There is a difference between being brave and being funny
I have never once seen a cartoon of Mohammed that has made me laugh. Not one. The closest I’ve come, probably, was with a cartoon published in the American satirical paper The Onion a few years ago, and he wasn’t even in it. Instead, it had Jesus, Moses, Ganesh and Buddha, all locked together in some unspeakable, complex sex act, under the headline “No One Murdered Because Of This Image”. Real wit there. But Mohammed with a bomb instead of a turban? His head grafted onto a dog, standing on a roundabout? Brave, sure. But funny? Not even so much as the joke in a Christmas cracker.
I am not sure if I am a satirist, quite, but I certainly sometimes try to be. It has been strange, this week, to be lectured on the responsibilities of satire — in all directions — by people who don’t seem to be giving any thought about where the humour should come from. “These people fear laughter!” they say, of the murderous bastards in Paris, but then nobody ever laughs. Granted, satire doesn’t always have to be funny. When it never is, though, I think that tells us something.
I had a think this week about how, if I were I a braver man, I could have approached “My Week: Mohammed” for the regular parody diary column I write in The Times. There would be two ways to do it, I reckon. He could be the straight man, looking down in horror. Bit pious, that. Or, braver still, he could be a naked parody of twitching fury, offended by literally everything. I suppose it could have been quite funny. But not very.
This sounds like an excuse, of course, and probably is one. Am I afraid, generally, to enrage people who might kill me for it? Well, yes. Obviously. You? Yet it’s a pretty specific sort of self-censorship I’m doing, even so. I’d be quite happy, for example to describe Western jihadists as losers, idiots, sexually-repressed thugs with dismal beards, and failures in life who are hunting via the barrel of a gun for a self-respect they could never find in peacetime, probably because of their microscopically small penises. (See? Just have.) I’m also keen to mock how they look in those absurd, self-regarding videos of theirs; mouths parroting gibberish beneath vacant eyes, and always holding up a finger as though they’ve just farted and wanted somebody to pull it.
This does not make me brave. Plenty of people have satirised jihadists. Chris Morris’s Four Lions, a film from 2010 that just gets better as each year goes past, did it peerlessly. It has been on Channel 4 more than once, and nobody has threatened to kill anybody. Few remember today, but Boris Johnson — yes, him — wrote a novel ten years ago called Seventy-Two Virgins, in which a sex-mad jihadist wants to assassinate the US President as he visits the House of Commons, and the fate of the free world (I swear I am not making this up) rests upon the shoulders of a haphazard, bicycling politician with messy hair. If people were being killed for writing such stuff, and newspapers were uneasy about publishing it, and the likes of me were scared even to write it, then this would be uncomplicatedly cowardice. Understandable cowardice, maybe. But cowardice nonetheless.
Ridiculing Islam itself, and Mohammed himself, is not only more dangerous than this. It is also far more broad. France has its own traditions of satire, I know. While I’m in awe of the bravery of its practitioners — especially now — I can’t pretend I particularly understand it, or ever laugh at it. My own tradition was well described this week by the novelist and satirist Will Self, who cited H. L Mencken’s definition of good journalism — that it ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And the trouble with all this Mohammed stuff, he said, was that “it’s not clear who it is afflicting, or who it is comforting.” Or, to put it another way, yes, it might hit its target. But it hits well over a billion other people, too.
This is not a column about free speech. I have become bleakly uncompromising on that score. The day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I’d like to have seen whatever cartoons may have sparked it on the cover of every newspaper in the world, and a billion offended Muslims worldwide could have lumped it. But the day after that? And the next? It helps, maybe, to imagine we were talking about somebody else. Imagine, bizarre as this might sound, that this had been an assault by feminist terrorists, objecting to sexist cartoons. In response, you publish them again and again; of course you do. But afterwards? Do you grow ever more sexist, to ram your message home? Does that help? Is that funny?
It is often said, whenever this madness erupts, that it is telling that there has been no Muslim Life of Brian. Is should be equally telling, though, that if any remotely comparable film were made, most non-Muslims in the West simply wouldn’t get the jokes. The Church, the bible story; this is the bedrock of our shared experience. Or was in 1979. Nor was it made by outsiders; Monty Python were very much born of the British Christian establishment. The man who played Brian was a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, with the clue being in the name. This was not just afflicting the comfortable. It was the comfortable afflicting the comfortable.
It is easy to mock the Saudis, because they are savages who live in palaces. Iran exists in totalitarianism, and the Islamic State are murderous fascists. All — obviously, obviously — are ripe for it. To mock Islam itself, though, is to accept that all bar a small, statistical anomaly among those whom your barbs are stabbing will not be comfortable at all.
So, it seems to me that the solution to the fear, equivocation and confusion that any liberal satirist might feel right now is not, necessarily, to keep on grinding. Rather, it is ponder why it should be that offending Muslims, actually, isn’t funny. It is to look at their marginalisation in the West; their near invisibility in politics, media, comedy and all the rest of it, and recognise that this is a problem that makes mockery, which is vital for everyone, far more complex.
It is to look forward to an age when Islam, with all its pompousness, nonsense and backwardness, is as much of an ignored, background hobbyish hum in British national life as any other major religion you could name. With laughable piety on Thought For The Day, and lofty weirdos in skirts in the House of Lords. All of it. And then, when the afflicted are as comfortable as anyone else? Well. Then we can really start taking the piss.