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Up In Arms Over Comedy

By Huma Yusuf

3 September, 2012

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is it a social necessity, a way to tackle difficult issues that otherwise remain unaddressed owing to sensitivities and outdated policies?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.

Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist.