Could they also help undo otherness and minimise the opposition between 'us' and 'them'? What do interfaith comedy shows and the shows of Muslim comedians mean for interfaith dialogue? Could they cultivate empathy and build bridges across diverse faith communities? Who jokes or makes fun of whom and about what, in what form and under what circumstances are important considerations and can make or break a joke.

It would be rash to argue that humour, including laughter about religion and belief, can solve all the challenges and obstacles of interfaith dialogue, especially if humour often ends up endorsing or reinforcing stereotypes, whether intentionally or not. But we usually laugh together so humour is a relational form of communication. It offers another way to look at the world and to see things differently. Jokes touch on uncomfortable or sensitive issues, which they bring out in the open, often helping to break taboos, stigmas and social barriers. Some researchers argue that humour and laughter have the power and social corrective potential to cut through tension and help bring people together, at least temporarily. In the long term, can laughter help us connect with others, foster human relations and build bridges across different and diverse faith communities? The growing presence and visibility of interfaith comedy shows and Muslim comedians in the world of comedy are the seeds for growing future opportunities and openings bringing together two sets of unlikely partners, not only religion and humour, but also the Muslim world and humour. In this context, further research in this area can explore how the power of humour can be harnessed as an innovative tool in interfaith engagement.

Dr Lina Molokotos-Liederman is a sociologist of religion and an Affiliated Researcher at the Woolf Institute. Her current interests include faith and fashion, & humour and religion. Her research aims to explore the uses of humour as an innovative tool in interfaith engagement.

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