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Up in arms over comedy

Published Sep 03, 2012 03:25am


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LAST week, Muslims across the United Kingdom were in a tizzy about Citizen Khan — and not the one who chairs the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf. A new BBC One sitcom about a Pakistani Muslim family in Sparkhill, Birmingham, Citizen Khan has raised age-old questions about the value of comedic satire.

Is it mere frippery that offends and isolates to the detriment of social harmony? Or is it a social necessity, a way to tackle difficult issues that otherwise remain unaddressed owing to sensitivities and outdated policies?

The first episode of the show was an assemblage of stereotypes: Mr Khan is an outwardly religious, stingy patriarch with an inflated sense of importance in his community; his wife is prone to histrionics and obsessed with keeping up appearances; his daughter is the embodiment of a culture clash — she wears tight jeans under her sparkly hijab and tosses aside a fashion magazine and instead pretends to read the Quran when her father enters the room. Moreover, marriages are arranged, sofas are covered in plastic covers, and tea is sipped from the saucer rather than the cup.

Though familiar and benign, these depictions sparked quite an uproar among British Muslims: more than 700 people complained to the BBC about Citizen Khan and 20 people approached Ofcom, prompting the television regulator to consider launching an inquiry to determine whether the show had broken the broadcasting code by airing racist content. In different forums, British Muslims have accused the show of “taking the mickey out of Islam”, being “disrespectful to the Quran” and perpetuating stereotypes about British Asians. But this is a gross overreaction.

The fact is, shows like Citizen Khan are essential in multicultural societies and help put all communities on an equal footing — if everyone can have a laugh at everyone else’s expense, then no one can claim superiority. This logic has made the quirks and peculiarities of minority communities fair game for comedy for decades; indeed, Woody Allen elevated it to an Oscar-winning art with his jibes against Manhattan’s Jewish community. In short, comedy engenders equality; you can’t expect equal treatment if you ask to be treated by separate rules.

By demanding to be spared from sitcom humour, British Muslims, or at least the ones objecting to Citizen Khan, are setting themselves apart and thus encouraging the British public to isolate, misunderstand and fear them rather than tease, mock and engage them. Mark Lawson made this point succinctly when he wrote in the Guardian: “My own cultural outsider’s view is that Citizen Khan pays British Muslims perhaps the highest compliment television can bestow, which is treating them like any other creed and people by subjecting them to a gentle domestic sitcom in the tradition of My Family.”

Comedies like Citizen Khan also offer an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about different cultures and religions without being didactic. Most Britons happily watch sitcoms on BBC One and don’t think of their viewership as an active act of cultural understanding or community building. But if done right, a show like Citizen Khan could put religious and cultural practices in context and teach people about Islam, Pakistan and the British-Asian community in an accessible and humanising way.

Some bloggers who support the show have pointed out that since the July 2007 London bombings, few in Britain have thought of British Pakistanis without thinking of terrorism. However, the first episode of Citizen Khan made no references to terrorism or extremism; it simply depicted the Khans as a quirky, middle-class British family who also happen to be Muslim. Such a depiction could be instrumental in dislodging the current stereotype of the British Asian extremist.

More importantly, Citizen Khan could help spark an important discussion within the British Muslim community. This year, the community, especially British Pakistanis, have confronted some horrifying realities about themselves: last month, the parents of Shafilea Ahmed were sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of murdering their daughter for supposedly besmirching their honour; in June, a campaign against forced marriage, primarily in British Asian communities, led the British government to declare it a criminal offence; in May, nine Muslim men in Rochdale, predominantly of Pakistani origin, were jailed for running a sexual exploitation ring that preyed on young girls. All these cases raised questions about marginalisation, the pitfalls of political correctness, and the struggle to reconcile traditional values with life in a modern society. After each case, British Muslims publicly complained that the community’s greatest failing is its inability to have an honest conversation about these socio-cultural conflicts. Perhaps a show like Citizen Khan, with all it stereotypes and slapstick, can safely initiate just such a dialogue.

Defending the show, its creator and lead actor Adil Ray has said that his goal is to make the British Muslim community laugh at itself. “[Laughter is] the ultimate weapon. If you can laugh at yourself, it doesn’t matter what anybody says to you as you’re laughing already.” This is sound advice for a community whose sense of victimhood — though justified to an extent — is so intense that it has fostered extreme isolation and a warped worldview.

In this context, the biggest problem with the first episode of Citizen Khan was simply that it wasn’t as funny as it should or could have been. Many of the jokes were out-of-date, politically correct and reliant on established stereotypes, and thus could have been made about any immigrant community at any time in the past five decades or so. Going forward, the show’s humour should be even more sophisticated, hard-hitting and rooted in present-day realities so that it can have the full socio-cultural impact that is expected of good comedy and satire.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (12) Closed

NASAH (USA) Sep 04, 2012 02:31am
May be we Muslims are devoid of sense of humor taking everything too literally.
ayesha Sep 03, 2012 11:14am
agree with you totally...was really confused when heard about the complaints
imran Sep 03, 2012 05:35am
The show was very very funny and only 200 people complain that is just .0005% of Pakistanis in UK.And we are Pakistanis we can complain for any
Falcon Sep 03, 2012 08:18am
Huma - Couldn't have agreed with you more. I have noticed the same issue in U.S. where in some cases, Muslims want to keep themselves off hands for humor and this in return, creates a lot of friction because they end up conveying the wrong message. Humor is one of the most creative ways of re-building the link with a community, it is essentially an invitation for integration.
Abdus Salam Khan Sep 03, 2012 05:35pm
Let us not forget how the Brits took Dr.Salam to their bosom when he was not honored in his own country. They let the genius flourish without making snide remarks about plastic covers on his sofa. or sipping tea from a saucer. And look at the immense credit he brought to Britain by his ground-breaking research in particle physics! Such sitcoms are counter tof this wonderul British tradition of tolearance.
BWR Sep 04, 2012 10:13pm
I watched the second show yesterday and thought it was even better than the first one! It is simply light hearted comedy and those who complain should switch chanels and move on.
iagnikul Sep 10, 2012 05:50am
We need more humour.
omairsaeed Sep 10, 2012 06:31am
Please give me a break. We are tired of you "enlightened" moderates and extremists pulling us from one side to another. The show honestly lacks humor, it targets muslims and pakistanis with the same jokes a spoilt bully makes at other kids in school. I think people who enjoy ridiculing a community and making fun at them have a really sad life and maybe in your heart you really do feel that Pakistanis deserve to be ridiculed. I can understand that you have a certain image of British Pakistanis, however that does not give you the right to support something which ridicules them. If a balanced approach was taken I would not have had any issues but the show lacks humor.
Abdus Salam Khan Sep 03, 2012 02:34pm
When you realize that over two hundred languages are spoken in London, why pick on a particular community for satire? London has always shown extreme humanism in welcoming all and sundry to its bosom and such crass ridicule cuts at this wonderful British heritage. I am a KHAN and I live in California and I am also confronted by such cross-cultural clashes within my home, but these wonderful Californians, respecting each persons right to his own values. never even lift an eyebrow at us for practising our own cultural way of life.
Sumit Sep 03, 2012 06:43am
Maybe the producers of the show should hire NFP to inject satire of the highest calibre in it's episodes!
gandy Sep 03, 2012 04:14pm
The worst thing Pakistani parents say to their children is UK is not their country and Christmas is not their festival. Right from adulthood,Pakistani children suffer from an identity crisis. This is generally true for majority of UK muslims,
Najam Sep 03, 2012 09:48pm
I actually liked the show. I thought it showed confusion that is part of living as diaspora community.