Diary: Heard the one about the ex-Muslim?
It's fine to laugh at religion, just don't pander to the knee-jerk bigots, says Nick Doody
On 10 October 2008, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is holding a conference called Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society. They have assembled an impressive list of speakers: philosopher AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins (Professor Richard Dawkins, not Richard Dawkins the bassist from the Boomtown Rats), columnists Johann Hari and Joan Smith, President of the National Secular Society Terry Sanderson, Head of the British Humanist Association Hanne Stinson. Oh yes, and me.
I’ve agreed to do a stand-up comedy set at the event, and it occurs to me that I should probably plan my words in advance. I’ve found that the gigs where I decide what I’m going to say before I’m actually onstage tend to go better than the ones where I just wander up to the microphone and ask why everyone’s looking at me, then realise I’m naked. Actually, that might have been a dream, but my point stands.
It can always be a little nerve-wracking, being a non-Muslim making jokes about Islam. On the one hand, there’s the risk of real reprisals – those people who were angered to the point of violence over what someone called a teddy bear are going to get really upset if they ever hear about what I’ve been calling them. Luckily, the presence of radical Islam in British comedy clubs is small and the feedback from Muslim audience members has usually been good. “I’m a Muslim and that was spot on, mate!” said one girl as she staggered back in from a smoke clutching her Smirnoff Ice. I don’t think she was a particularly strict one, though; that boobtube just didn’t shout “purdah”.
On the other hand, and more likely, there’s the risk of being misunderstood by bigots, who think you’re on their side because they’ve heard some key words. You know the type: shiny-faced, shaven-headed Littlejohn larvae. “Too right – tell ‘em to take their mosques back to, er, Moscow!” I’ll take an edgy confrontation with an offended bunch of young Muslim men any day over a slap on the back and the offer of a pint from one of these twats.
What I’ve never done, though, is perform comedy to a conference organised by the British Council of Ex-Muslims, and I have no idea what to expect. How drunk is a crowd of ex-Muslims likely to be? Maybe Ex-Muslims are prone to heckling. Maybe it’ll go better if I pretend that I’m an ex-Muslim. Maybe I am an ex-Muslim, if the Buddhists are right.
On the face of it, it looks promising (as long as I’m not on after Johann Hari – he always finishes with a song and is very hard to follow). The event is against the death penalty. Hey, I’m against the death penalty. It’s for standing up against theocracy. Guess what? Me too. Fighting for freedom of expression on behalf of the oppressed – wow, if the British Council of Ex-Muslims were a girl, she’d be my type. I wonder what they’re doing after the conference? If they’re anything like ex-Catholics, they’re great in bed, too.
More than anything else, I suppose I’m worried that, next to the other speakers, what I do will seem, well, a bit irrelevant. There are Iranian satirists who have risked their lives to criticise their government with jokes, and some of these heroes may be present at the event. Reviewers have described my material on Islam as both “easy” and “brave”, apparently depending on whether they were offended or not. In reality, it’s neither. Easy would be writing jokes from a knee-jerk position, pandering to the racists.
Brave would be doing my act in Tehran.