A caliphate is not an ideal place to grow up if you want a career as a stand-up comic. I was brought up in Birmingham, which a Fox News pundit last week described as a “totally Muslim city . . . where non-Muslims just simply don’t go”.
It is a modern form of Islamic rule; there are strip clubs, pubs, and bingo halls called Mecca. Still, I would bring shame on the family if I made a joke about my moustache.
This goes some way towards explaining the fact that, when I started out in comedy 11 years ago, it was just me — one female Muslim comedian in the UK. (Now there is a second; she is part time.)
Being brought up Muslim meant my life experience was different from that of my white friend Maureen, who was brought up in a gritty corner of London’s East End. We have some things in common, though; both our mums shared a jealously over the nice carpets at the Jewish house next door.
I suspect the people in the comedy clubs I’ve played are as unlike Maureen and me as we are different from each other. There are never many Muslims. Generally they are white and middle-class. They come to learn. Then they go home to laugh.
A few years ago I went to Mecca to do Umrah. You are supposed to walk seven times anticlockwise around the Kaaba — the black stone which is the most sacred point in Islam — and while I was busy doing that a fellow pilgrim pinched my bum. I was in a crowd of tens of thousands, so at first I thought it was just someone shoving past me, but then it happened again.
I came back to England — where if I want to get my bum pinched in a big hall that smells slightly of kebab with thousands of people rushing around, I just have to go shopping up the Bull Ring on a Saturday afternoon — and I told this story at one of my shows.
I made a joke of it and said it was the hand of God. That is when the emails started. Some were from women, who told me the same thing had happened to them. I thought it was just me!
And some were from men. One wrote to say I was a Kafir, or unbeliever. He said I was a prostitute, and (worst of all) a hairy muppet. Then he revealed that he was offended and wanted to kill me. If you can laugh at yourself, people will warm to you and learn about you instead of seeing you as outsiders.
This was puzzling. It was my bottom, for one thing, so being offended seemed to be my prerogative, not his. I was also a bit addled by what he said about religion. I am not quick to take offence, because my faith is strong enough. No book, film, cartoon or supermarket chain could ever offend me. (I might change my mind if Waitrose ever discontinues its “essential” snack pot with mango, apricot and cottage cheese.) And even after I received an email from this impertinent man, I had no inclination to find out where he lived so I could go round and douse him with chapatti flour.
When people are weak, insecure and feel persecuted they will find any reason to blame and hate. Some Muslims understandably feel like this, which is one reason why Islam is often viewed, as an ugly outsider among faiths — widely feared, sometimes hated. But you can’t blame all Muslims for the deeds of a few of them, just like you can’t blame all Irish for River Dance and all comedians for Roy Chubby Brown.
My faith is indestructible. I question it, laugh at it, even doubt it. It’s important to ridicule things in order to understand them and that’s why it’s important to satirise Islam.
Christians once decried Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film in which a child born in Nazareth comes to be mistaken for the Messiah. Critics at the time said it was blasphemous, and maybe they were right, but recently a prominent Christian theologian said it was “an extraordinary tribute to Jesus”. Satire can help religion to progress.
If there is such a thing as a shared Jewish identity, it is one part religion, one part history and one part wicked jokes. Think of Larry David, Jon Stewart and Woody Allen. Joan Rivers was famous for jokes about Jews — and she had Jewish audiences in stitches. Here is a crowd that can laugh at itself.
If you can do that and allow others to laugh along, people will warm to you. They will learn about you instead of seeing you as outsiders they don’t know much about. They will accept you, and you will prosper more easily.
Taking offence when someone pokes fun your religion is as natural as squealing out loud when someone pinches your bum. But mockery exposes truth, and if you succumb to this reflex you are missing out.
Ridicule something — exaggerate it, lampoon it, caricature it — and you find out more about it and become stronger. Satire makes you learn, as well as laugh.
The writer is an award-winning British stand-up comedian