........so much for their "political analysis"
Serious reaction to a spoof news article tells us plenty about humour and religion, says Brian Whitaker
Monday January 10, 2005
An intriguing news item was emailed to me last week. The CIA, it said, is trying to infiltrate Muslim groups, both in the US and abroad, by training its agents to act as muezzins in mosques.
The muezzin is the man who summons the faithful to prayer, traditionally by climbing to the top of a minaret five times a day to issue his call. This places him in a uniquely useful position, according to a senior US intelligence officer quoted in the report.
"He is a highly respected member of Islamic society and, as such, almost beyond suspicion," the quote said. "Not only that, but the towers provide a perfect vantage point for our agents to see what is going on at ground level."
The CIA opened its first muezzin school at a deserted army airstrip in Virginia in 1989, with the school being specially equipped with six minarets from which its agents could practise, the report said. It added that the CIA was now capable of producing up to 100 qualified muezzins each year.
Asked about the difficulties of mastering the adhan - the call to prayer - in Arabic, one former CIA muezzin was quoted as saying: "Oh sure, it's hard as hell. The adhan is a bitch, let me tell you. It takes months and months of hard work. And if you haven't got the voice in the first place, there's jus' no way."
Wondering about the source of this tale, I searched the internet and found that it was published by *************, a website linked to the dour Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, on December 25.
This confirms two things about *************, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and their kind - firstly that they are willing to believe any old rubbish that happens to fit their view of the world, and secondly that they have no sense of humour whatsoever.
The muezzin story, written in the style of an American news agency report, begins quite plausibly, but becomes dafter and dafter. At one point, the former CIA officer - who refers to Muslims as "the Muzzies" - is asked whether anyone noticed he was a foreigner while he was performing his muezzin duties. "Oh, that was fine," he replies. "They taught us at the school how to cover our faces in boot polish so we looked darker than we really were."
The entire story is a joke. It first appeared more than three years ago on a satirical website called the Rockall Times, under the headline "CIA scales new heights in war against ragheads".
************* amended this to read: "CIA scales new heights in war against Islam", but otherwise reproduced the story unchanged.
The Rockall Times sounds like the name of a newspaper - but Rockall is a lump of granite sticking out of the Atlantic ocean, halfway between Ireland and Iceland. It is 30 metres long, 25 metres wide and 19 metres high, and its only permanent inhabitants are periwinkles and a few other types of mollusc. Periwinkles do not read newspapers.
There are plenty of clues on the Rockall Times website to show it might not be what it seems - public health announcements such as "Your doctor or pharmacist can advise on how to get the most from smoking", and a headline saying "Asian tsunami catastrophe: UK house prices unaffected", for example.
It also includes a guide for immigrants to the UK, explaining that British families like to keep dogs and cats - but not elderly grandparents - in their homes, and that, as a special privilege, children living on council estates are not required to have a crash helmet or driving licence when riding stolen motorbikes.
Perhaps the Islamists at ************* didn't notice any of this. Or perhaps they read it avidly, as proof of British decadence.
A few weeks after the September 11 attacks, I talked to a group of Muslims (not of the ************* variety) in London. They were worried about the growth of Islamophobia and media stereotypes portraying Muslims as violent, misogynistic, stern, humourless people.
The most useful thing they could do about that, I suggested - only half-flippantly - was to collect jokes and amusing anecdotes and publish them as the Bumper Book of Muslim Humour. After all, Jewish humour is renowned, and it has probably done more over the years to counter anti-semitism than all the efforts of the Anti-Defamation League.
Interestingly, a search on Google for Jewish humour (or "humor") found 90,800 web pages. A similar search for Muslim humour found only 973, and the first item asked: "Is there such a thing as Muslim humour?"
One of the odder effects of September 11 was that Muslim comedians in the US started becoming better known. Among them is Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-born American who does a stand-up show with a rabbi entitled One Arab, One Jew, One Stage.
Another is Tissa Hami, an Iranian-born woman who performs covered from head to foot in a full black chador. Occasionally, she shows a tiny bit of flesh when - as she puts it - she is feeling "kinda slutty". She jokes about being given a full body search at an airport, saying: "I was hoping to save that for the honeymoon."
As might be expected, much of this American brand of Muslim humour is about cultural misunderstandings and absurd security measures.
One of the few Islamic websites with a dedicated humour and satire section is muslimwakeup.com, which is run by progressive Muslims in the US. It recently secured an exclusive interview with Satan, who had dropped into Starbucks in New York for a coffee during Ramadan.
Talking in the way that people always do in celebrity lifestyle interviews, Satan says: "I tend to split my time between here, Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca. I also just bought a new place in Rio de Janeiro, but that's mostly a vacation home."
He continues: "I was in Jeddah at Friday prayers last week. I came out in time to watch a few beheadings. The guy reads this bit about God being merciful and on and on, then does what he has to do. He must have done about 12 before things got a bit boring.
"Every one of those people who watched believed that they were doing God's work. Hell, I made the sword. You think God can make a sword to remove a man's head that cleanly? Ha! God doesn't have the stomach for it. But I never get any credit."
One of the most popular TV shows in Saudi Arabia is a sitcom called Tash Ma Tash, which runs during Ramadan every year.
One episode lampooned Saudi judges who tend to work only a couple of hours a day, allowing cases to pile up unresolved. Because judges in the kingdom are also Islamic scholars, the programme's makers were accused of insulting religious figures and failing to accord them due prestige (nothing beats humour when it comes to deflating people's sense of their own importance).
The Permanent Committee of the Grand Ulema, the kingdom's highest clerical body, duly issued a fatwa declaring that it was sinful to watch the programme.
Unfortunately, there are more than a few Muslims who, like the Saudi ulema, say humour is an un-Islamic frivolity that distracts people's minds from prayer. And they're not joking.
The point of Tash Ma Tash, though, is that it attacks corruption, bureaucracy, bigotry and intolerance - issues that are normally difficult to discuss on Saudi television - and gets away with it by being funny. Sometimes, humour is a lot more serious than it looks.