Suicide bombers blasted Baghdad again yesterday, striking three hotels favored by Western businessmen and journalists. In addition to being a tragic event and familiar headline, an expression of political despair - suicide terror is theater.
As with all theater, the main ingredient is conflict. There is often a carefully scripted first Act: the bomber ritualistically gets dressed, ties his shoes. The action gradually escalates to a climax, viewed by certain Muslim audiences as the ultimate test of religious faith. The hero's noble death evokes powerful emotions. For militant Islamics: pleasure, awe, and inspiration. For Western viewers, it is more likely fear and pathos.
The Figure of the Heroic Martyr
Religion Professor Ariel Glucklich suggests that the cult of shahid or suicide bomber comes from the Theatre of Ta'ziyeh, popular in Iran today. This form of storytelling evolved from practices of ritual mourning in pre-Islamic Persia.
The main event of this kind of theatre is the martyrdom of protagonist Iman Hessein - a very important figure in Islam. Hessein was the grandson and successor of the Prophet Muhammad, according to Shia Muslims. He follows in the stoic footsteps of Muhammad, Prophet of the Sword, and reinforces the theme of religion intimately intertwined with war.
Hessein, who opposes the ruling caliph of his time, makes a crucial choice in a defiant speech delivered on the battlefield in every ta'ziyeh performance:
"Either I draw my sword and defend my honour and religion, or surrender to shame and humility . . . I am obliged to choose the first way. . . Death is the beginning of our joy."
What follows in the story is the utter devastation of the Prophet's family. While Islam, like Christianity has many versions, martyrdom is key to its belief system. It is especially central to the large-group identity of Islamic extremists.
Large-group identity is a collection of people sharing certain beliefs and sentiments: in this case, devout faith in the righteousness of the holy martyr.
Comedy as Counter-Terrorism
Glucklich further suggests that the best cultural strategy against the legacy of heroic martyrdom is humor.
Why is there no suicide terror in modern Christianity or Judaim? Tragic martyrdom hasn't taken hold in these religious groups, he says, because tragedy has existed for centuries alongside comedy.
There are many jokes Jews and Christians tell about their deities. Think of the riffs where Jesus and Moses come up short next to golf idol Arnold Palmer or football legend Vince Lombardi. What about Monty Python's In Search of the Holy Grail or Life of Brian? Western popular entertainment and colloquial humor is rife with holy irreverence.
Glucklich says there are two basic rules for giving the heroic martyr a lighter side:
1). The humor needs to come from within the group ("Satire directed against foreigners is too blunt, broadly aimed, and often counterproductive... the best Arab political satire is not directed at Americans or Israelis but at other Arabs.") Glucklich, Dying For Heaven, p 282.
2). Humor has to be aimed at the culture's sacred values.
Islam has a very rich comedic tradition. In fact, The Prophet had his own jester and supposedly enjoy wordplay and practical jokes. Yet contemporary Muslim comics work with a lot of restrictions on their material. "We don't do anything that would offend our families," says Azhar Usman of the comedy troupe Allah Made Me Funny. "We don't want to be blasphemous." Politics is a source of jokes, the universal themes of marriage, mothers-in-law, and even the toilet bowl - but religion cannot be satirized.
Islamic Humor Today
There are numerous Muslim comics today that tread a fine line between the haraam (forbidden) and the progressive.
Allah Made Me Funny features Usman, (aka "Bin Laughin" and the "Ayatollah of Comedy"), Mohammed Amer, and Preacher Moss. These performers use comedy to bring an Islamic perspective to mainstream America, poke fun at group stereotypes, and challenge cultural perceptions:
"I'm an American. But I'm an American Muslim. In fact, I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for this country..." (Pause). "by blowing myself up..." (pause) "in a Dunkin' Donuts."
The female Muslim comedienne Shazia Mirza gained publicity after 9/11 when, performing in hijab (traditional black head covering), she opened with the deadpan: "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that's what it says on my pilot's licence."
Mirza was the first British comic artist to perform in Pakistan. She worked in the city of Lahore, where, she says, "the red-light area is at the back of the mosque... Obviously, this being Pakistan, I expected some kind of censorship. Before my first show I was told: 'You can talk about anything you like - drugs, religion, politics - but just don't expose the sex.' "
Security men guarded the entrances to Mirza's show with AK-47s. But the audiences, which ranged in age from toddlers to people in their nineties, were dying to laugh. "The audiences turned out to be great." Mirza says. "They understood everything, and laughed consistently for an hour and a half."
These plucky artists invite a juxtaposition between the comic and dramatic. They spark valuable cross-cultural dialogue and self-reflection.
Humor has the potential to gradually, over time, alter what it means to be a heroic martyr in the mind of extremist groups. In this life. Maybe not tomorrow, but in a generation or two.
* Photo of performance art piece by and with Alastair MacLennan at the performance festival "Live Action Gothenburg" in Sweden 2006.
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