We’re well used to satire in the west, but did you know there’s a rich history of satire in the east, and in the Muslim world too?
Some readers will be familiar with the group of Syrians whose sketch comedy pokes fun at Isis, or Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s answer to John Stewart.
In this series, I’m talking to satirists in the Middle East and the Muslim World about their work & what they’re trying to achieve. Today, it’s the turn of Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, a journalist in Lahore Pakistan, who’s written for a range of publications including Pakistan Today and UK’s Guardian, and who is the editor or the satirical website, the Khabaristan Times.
Hello! Can you introduce yourselves for our readers?
I’m a Pakistan-based journalist and editor, writing and reporting for many local and international publications. I’m also the editor of Pakistan’s English language satirical publication Khabaristan Times.
You’re part of a wider movement of comedians and satirists coming out of traditionally muslim communities. Who were your inspirations, who are the leaders in your field, and who is up and coming that we should be looking out for?
Pakistan has a very rich history of satire, in local languages. However, when it comes to news satire, the local audience still isn’t well acquainted with the art and can hence take many of our news pieces seriously. But the tendency of mistaking satirical reports as actual news isn’t obviously unique to Pakistan or the Muslim world. The likes of The Onion or Daily Mash are definitely the English satirical publications we look up to.
Your readers are a mix of Muslims and ex-Muslims and others. Does that cause any tensions? Are there topics that are off-limits for comedy?
Since satire primarily is about critique, most of our content caters to the audience that can handle self-criticism on national politics or Islamic extremism. So when it comes to Islam, anyone from a believing, practicing Muslim to an antitheist can enjoy our content as long as they have the ability to tolerate the opposing viewpoint. We personally wouldn’t want to put any limits on our satire, but since we’re all based in Pakistan there are some boundaries of course. Having said that, we believe we stretch those limits as much as possible to even include criticism of Islamic scriptures for instance.
In some Muslim countries, secularists and others who are seen to mock religion can face persecution and worse. Is that a real danger to you or other bloggers?
Pakistan is one of 12 countries — all Muslim majority — where blasphemy is punishable by death. So yes, on paper, the kind of critique we publish can be dangerous. Having said that, most of us are journalists, writers and bloggers, who already write about the issues — with their own bylines — in major local newspapers. So we have an idea how to work our way around things.
How are you treated by other muslims generally? Are you accused of being agents of India, or the USA, or Israel? How can you convince people that you aren’t stooges for the West or worse?
Yes, that’s something anyone who’s self-critical in Pakistan — or the Muslim world in general — has to go through. But since Muslims aren’t a monolith, and an increasing percentage are embracing dissent, we have a following of likeminded readers, which can — again — come from a wide range of ideological viewpoints, with the lowest common denominator being openness to critique. As more people embrace self-criticism, the belief that only a ‘stooge’ can scrutinise local ideas will gradually decrease.
A lot of people in the West are worried that any criticism of Islam or Muslims will be used to persecute Muslims generally. How would you answer their concerns?
That’s one of the dilemmas of current times: how does one criticise the bigotry of Muslim majority countries, sanctioned through (their interpretation of) Islam, without endangering the Muslim minorities in the West? I think the answer to that lies in the question itself — i.e distinguishing between the Muslims as majority and minority groups and the varying influence Islam can have on either. Having said that, it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that Muslims, generally, enjoy significantly more liberties when they are in a minority in most parts of the world, than we offer minorities in the Muslim world. And so, for us, being critical of Muslims and Islam’s influence on bigotry at home becomes the obvious liberal choice.
Some on the left in the West have been very critical of satire about Islam or Muslims. The cartoons of Mohammed, for example. Critics like Mehdi Hasan, while condemning any violence, have spoken out about what they call the “hypocrisy” of western free speech, or implied that those killed for drawing cartoons were at least partially responsible for what happened to them, or at the very least bear some responsibility for deliberately being provocative. Are these charges fair?
These charges, ironically, fuel anti-Muslim bigotry by claiming that the Muslim world is a monolith and that everyone takes satire of Islam identically. Does every Christian respond to satire of Christianity the same way? Despite the fact that religious extremism in the Muslim communities is prevalent at a significantly higher percentage than our religious counterparts, there are many (even believing and practicing) Muslims who would not be offended by the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad — let alone, endorse any violent reaction. Having said that free speech would entail allowing satire of the Holocaust as well for example — as distasteful and horrific as it might be. Because then we would allow Muslims to be horrified by what they would deem to be distasteful cartoons, without playing our favourite victim card that is used as apologia for violence. But yes, the difference between satirising genocide and a religious figure is rather obvious, despite the fact that banning either contradicts freedom of speech.
Some people will say that no matter how good your intentions, your satire is in danger of hurting Muslims. They will fear that by laughing with you, they will also be laughing with people who genuinely are racist or Islamophobic and who want to hurt Muslims. What would you say to these people?
It is common for critique to be taken up by extreme groups for their vested interests. For example, it is common for radical Islamist literature to quote Noam Chomsky and other writers critical of Western imperialism — it doesn’t invalidate their critique of Western invasions, and they shouldn’t be held responsible for helping the likes of al-Qaeda and Taliban recruit jihadists.
Additionally, what we at Khabaristan Times do is we satirise anti-Muslim bigots as well, especially when high profile cases like the one involving Ahmed the ‘clock boy’ for example. Similarly while we satirise Pakistanis’ and the Muslim world’s fixation — and hypocrisy — with regards to Israel, we also criticise Israeli policies.
But of course, our focus will always remain Pakistan and the Muslim world, because it is change in this part of the world that we’re working on. And it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that it is this part of the world which is in dire need of progressive change.
Looking at much of the Muslim world, free speech and secular societies seems a long way away, and even what there is often seems under threat. What’s your thoughts on that? Is there anything you would like supporters in the west to do? Is there anything you would like supporters in the West not to do?
I think liberals in the West need to support their counterparts in the Muslim world, despite the fact that most of them would be critical of Muslim communities and Islam’s influence over the skewed power dynamics. While their primary work would understandably cater to shielding minorities — like the Muslims — within their own states, the Left shouldn’t manifest any denial with regards to what’s happening in the Muslim world. The obvious solution to this — as mentioned above — is treating Muslims in majority and minority groups as two separate entities. The fact that Islam is common to both these entities reconfirms that like any other religion it can mean different things to different people or groups — it influences suppression of non-Muslims in the Muslim world just like it can offer solace to the Muslims that might suffer persecution in the West.
Thank you Kunwar!
In the same interview series: Mufti News: Saving Muslims With Satire