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Sunday 25 January 2004

Advice to the humourless: lighten up

WELL, my, my, my, a few of you got really offended by my plea for tolerance a few weeks ago. That gave me a lot of amusement, so this week I thought I'd make a plea for humour: that should make you really cross. 

To reprise briefly. Having told how on New Year's Eve two of my male guests had taken umbrage at the cheery boisterousness of another, I urged the touchy to toughen up, society in general to stop worrying so much about giving offence and everyone to take as a resolution George Bernard Shaw's line, 'They say, what say they, let them say.' 

That led to an anonymous, slanderous phone call from a posh but presumably dim woman who seemed to think I had been comparing myself with the great GBS, as well as several rude postings on that excellent weblog www.sluggerotoole.com (NB to 'Chico', dogged apologist for Sinn Fein/IRA: surely, with all their resources, your friends can provide you with a better nick-name for me than 'Fuddlety Headboard'?) 

Having mentioned recent evidence that timidity is causing comedians and dramatists to give Muslims a much easier ride than members of any other religion, blow me down, the next big news from the BBC was that they had suspended Robert Kilroy-Silk, the poor man's Jerry Springer, for writing in a newspaper article about 'despotic, barbarous and corrupt' Arab states populated by 'suicide bombers', 'limb amputators' and 'women repressors'. Now they've fired him. 

Robert Kilroy-SilkKilroy-Silk may be a smug creep, and perma-tanned to boot, but he has a right to say what he thinks and most of what he said was incontrovertible. It's no good going on about the truly wonderful contribution of Arabs to scholarship and culture in the distant past: the truth is that Arab rulers and religious leaders resisted the Enlightenment and embraced fundamentalism and all the nastiness that goes with that. 

As the Egyptian head of the UK-based Arab Press Freedom Watch pointed out, "There is a very long history of oppression in the Arab world, particularly in the states [Kilroy-Silk] mentions: Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, as well as in Sudan and Tunisia." He worried that censorship in a liberal county like the UK was sending out the wrong message. 

I should declare an interest: I'll never forget the moment in Saudi Arabia when the Pakistani driver turned to me and my escort to suggest we go for entertainment to the only show in town: that morning's executions. Looking at me, swathed from head to foot in the regulation abaya, he said helpfully: "There is a ladies' enclosure." 

Yet when Tom Paulin, the anti-Israel Northern Irish poet and a charming but intemperate fellow, announced publicly that he thought US-born settlers in the occupied territories were Nazis and racists who should be shot, he was not dropped from his regular BBC slot. Nor were the politically correct brigade calling for his prosecution for incitement to racial hatred, as they are in the case of Kilroy-Silk. 

But then they seem unperturbed also by rampant Arab anti-Semitism. 

Why are Muslim sensibilities to be taken much more seriously than those of Jews, or, in Britain, Hindus or Christians? Because they complain more? Because of anti-Americanism? Anti-Zionism? 

Well, whatever the reasons, it's doing the Muslim population in the United Kingdom no good to be seen as whinging, humourless opponents of free speech. 

The British laugh at themselves; successful immigrants learn to do the same and thus endear themselves to the natives. Jewish culture is imbued with self-mockery; Terry Wogan and Dave Allen led the way in taking the Mickey out of the Micks; and there are now two hugely popular BBC TV shows (Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42) in which Hindus make fun of Hindus. 

I know individual Muslims who are iconoclastic and funny, but, so far, their spokesmen have mostly been dour, angry or even threatening. Still, there's hope in the shape of a deadpan, female, head-scarfed, British, Muslim stand-up comic who came to prominence after 9/11 with her arresting line: "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that's what it says on my pilot's licence." Shazia's popularity is an example to young Muslims of how laughter can help mutual understanding. 

Let's hear it for humour in 2004. And - if I may make so bold - free speech too. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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