If there’s a silver lining to Newsweek’s feckless decision to run a cover feature on the Global Angry Islamic Mob — complete with a cover image of enraged Arabs protesting fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s abysmal, no-budget hateflick Innocence of Muslims — it’s that it has given Muslims the chance to show that Jews aren’t the only Semitic population with a sense of humor.
The newsmagazine, which has grown increasingly shrill and trollish under the direction of editrix Tina Brown, also chose to establish a Twitter hashtag to prompt discussion of the story and the issues behind it. (Because 140-character epigrams are the best format for a complicated debate on faith, tolerance and freedom of speech! It’s like a Presidential debate format requiring candidates to express their positions solely in fortune cookie slips. Which, now that we think about it, would be totally gangnam.)
The rules of the Internet require that any vacuum immediately be filled with either porn or snark, and the hashtag, #MuslimRage, was no exception: It was quickly overtaken by tweets mocking the concept of specifically “Muslim” rage, detailing rage-triggers that were sometimes inanely innocuous, sometimes darkly ironic, and all very much on point with what it means to be a modern Muslim — thereby proving that the phrase “modern Muslim” isn’t an oxymoron. A prime selection:
Kamran Pasha, a recovered lawyer, one of the writers behind Showtime’s Golden Globe nominated miniseries Sleeper Cell and author of the historical novel Shadow of the Swords, notes that there’s a “long tradition of humor as a spiritual teaching vehicle” in Islam.
“It’s said that Prophet Muhammad himself would tell jokes to his followers,” says Pasha. “The Sufis in particular have a tradition of telling jokes about a character called ‘Mulla Nasrudin,’ essentially a ‘wise fool’ who gets himself into ridiculous situations through which he can share veiled spiritual messages. The jokes tend to be like zen koans, with a surprise twist in the punchline that makes you stop and think.”
And Aisha Sultan, parenting columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, points out that Muslim humor has recently experienced a contemporary pop-cultural boom. “In recent years, there's been a renaissance of Muslim American comedians — very popular at colleges and Islamic conferences, private parties, and so on,” she notes. “It's all a part of reclaiming a narrative hijacked by misinformation and extremism, and knowing that funny always trumps angry. Plus, humor is a vital coping mechanism, especially during times of crisis and duress.”
Comics like Egyptian American Ahmed Ahmed, now appearing on TBS’s Sullivan & Son, have been at the forefront of redefining the image of Muslims away from the stereotypes represented by the Newsweek cover; a documentary he directed and starred in, Just Like Us, will make its video-on-demand debut on December 6 from Lionsgate Entertainment. It promises to “uproot the widely held misconception that Arabs have no sense of humor — when in fact they laugh, and are, just like us,” documenting Ahmed Ahmed’s tour across four countries in the Middle East that generated sold-out crowds totaling over 20,000 people.
As Iranian-American activist, academic and author Reza Aslan — himself a contributing editor to Newsweek’s online sister publication The Daily Beast — pointed out, flipping the conversational switch from anger to hilarity effectively reframes the conversation in terms that non-Muslims can easily (or begrudgingly) embrace, while also setting an example for those at the fanatical fringes of the Muslim world as well. As the meme’s momentum grew, he tweeted: “To those few violent MidEast protesters, this is how you fight Islamophobia. You make fun of it. #MuslimRage.”
In that spirit, Aslan’s Twitter bio reads: Simultaneously an American spy working to bring down Iran and an Iranian agent working to bring down America. Also I write books.