Published 06 Mar 07
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Who's Afraid of the Muslim Joke?
The question was simple, the answer, direct: You joke about Islam, we will kill you.
So was the pronouncement of a man calling himself "Kabli," a former board member of Amsterdam's Assoenna Mosque, who acted as an interpreter for the imam during an interview with a Dutch student newspaper, Folia.
And the response?
Furor in the press.
Silence from the comedians.
The fear has grown so tall.
The catalyst for the entire event was the comedy act of Ewout Jansen, a 24-year-old law student, and his comic partner, Etienne Kemerink, though it is Jansen who has been at the center of the tale – and of the fury. Ewout and Etienne, as the duo is known, perform regularly throughout the country, basing their act largely – as many comedians do – on current news and trends. In Holland, where stories about multiculturalism, Islam, and Dutch-Muslim relations blacken the country's eighty-odd newspapers, Jansen finds the topic unavoidable; and so for five minutes of his 100-minute act, he addresses it. Among his jokes is a reference to the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated in 2004 after creating a documentary about the treatment of Muslim women. In the past, Jansen acknowledges, occasional performances at schools produced tense moments – but nothing he ever found particularly threatening. "A kid would say something like, 'stop that, or I'll beat you up,'" he says, "but I never took it seriously (although I did sometimes think, 'well, okay, I'm prepared to take a beating.')"
Reporters at Folia, however, wanted to know more. They arranged to interview the imam at Assoenna, with Kabli acting as interpreter, to understand exactly why: was it Ewout's jokes that were the problem, or was joking in itself forbidden? But the imam barely had a chance to speak, other than to quote a passage from the Koran
The hypocrites are afraid
lest a sura should be sent down against them
telling thee what is in their hearts
Say: Mock on
God will bring forth what you fear
And if thou questionest them
then assuredly they will say
*We were only plunging and playing*
Say: What, then, were you mocking God
and His Signs and His Messenger
Make no excuses
(Verse 9:64, translation A.J. Arberry)
Okay, the reporter pressed, so what exactly should happen when someone jokes about Islam?
But it was Kabli, not the imam, who answered him. "First he should be warned," declared Kabli. "But if he continues and he goes too far with Islam, then, according to Islam, he must die." Well. Good we got that cleared up.
This, at least, explains the response to the Danish cartoons last year, when protests devolved into riots from Syria to Copenhagen, from Paris to Teheran. But no reasonable person would agree that it makes sense – or has a place in contemporary society. Even Kabli himself noted that such actions were against the law.
"But what he means," says Ewout Jansen, whose father is an Islam scholar, "is that I should die, but he'll let the radicals do it."
For Jansen, the entire incident came as a rude and unanticipated surprise – he found out about the threat on his own life while reading "Geen Stijl," a popular blog. Within days, the news had spread. Members of an online Dutch-Muslim community held a poll: should Ewout be killed? Without having read or heard a single one of Ewout and Etienne's jokes, 60 voters said yes: 30 percent. Although another 19 percent said they didn't know, Jansen told the newspaper, de Volkskrant, "Fortunately, a small majority – 51 percent – did feel that I may go on living."
Nonetheless, that 30-percent figure is alarming. It suggests, indeed, that these were not the words of a single, "marginal" Muslim radical; and, in fact, Kabli is not radical at all. After all, he didn't offer to kill the two comedians – he only felt that "someone" should. But at the same time, rather than distance himself from Muslim radicals, Kabli instead seemed to be saying, "thank goodness we've got them."
Seeking to mend fences and to better understand the issue, Jansen then invited the imam of Assoenna and others – including the Vice-Chairman of the Dutch Union of Moroccan Mosques, Driss el-Boujoufi – to join him in a televised discussion over tea. The conversation was friendly and polite, but Ewout had one particular request.
"Could you look into the camera," he asked the imam, "and say that people can make jokes about Islam without getting into trouble, and Ewout doesn't have to die?"
He could not.
"They said, 'we have to go to a mufti, to know the answer," Ewout recalls. (A mufti is an expert who interprets sharia law.) "They could never say that I'm allowed to make jokes about Islam, because Islam itself is very clear on the matter." The imam denied, however, previous reports that a fatwa had been declared on Jansen's head, the comedian says. "He basically said, 'I'm just the imam. I don't have the authority to give a fatwa.' But he didn't say he wouldn't."
Yet for all the headlines and late-night TV debates, the entire incident has made little impact; and I wonder, where is the outrage? Where is the defense of free speech? When one magazine contacted various Dutch comedians for comment, most protested they were "too busy" to make a statement. Others said they were aware of the issue, and had, in recent years, largely changed their acts accordingly. Worse, venues that had previously contracted for shows with Ewout and Etienne cancelled all their bookings.
"Not," I thought, "America. America would never let this stand. Americans do not respond well to threats against their freedom of speech – or laughter." So I contacted some of the better-known names in political comedy in the USA, sure of their indignant and adamant support.
They disappointed. Through a spokesperson, Jon Stewart declined to comment. Bill Maher, on the eve of his interview with former Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a woman whose life has been threatened so drastically for her words that she lives under constant guard even in her new home in Washington, DC – declined even to acknowledge the question. Lesser-known political comics were equally unforthcoming.
What is the matter with these people? Are they frightened for their safety? Reluctant to offend? When did comedy begin shrinking from the offensive? Have we done this before with any other group? Are even the funny men succumbing to dhimmitude – submission to Muslim law in exchange for security and peace?
So it would seem.
And I think of my Palestinian friend Zaina, who laughed at the Danish cartoons and said,
"People need to learn how to poke fun at themselves every now and then. A little self-deprecating humor never hurt anyone," and wonder why there aren't many more like her.
Ewout Jansen finds this as startling as the rest of it. "How can you do that as a comedian?" he says. "If you talk about the news, how can you not talk about Islam and Muslims? They all are constantly bashing Christianity, but they never say anything about Islam. If the purpose of Theo van Gogh's murder was to get people to watch what they say, " he adds, "then Bouyeri [van Gogh's murderer] certainly succeeded." And though another comedian, Theo Maassen, is one of the few who does speak out, Jansen notes, "He also says, 'I can, because what are the chances that they'll kill another Theo?' It says something that when you make jokes, you have to think about the consequences that way."
"Personally," adds Ewout Jansen, "I don't know if I've said anything offensive, but if I did, well, I don't care, really. Not if it was funny."
Only one well-known comedian in the Netherlands, Hans Teeuwen, has stood up in defense of Ewout and Etienne; but even he told the Volkskrant, "The only thing that will help, I think, is a protest from the Muslim community itself."
But there is none.
There is only silence, and surrender.
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2007 Abigail R. Esman
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