In light of the recent shooting at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics hosted “Politics, Comedy and the Dangers of Satire” on Friday, a panel featuring distinguished guests who discussed their experiences regarding satire and its cultural and religious implications.
The event, which was sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Bridges of Understanding and the Office of the President, preceded two performances of “Amrika Chalo,” a satirical play by the Ajoka Theatre of Lahore, at Gonda Theatre on Friday and Saturday.
The panel, which was moderated by Co-Director of the Laboratory and Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center Derek Goldman, featured award-winning Iranian-Canadian cartoonist Nik Kowsar, British-Canadian writer and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem and Muslim Chaplain Iman Yayha Hendi.
In his opening remarks, Goldman acknowledged the importance of being sensitive to different cultural contexts in writing comedy.
“I teach a comedy course here at Georgetown’s campus and in that context we explore the deep, serious roots of comedy, as an often dangerous form of social critique,” Goldman said. “We talk about the sources and the social power of laughter, the deep connection between laughter and tears, comedy’s role of exposing hypocrisy in uses of power and also how culturally specific comedy is. What is funny to people in one context may be very serious or deeply offensive in others.”
Kowsar attributed the potential danger of culturally insensitive cartoons to the immediacy of their impact.
“The thing about cartoons is that people understand them in a matter of seconds. You don’t have to read a whole ‘War and Peace’ book in order to understand a cartoon,” Koswar said. “Also, you’ll remember the concept of the cartoon, possibly for your entire life. Cartoons, especially those you can’t read, have a great impact on cultures.”
Kowsar also related his personal experiences in describing the consequences of publishing controversial cartoons. In February 2000, Kowsar was arrested and imprisoned for six days in Tehran for drawing a cartoon that satirized the freedom of expression in Iran, for which he received numerous death threats.
“If they are scared of caricatures and cartoons, I think that they have to look at the caricature that they have created of themselves, the radicals,” Koswar said.
Afterward, the moderator called on Nawaz, who spoke about her experiences as the creator of the world’s first sitcom about a Muslim community living in the West. Her work has de-mystified Islam worldwide by showing how practicing Muslims live their ordinary lives.
“I did a documentary about how many of these traditions are not actually based on religion, but on culture, and many people have mistaken culture for tradition,” Nawaz said. “When my show went on air, conservative Muslims went crazy. What I had forgotten was that I was coming in conflict with the cultural understanding of Islam and also of a different generation. It quickly became evident to me, that even though I, as a practicing Muslim, had no intention of mocking Islam, people were looking through a cultural lens, which was very different from my lens.”
Nadeem, who has been involved in human rights issues in Pakistan since the 1960s, then joined the discussion. He had already been imprisoned by various military regimes and adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
“[In] the Muslim society, and in Pakistan, where people crack jokes all the time in their private lives, we believe that we have a great sense of humor,” Nadeem said. “However, when that humor is mixed with reality, it has a lot of political and social undertones. So, it is not just the dictators, the authoritative regimes or the religious forces, but also, people in general, especially when it relates to religion.”
Nadeem said that art provides people with a way to criticize social and political issues without being charged with blasphemy.
“In that context, when you want to address certain issues, you want to shock people; you want to make people realize their own contradictions, conflicts and irrational beliefs,” Nadeem said. “It is very difficult to engage that in dialogue, so you have to use theater, music and art. The only way to get away with it is through humor and satire because otherwise you may be charged with blasphemy which is punishable by death.”
Lastly, Imam Yayha Hendi delivered a speech about how certain images can have the power to either promote or destroy a cause.
“Regardless of whether it is a cartoon, a movie or a document, it is an issue of images,” Hendi said. “I have been suffering with images. People don’t think I look like an imam. I have to prove to people that I am an imam because I look different than the general image of an imam. Images help destroy and promote, and we are at an age in which images can promote peace and help relationships work or not.”
Hendi also condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack by calling it a breach in the freedom of expression.
“Regarding what happened in Paris, I think that the image of Muslims has not helped Muslims at all. I say that France failed to engage Muslims, in an intellectual way, but Muslims also failed to engage Europe and America in a spiritual way,” Hendi said. “At the end of the day, there has to be freedom of expression, people have the right to express themselves. But on the other hand, we can morally censor ourselves, but not through censorship by law.”
Giulia Martins (SFS ’18) said she was very impressed by the event, especially by the remarks made by Zarqa Nawaz.
“The members of the panel were incredible. Each person added their own personal experiences, which were incredibly relevant to the matter being discussed,” Martins said. “I loved Zarqa Nawaz. It is so great to see a strong Muslim woman, who has produced amazing pieces of work, really shine a new light on Islam in the western world.”